Stage Fright

John Haber
in New York City

Gallery-Going: Fall 1998

Art, one often hears, has become theater. Maybe I should just as well stay home and rent a video. Save on soft drinks and popcorn.

I sure felt that way a few months ago, when Cindy Sherman dressed up vomit as photography. A practiced ear could almost hear the soundtrack from The Trouble with Mary. But rewind the tape a second. A tour of Chelsea shows how hard it is today to separate nuance from performance. Spencer Tunick's Berlin (I-20, 1999)

Oddly enough, one can compare Sherman's grit to an abstract painter's medium, thanks to Richard Tsao. Then peek into a few more galleries—darting a glance at Eric Frandsen, Shirley Kaneda, and Sarah Lucas; lingering over castaneda/reiman, Sol LeWitt, and Deborah Turville; ogling with Spencer Tunick. They all disturb established ideas due to Michael Fried and others about "theatricality" in postmodern art.

Silent movies

To conservatives with power over funds for the arts, it is a shocking performance, a theater for the absurd. For those who actually care about art, it has to carry on a bit, now that Modernism has become the decor back in the lobby.

It may not seem so right away, not when fancy galleries line the store fronts, while newer dealers take the stairs. As in the days before Soho's endless furniture stores, the streets still have truck drivers (and a woman's prison). Unlike in Soho, only a couple of restaurants have opened, and one even threw free cocktails for artists the other week.

Chelsea seems on first glance, then, in to have distilled Soho's best years. Do not be taken in, for this, too, is theater. History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as what Mikhail Bakhtin celebrated as carnival—or better yet, infomercial. Artists here these days represent a major capital investment. For the first year, galleries no longer share a Chelsea walking tour with artist studios. So what better place to look for a little Broadway theater?

What then, for starters, can lie further from theater than an abstract painter's dedication? In the modernist tradition, Richard Tsao pulls one in. One searches after nuances of color. One lingers over these lush surfaces, mottled with gritty, water-based pigment. His dealer, Margaret Thatcher, admires the return to spare, almost minimal abstraction among many young artists. I think of her namesake's admiration for austerity among the lower classes.

Tsao, too, refuses to shout and reveals nothing but paint—only stand back! To draw one close to painting is to rub one's nose in it, and from a few feet away this work looks downright rotting. Tsao might well have transposed Sherman's postmodern bad taste into mixed media. The dull haze echoes J. M. W. Turner's skies and John Constable's trees, and indeed Turner's or Constable's transcendental streak has never let go of painting. Think of Pollock's "action painting" as a performance, Rothko's canvases as stage curtains or magician's mirrors best viewed half a room away. For de Kooning, it ain't over till the fat lady sings.

Transcendence and the mess on the floor

So far, I have been telling a familiar story about art. (No postmodernist should claim originality.) In this story, painting drags with it the dead weight of European traditions, the sublime and the sexist alike, even when it hopes to look outside them. Modernism also pretends that art can cut out the drama and speak intimately to each person. Postmodernism changes all that. It supplies a healthy dose of reality, and it destroys the old pretense with a theatrical flourish.

Does the story seem to contradict itself? Modernism, it says, is fake, but Postmodernism is theater. The tale carries conflicting valuations, and if modern art has died, it is in part because critics have argued them to death.

Yet the story really hangs together after all. It puts two periods of art in confrontation. It identifies Modernism with transcendence, Postmodernism with plain, ordinary experience, almost as much home movie as theater after all. It just happens to put experience itself on stage. It makes art's imaginings sound more vital than ever.

It also claims that a viewer's relationship art has changed. Modernism, it suggests, takes place in front of a viewer. The new art, in contrast, demands that the viewer join the show, as if to add notes on "Notes on Camp." One can wander around Minimalist installations. One can acknowledge one's stake in political art—or maybe just head for the lobby and puke.

While I am telling a story, however, I want also to suggest what it leaves out. Those old-fashioned types like Tsao put on a show after all, and the nastiest contemporary artists linger over beauty. Neither in the end leaves viewers with a logical, consistent stance before a work of art. At their best, they ask instead for a little self-awareness and a little awareness of this world. At their worst, they leave a mess on the floor.

So suppose I see what else is playing. Oh, how the multiplex has grown, even before video artists like Doug Aitken can make it come to life!

Family theater

Theater and form. In modern and postmodern art alike, they compliment each other, like an old, beautiful photograph of one's parent's wedding. Run by some galleries first with barely a quick look in the door.

Eric Frandsen even calls his show Family. The two-panel portraits pair color negative prints with folk-like paintings that simplify forms further. They hold at an uneasy remove the already garish strangeness of family relationships. They show how something that lies beneath consciousness also sustains art.

Shirley Kaneda, too, favors diptychs for her decorative abstractions, a device that almost takes them beyond sugar candy. They mix loose, broad brushstrokes with patterns, such as tiles in mock perspectival recession. They imply that abstraction cannot draw away from images of life, only the images form a kind of stage decoration. David Reed says much the same thing in his glorious abstract paintings, which obviously resemble celluloid.

For plenty of other artists, as when Cindy Sherman curates Robert Mapplethorpe, the actors that count are men, and they behave miserably—especially when the artist is male and clearly having fun. Miguel Calderón's tiny models cavort and piss in obscene doll houses. Waterfalls flow behind them, just in case I had missed the point. In contrast, Laurie Simmons in her new photos for once go lightly on the dolls. Without her little Barbies and their easy irony, the point comes across better than ever.

Sarah Lucas plays the sex game, too, and her props have an obscene reality. The crushed beer cans, the wrecked autos, the pin-up photos, and the chair bulging like a penis all look easy enough, just another joke about men. Yet they carry the intense anxiety of a woman faced with desire. Lucas may always be the artist who wants to live fast and die young, but this is the Brit pack at its best.

In other shows the actors even get to speak, although they may mumble their lines. With Hironori Murai, they drone on just terribly. As a tape mouths stereotypes about the Japanese, his inflated rubber figures manage to turn Jeff Koons and his bunnies into tedious lectures on international affairs. Yet another artist, Jason Simon, puts loudspeakers at the center of a display. They stand amid the moldy ruin so increasingly a cliché since Ilya Kabakov and his innovative shows.

Set design and open theater

Moving too fast? Time to take a gallery a bit more seriously? For the artists so far, both theater and art's traditional pathos lie in the roles, the images. Some artists, however, have the savvy to direct with care. They nurture the entire installation, and the reward is a play with the audience that unfolds beautifully in time.

castaneda/reiman, a team of women, focus on the stage settings. Their sculpture takes on the spareness of modern architecture, the material clarity of abstraction, and the sharply feminist associations with making a home. They build a home gingerly, from wood frames and Sheetrock stripes. Rose-glass niches hold the dust of marker chalk. Imbecilic black dogs prop the frames off the floor, as if balancing modern art on a suburban front lawn.

As these artists build a stage from the spare materials they know, others remember what they have left behind. Sherrie Levine wants me to confuse Minimalism with replicas or designer furniture. Yet Donald Judd has never made such elegant wooden tables.

Levine's parodies Minimalism, and yet on that day in Chelsea I approached them both the same way. Sol LeWitt covers the very same gallery's walls like the self-important artist she must despise, but I wanted to play handball off it, too. Meanwhile, in a solo show downtown, Sol LeWitt comes closer still to her theater for the mind. He began on paper, letting his pencil move as if of its own accord, and then his assistants blew up his automatic hand to dizzying dimensions. If he makes fun of Surrealism and Op Art, he also insists that conceptual art must take its course in the physical world.

An even finer installation took me longer to appreciate, but luckily I lingered long enough to find out. Deborah Turville could have stopped after covering the walls with pale photocopies. By themselves, they would make a rambling, fragmentary history of Russia, in literary texts and odd images of chance encounters. Instead, one gets to join Turville as she tries to piece together what is left today—for a country, for an artist's ideals, for the possibility of human memory.

For all these artists, the larger the stage, the more quiet the actors. Theater has become an evocation of a Modernism seemingly lost. Turville's scattered texts look to the years before and after Communism, a time of Chekhov or Joseph Brodsky. She then circles the words and photos in black marker, as if hoping to find an isolated insight after the full-length stories have broken down. The spareness and repetition of her images makes a perfect foil for dirt on the floor and a stepladder mounting toward a skylight. It is literally open theater.


The larger Turville's installation grows, the sadder and more claustrophobic it becomes, like the floor of a darkened theater. Spencer Tunick's outdoor photographs pick up on the same paradox, but they started off as a cheap warm-up act, a stunt.

The old ads for cheap art instruction went looking for people who like to draw. Tunick crossed America, searching for people willing to pose naked, like Humbert Humbert in love with a strange nation's vulgarity. The result, Naked States, puts the clumsiness of the human body in place of Man Ray and his fine-art buttocks or America's seemingly endless porn. Only one problem: his precursors did it better. So, indeed, did video art at the same gallery not long before.

Then something happened. Tunick went on to create group scenes, of perhaps a thousand volunteers. They lie end to end along a bridge or on Times Square's X-rated streets. They cover a rural scene like the dense skein of trees behind them. They create a human alternative to nature as outdoor stage, a Woodstock without drugs and without hope.

As the patterns of bodies grow spookier, the provocation actually becomes more muted. The unfamiliar has a chance to take over. Something as private as one's body becomes caught in a world of awkward glances and community standards. I could spot a man lifting his head above the crowd on the grass, in self-consciousness about himself and those around him. When one's body is in question, one breaks the rules.

Tunick treats the human body as found material, and he turns found materials into props. A prop means both stage artifice and means of support, and these props mock home life while evoking a dream world of stability and art. They ask viewers and art to enter together one of two extremes, a crowd or an empty theater.

In a crowd, one has nowhere to stand apart. Even reporters get beat up at some rallies. In the same way, an empty theater excludes an audience, as in photographs by Katherine Newbegin, but then every visitor's gesture is itself the performance. In their different ways, these artists go back to the roots of art. One can pretend to stand back and watch, but by watching one participates, as in a ritual. Theater numbs sensation while demanding that one become self-aware of one's numbness.

Art for the self-absorbed

The closer art approaches theater, the more its shocks reach down into a viewer's daily existence. Conversely, the more art approaches abstract form, the more it demands that everyone participate in making meaning. Is it really surprising, then, that I found Modernism and Postmodernism so difficult to sort out over in Chelsea? With both, one is just another body, but one projects one's consciousness of one's body onto the entire stage.

Michael Fried, for one, tried to sort it all out. He first raised the issues with an infamous attack on Minimalism and a brilliant series of books. A disciple of Clement Greenberg, he loved the modernist reserve of color-field painting. He treated installations as theater, a breakdown of the intimate relationship between art and its viewer.

Then, starting with a study of the 1760s, the age of Diderot, he traced painting's evolution up to Manet. Absorption and Theatricality described J.-B. Greuze and his apparently naive sentimentality as sophisticated theater. Painters then addressed the beholder while inventing "narrative-dramatic structures." For Diderot, "the human body in action was the best picture of the human soul." The struggle over these issues makes Ingres a sort of transitional figure.

Has Fried drawn back from his initial dismissal of theater? Beneath it all, he still believes in Modernism's triumph over pretense. After Diderot, he writes, "the everyday as such was in an important sense lost." Even Chardin, who modern painters have long admired for his clarity and calm, merely "concentrated or . . . secularized the absorption tradition."

Fried's books sound strikingly prophetic of what I saw over in Chelsea. Those artists all but recited Diderot's old insistence: "rendre la vertu aimable, le vice odieux, le ridicule saillant." Someone like Sherman takes pains, that is, to render virtue likable, vice odious, ridicule striking.

Do the 1760s have a fascination with writing and politics? That could describe Turville and others. The "sentimentalism, emotionalism, moralism, [and] exploitation of sexuality" sound like Lucas. Diderot's "strong distaste for symmetry" could almost be about Frandsen's diptychs and other reactions against formalism. When I hear about the "equivalent fiction of the beholder's physical presence within the painting, by virtue of an almost magical recreation of nature itself," I imagine Tunick. And what, after all, can be a more self-absorbed state, or a more self-absorbed art, than a man pissing?

Art to the rescue

The problem is that Fried worries over theater, but he is caught in a narrative himself. He stages a drama of sudden reversals and last-minute rescues. As I found in Chelsea, epochs do not begin and end so neatly, and a lot goes wrong when one describes art now in academic terms more than two hundred years old.

Revealingly, Fried has not revisited his initial revulsion at theater in light of his careful study of theatrical traditions. He might have to confront his changing valuations of theater. He might find that his story can no longer tell color-field painting from Minimalism—or even, at times, a Postmodern installation!

Certainly abstract painting and Minimalism, he might notice now, rely on works in series, a self-contained world of infinite diversity, a world in which works address each other rather than "the Master." Both dictate to viewers by blank, obsessive grids, and yet in both the viewer has at last been freed to talk back to art. In Modernism and Postmodernism alike, art falls in my space now, and it needs me to explain it, preferably with a sense of humor.

All the art I saw uses form to exemplify and yet outstrip its content. A flustered grid by Kaneda, a Sheetrock wall by castaneda/reiman, or a LeWitt drawing focuses one's attention on the rule for generating the work. At the same time, it highlights the rule's inability to cover the material and to structure one's experience.

Quite as much as Levine, an older artist like LeWitt responds to the assembly line. Like Turville or Tunick, he uses boring materials and exploits other bodies. All these artists continue America's intense self-examination after the end of the Cold War.

Walter Benjamin wrote that the difference between an object and its reproduction is that only one has a place and time, a history. Theater makes fun of history, but it too is an unfolding in time. The "aura" of high art is like the presence of an actor in an actual performance.

The beginning of the end

Fried's subtle analysis already suggests what goes wrong with a saga of sudden reversals. The relation between art and the viewer does not just reverse. It becomes more and more of a puzzle.

As early as the 1760s, Fried's notion of theatricality makes a fine mess of things. "The existence of the beholder," he writes, "which is to say primordial convention that paintings are made to be beheld, emerged as problematic for painting as never before." And it responded by muddling the distinctions between the world and theater. "Chardin found in the absorption of his figures a natural correlative for his own engrossment in the act of painting and a proleptic mirroring of what he trusted would be the absorption of the beholder before the finished work."

Note here the words "natural" and "finished." The sentence relies on them, but it makes a very good case for why art's connections depart from nature. In the next two hundred years, one will have a harder and harder time explaining when a work of art can be called finished.

Fried's wonderful book on Manet hopes to conclude the story, but instead it puts finish to his narrative. When Manet restructures old painting, Fried points out, the artist does not simply displace or highlight the viewer. In A Bar at the Folies-Bergère or Olympia, the woman addresses Manet's viewer, while the viewer has no logical place to stand in the painting's fictive space. The play neither absorbs nor sets aside an audience.

Shock art ever since revels in that confusion. Does one misread shock, putting it down to the artist's anguish or physical torment? Does one read it correctly, but object to the elimination of expression from the aims of art? Or does one read it correctly twice over, noting the vulnerability of the artist and viewer together to politics? Sherman's complex photography, Lucas's furniture, Turville's oral history, or Tunick's barefaced America shows that one can do all three at once.

Affirming theater—or even denying it—amounts to denying the confused stories on which art survives. Either way, one starts to forget how Modernism and Postmodernism live off one another. Oddly enough, the appeal of each relies on fear of the other, and they get more and more intertwined every day.

BACK to John's arts home page

This review covers shows mostly ending in October 1998, soon after Sherman closed at Metro Pictures. I caught Richard Tsao at Margaret Thatcher, Eric Frandsen at 303, Shirley Kaneda at Jason McCoy, a lone David Reed hanging in the office at Max Protech, Miguel Calderón at Andrea Rosen, Laurie Simmons at Metro Pictures, Sarah Lucas at Barbara Gladstone, Jason Simon at Pat Hearn, castaneda/reiman at Thomas Healy, Sherrie Levine in a group show at Paula Cooper, Sol LeWitt at Paula Cooper and downtown at Pace Wildenstein, Deborah Turville at Anina Nosei, Spencer Tunick at I-20. My tour originally took readers to Cheim & Read as well, but I have since consolidated material on Lynda Benglis.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME