Another World

John Haber
in New York City

Dash Snow and Lutz Bacher

Maurizio Cattelan Is Dead

Death lingered over the galleries this summer. In a sense, it always does, but three memorials in 2009 made it strangely explicit. Each also contains a puzzle: just what does it make explicit? One subject had barely made art, another went unnamed in her own memorial, and another did not bother to die.

Dash Snow, an emerging artist, died July 13 at age twenty-seven. He received an almost instantaneous memorial exhibition at Soho's most visible gallery. Lutz Bacher, best known for a video tribute to a former East Village dealer, exhibited at P.S. 1. Over time, Bacher has made the subjects of her work deliberately harder to identify, and she keeps an even lower profile herself. A pretend gallery retrospective of Maurizio Cattelan, an Italian artist, even contains his coffin. He does not happen to be lying in it, and he would need airfare to try. Maurizio Cattelan really is dead, right? (Triple Candie, 2009)

Art for the living

To get the platitudes out of the way, art is for the living. It just may not seem that way. Art's ritual functions go back to preparations for the kill, in Lascaux cave paintings before a hunt. Perhaps the first modern portraits, from classical Rome, often commemorate a spouse. Masaccio, who pioneered Italian Renaissance painting, died young, and his last fresco contemplates death. In his Trinity, a heavily shrouded Mary points to her dead son on the cross, and at its base a painted skeleton lies on a painted sarcophagus.

The sarcophagus comes closest to eye level, and the dramatic perspective above insists on it. It also insists on the work's commonplace inscription: I am that which you are, and what I am you will also be. Art has trafficked in memorials ever since, with many even grander displays of wealth, power, and mortality—for Ground Zero, 9/11, the Holocaust, the Irish famine, or proud conquerors. They turn on another platitude, of art as a token of life but also the absence of what it depicts. As the villain of Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" boasts in pointing to his cherished portrait, "There she stands as if alive."

Postmodernism loves paradoxes like these. It also likes to dismantle institutions of privilege and power. Those institutions include art. Death is often the occasion for an assessment and a retrospective—and a good thing, too. At other times, museums have worked with artists on the informed retrospective they deserve while they are still alive. Think of Robert Rauschenberg, whose retrospective came before his death in 2008, along with a show of his combine paintings.

Not every artist and institution has such generous motives. Museum studies has compared the typical white cube to a mausoleum, and it adds to museum's dignity and prestige. Death can also raise prices. A show this year got respect—and auction records—for Picasso's last decade. Critics noted how Pablo Picasso churned out late works to ensure the value of his estate. While each of the three shows this summer is a sincere tribute to an artist, it also thrives on the politics of art.

Snow died alone of an overdose, in a hotel room in the East Village. For a moment, though, one could sustain the illusion of an arts community. He had managed only two New York solo exhibitions of paintings and assemblages—at a defunct gallery at that. Yet he drew enormous press and a lavish memorial exhibition. Bacher plays carefully indeed with her absence and the absence of a dealer, Pat Hearn. She also lingers over the Kennedy assassination, but in an entirely fictional interview, and turns a rock concert into a dirge.

"Maurizio Cattelan Is Dead" is still more self-aware, as well as critical of Maurizio Cattelan and art-world celebrity. It could just as well call itself "Maurizio Cattelan Is Alive," since he is, but it makes a good case that Cattelan's gamesmanship would look more serious and meaningful without him. In a final conversation with his companion, Snow said, "Goodbye. I love you. I'll see you in another world." He could have meant the art world.

Stardust memories

Who I am to write about Dash Snow? One should not speak ill of the dead. One should not add to the verbiage on a cruel change indeed to contemporary art, tabloid celebrity. Besides, Snow was the consummate insider, and I look on from the outside.

And the young artist was an insider, from the start, with a combination peculiar to art in the new century—status symbol and lone rebel. Ryan McGinley became the youngest artist ever to get a solo show at the Whitney by photographing just that, and Snow posed in his bohemian company. The Saatchi Collection almost defined the formula more than a decade ago, and such Young British Artists as Tracey Emin have had fun with it. Saatchi collected him, and Deitch Projects gave him a big, sloppy, forgettable installation. Deitch has also given Snow a "Community Memorial" exhibition, with artists he may never have known. The top critic at The Times wrote his obituary—while James Kalm, hauling his video camera, speaks of paying his respects.

Someone not in the know might look on it all with awe or confusion. When a creative person dies in his twenties of substance abuse, people may recoil, feel sorry for him, or turn him, like Jim Morrison, into a saint. Snow earned a very different kind of recognition. I knew of him less as an artist than as a center of attention. When he made the 2006 Whitney Biennial, I hardly noticed his Polaroid, which gave a dog a heap of trash and champagne—and that was about it. When William Powhida included Snow this spring in a chart of art's inner circle, I had to look him up.

Powhida also crafted a letter to him in 2007, as a sharp-witted take on art's fascination with status and lifestyle. Deitch thrives on decadence and young money, as in the Black Acid Co-Op by Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman. For Snow, though, the combination ultimately tore him apart. His family has given immeasurably to art. Its wealth lies behind Houston's Menil Collection, the Rothko Chapel, and Dia:Beacon. Snow was simultaneously escaping to his grandparents and downtown.

The whole idea of a celebrity artist has grown unbearable, as perhaps it did for him. It points to a shift in patrons and audience, with a greater valuation of money and entertainment, bad boys and empty museums. It can turn a flashy twenty-something into a star. However, even that objection overlooks something. Snow embodies almost the opposite—the star designated an artist. Deitch's memorial is very much a part of that.

It is also a perfectly decent show, and I am fine with friends getting together in mourning. I am fine, too, with spontaneous community memorials for street types. The early days of East Village art had them in spades. This show is different, though, and not just in the subject of its tribute or the Soho venue. Deitch is using its clout to put Snow in the company of artists who will then increase his notoriety even further—along with the value of Deitch's artists. Maybe others will have the guts to pay their respects, ignore the celebration of money, take a deep breath, and move on.

My secret video art

In 1997 Lutz Bacher set up a surveillance camera at Pat Hearn gallery. When she edited her countless hours down to a single video, it looked more grainy and disorienting than watchful and controlling. Instead of the all-seeing eye of the police state or the artist, one felt instead Hearn's constant presence and everyday care for her work. She had become the star of a documentary without a plan or a point of view. When the legendary dealer died in August 2000, her passing somehow completed the work, now named Closed Circuit. Yet it then looked like anything but a work of art.

When I saw Closed Circuit again in 2007, in a group show at the Met named for it, it had become a memorial and a tribute to Hearn, to the point that I hardly noticed the artist. In Bacher's retrospective, things have changed. Now it looks very much her work, but I could not have told you the subject of its forty minutes. The curator, Lia Gangitano, does not say—surely at the artist's request. It has become more enigmatic than ever, and Bacher is determined to keep it that way. She calls the show "My Secret Life," but the real secret is what to make of the art.

A piercing drone greets one on the way in from another video, heightening the anonymity. The sustained guitar notes are broken only by feedback and sound checks. That 2003 video, Crimson and Clover, fills the far wall with a close-up of the guitarist's hands. It comes from a performance at CBGB by Angelblood, in a concert dedicated to yet another dealer and cancer victim—Hearn's husband, Colin de Land. I could not have told you any of this without help, and I could not recognize the oldie or remember who made it popular, Tommy James and the Shondells. (Fortunately, I can surf the Web.)

For all that, some themes do emerge, only starting with death. For Bacher its stench lingers over art and popular culture. Another work, from the 1980s, simply blows up the pages in a found jokebook, while another consists of her copies in acrylic of Playboy images. In the process, both become more lurid, less sexy, and decidedly unfunny. The jokes themselves were appropriations—black-and-white photos of politicians, pretty much all dead now. With other cropped and recycled photos, from 2007, Bacher slices away at soldiers in the Vietnam War.

Death connects, too, to the Berkeley artist's absence. She has had solo shows at, among other galleries, Pat Hearn and American Fine Arts—run by Colin de Land. The Lee Harvey Oswald Interviews looks like a documentary record, but Bacher interviewed only herself. In fact, she also did so in response to a request for interviews with other artists. Still other work, including troll dolls, may imply a personal collection. Yet they look more like garbage or like pop culture leering back.

The fixation on banality, appropriation, and death echo Andy Warhol, but without his sly innocence and Warhol's influence. The jokes and Playboy pages recall Richard Prince, but without his male leer or his enjoyment of the obvious. The show is like Candid Camera with no one embarrassed and no one smiling. I could appreciate the coherent identity—or coherent lack of identity—but I found its enforced meaninglessness more frustrating and heavy-handed than cutting. A 1997 video disrupts views of the Olympic stadium where Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl once showed off. An ordinary pan through the scene would convey more of its chill.

An Italian funeral in Harlem

Late last fall, a life-size Pinocchio lay face down in the Guggenheim's lobby pool. Slick and brightly colored, it introduced a group show about something warm, cuddly, and open called relational esthetics, after Nicolas Bourriaud. It also owed its existence not to Walt Disney, but to Maurizio Cattelan. Had pop culture drowned in fine art or vice versa? Was Daddy, Daddy an obsession with death, an artist's ego trip, or a cheap joke?

One could ask the same things about "Maurizio Cattelan Is Dead," but then the gallery already has. Right at the start, it declares Cattelan's career a "tragic farce." It could be talking about the show. Triple Candie presents an artist's retrospective without a single one of his works. It takes the form of an elaborate time line, snaking around the gallery walls, a display case, and some reproductions. It also takes the form of a fiction.

I do not often laugh when I see a coffin, especially one just big enough for Pinocchio, but I did, I laughed at an Italian artist's coffin in a New York gallery. I laughed at a retrospective as a shrine to the artist. Plausibility aside, though, Cattelan is very much alive. The rest of the time line appears reasonable, but it headlines one section "To live outside the law." Bob Dylan actually sang "to live outside the law you must be honest," and I bet the omission is deliberate.

One would probably catch on to the hoax anyway, just from the works on display—Oscar Mayer franks that Cattelan declared art, the bicycle and rope of bedsheets that he meant as an escape route, a bloody pen with which he stabbed a fellow student as if to crucify him, a poster from the Wrong Gallery downloaded from the Web. Just slightly more elaborate recreations include a "homeless man" of stuffed street clothes and a puppet of Cattelan himself perched high up on a shelf of art books. None of this takes a wealthy collector or the hoarders elsewhere in "The Keeper." Neither does it take objectivity, much like Cattelan's own oedipal fantasies. The time line sounds dispassionate enough when it comes to the Wrong Gallery, a tiny Chelsea space that the artist opened for a while. It also describes the exhibitions there as "over forty unimpressive projects."

The Wrong Gallery never did much for me either, and neither does Cattelan. His farce does not all that funny, and his obsessions never come close to tragedy. I could see if some felt that way about this show. After all, Triple Candie has already staged fake retrospectives of David Hammons and Cady Noland. A show in Harlem of a notoriously elusive black artist like Hammons without the artist is mind-boggling. At some point, though, does the device become a stale lecture on the originality of the avant-garde or the imaginary museum?

No doubt, but for now Triple Candie has a few jokes and questions left. Besides, if the idea is dead, it comes with its own coffin. As for a dozen other "unauthorized" exhibitions at the same gallery, my fact checking cannot confirm them. Come to think of it, the rave reviews for its version of Hammons and Noland could all be part of a vast conspiracy. So could the moon landing, Obama's citizenship, and most contemporary art. In art, trust no one.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Dash Snow: A Community Memorial" ran at Deitch Projects through August 15, 2009, Lutz Bacher at P.S. 1 through September 14, and "Maurizio Cattelan Is Dead" at Triple Candie through August 23. Portions of this review first appeared in Artillery magazine.


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