Bad Boys and Big-Box Museums

John Haber
in New York City

Gelitin and El Anatsui

Roberta Smith on the Art World

How could such a pile of junk leave a gallery so empty? And is that a compliment to the artists?

I stopped in Chelsea late one afternoon to see what Gelitin had left behind. For the first ten days of Blind Sculpture, the four-man collective had staged less a work of performance art than a frat party. Each day, they and some "very very professional" assistants got to work on Blind Sculpture. Off the elevator, the gallery presented a blank wall, the back of at once studio shelves and a makeshift stage set. Behind it, surrounded by bleachers on three sides, young artists were having fun. El Anatsui's installation view (Jack Shainman, 2009)

Now the wall was gone. The construction of sticks and found objects looked downright airy, if a bit forlorn. It had spun off a few towers here and there, where others once sat. One, not unreasonably perhaps, announced "Gelitin Sucks." Had I caught it for the first time, I would have said that Jessica Stockholder had one of her lesser efforts, way too casual to add up to much, but now it felt strangely calming. After the party came peace.

How could such a pile of junk leave a gallery so empty? That same weekend, Roberta Smith asked exactly that, with two provocative articles. They supplied two sadly recognizable assessments of the art scene. Which describes the real problem? Is art's new "master narrative" too hot or too cool, and which narrative applies best to Gelitin or El Anatsui? A better sense of what has gone wrong might explain what links the two sides after all—not in austere concepts but in money, star power, and brute fact.

In a related article, I present a talk I delivered at Verge art fair, pursuing Smith's implications for a defense of painting against conceptual art—a theme that she has applied forcefully to MoMA's future as well. I also discuss a promise from Maurizio Cattelan to give all this up, evocative installations in near empty rooms by Allyson Vieira and David Brooks, his "machine in the garden," and widespread artist resentment. In a postscript here, I instead insist on her very special ability to ask the right questions.

Macho or austere?

In the Friday Times, its top critic found "bad boy" acts everywhere she looked in Chelsea—big, bold, theatrical, domineering, and macho. On the front page of the Sunday Arts and Leisure section, Roberta Smith then demanded how "bare walls and open spaces" had taken over museums and, she might have added, displaced good old slow art. With Damien Hirst, Sterling Ruby, Banks Violette, Leonardo Drew, El Anatsui, and (yes) Gelitin, Smith saw all "swagger and sideburns." She was clearly enjoying it, too. With Gabriel Orozco, Roni Horn, Urs Fischer, and Tino Sehgal, she saw only "a visual austerity and coolness of temperature that are dispiritingly one-note":

After encountering so many bare walls and open spaces, after examining so many amalgams of photography, altered objects, seductive materials and conceptual puzzles awaiting deciphering, I started to feel as if it were all part of a big-box chain featuring only one brand.

I know the feeling. On the one hand, I have questioned male artists like Matthew Barney and Cai Guo-Qiang who show off by trashing the gallery between installation and architecture or, like Carsten Höller, turning it into an amuseument park. I have wondered about the double edge in Mike Kelley and others who reduce Kelley's adolescent angst to "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." I have asked about the lure of male excess and underachievement in tributes to Dash Snow—a lure that has pushed even photograms and photography to unearthly heights. Ironically, Violette has his best show yet in memory of Snow, with the contrasting white neon glare and peeling, seemingly melting black fiberglass. As Smith observes, the huge chandelier has a haunting resemblance to wind chimes, and I could swear that the tangle of electric chords on the floor belonged to the entanglement of the work.

I did not exactly welcome Orozco, Fischer, and Sehgal either amid art's spectacles and light shows. I found the first struggling to sustain his ideas, the second way overblown, and the third fun but frothy. I have limited affinity for the conceptualists of the 1970s, Lawrence Weiner and Dan Graham, who have had their own recent retrospectives. Much as I like Horn, I found myself unable to say anything new about her. For once, I did not follow a press opening with a review. Instead, I keep arguing for the vitality of painting, sculpture, new media, political art, and art history.

Why, then, do I think that Smith has taken some good shots that nonetheless miss the real target? Start again with Gelitin. On my first visit, one well-known artist (no, not Jessica Stockholder) was coating another with plaster and glue no doubt meant for the sculpture. Others, Corona in hand and Marker's Mark nearby, were tinkering away. Some blended into the audience. One, blindfolded, noodled away on electric guitar.

Blindfolds distinguished Gelitin from their guests, who pretty much all show at highly visible galleries. The coed chaos and festivity recalled Fluxus, but oh how the small circle of leading artists has changed. The outside has become the inside, and conceptual art has become noise. As it happens, Urs Fischer was among the volunteers, and his retrospective, too, was loud and showy. It even presented visitors with another blank wall, covering the New Museum's elevator. Into which of Smith's category should one assign Gelitin or Fischer—macho or austere?

And does it matter? I have argued before that assaults on conceptual art and nostalgia for the handmade miss the boat. They miss the diversity of conceptual arts in the plural or how an installation can embrace the strangeness of familiar spaces, and they match the anti-intellectual pandering in right-wing American politics. They miss the vitality of academic criticism, the vital role of theory in the arts, and the role of excess in catering not to academics but to markets that not even Frick collecting Rembrandt would have known. I will not recap all that now, but it is relevant to the real culprit here. Despite her best intentions, Smith ends up supporting premature stardom, at a savage cost for other artists young and old.

Spotting the winners

First, like the shows she questions or for that matter me, Smith cannot help following fashion. There is a lot more out there, honest, and museum runs quickly change. In just the last year or two, they have shown gorgeous and evocative art by Kara Walker, Georgia O'Keeffe, Wassily Kandinsky, Pipilotti Rist, the Bauhaus, Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, and others. Along with the big boys, galleries have shared female intimacy in shows by Andrea Rosen, Sophie Calle, and many more. Both museums and galleries have also been trying to address exclusions. I may not care for him, but the Whitney had in mind just that in bringing Dan Graham back from the West Coast.

Second, Smith cheats in proposing a master narrative of her own. She lists artists overlooked by New York museums—almost every one of them in a not at all unfashionable style of painting between expressionism and folk art. I do not wish to argue their merits. Speaking personally, I find Peter Saul childish, I do not get Nicole Eisenman or Jim Nutt, even Dana Schutz may be in a rut after a wonderful start, and one could stand to mention the actual engagement with race in a similar style by Rafael Ferrer. But I do wish that she had defended them directly rather than by attacking others. It begs for a single agenda in the interest of diversity.

Third, Smith minimizes the success of the winners and overlooks the losers. These people may not have hit the Whitney yet, but they have ample press coverage and major galleries. As I write, Philip Taaffe is at Gagosian and Ken Price at Matthew Marks, both of which have more spare cash than some museums. These people are not on the outs, just as no one worried about Pablo Picasso when Gagosian showed his late work in 2009. By the same token, museum choices reflect a backing off from blockbusters. As with the 2010 Whitney Biennial, one should see the chill and austerity, at least in part, as a compromise with the Great Recession.

Fourth, Smith calls for some of the worst excesses of all, midcareer retrospectives. Like the deadening volume of surveys of emerging artists, they are part of the revolving door between museums and top galleries. The same system underlies the departure of Jeffrey Deitch for LA MOCA, the New Museum's show of a donor and private collector, and the retrospective of Urs Fischer—the collector's prized possession that annoys Smith. Instead of broadening the range of midcareer retrospectives, try having fewer. Give some museum time to older artists long since pushed to the side, as well as gallery time for other younger artists. Consider, too, more press attention to smaller institutions that often take up the slack, such as the Jewish Museum, the reopened Noguchi Garden Museum, and of course many, many smaller galleries.

Finally, Smith may at times confuse which trend is which. It shows in her reference to neglect of the handmade. Too simple a story can forget when artists still care, just as Roni Horn lingers over a pool of black or a woman's fate. Even bad boys play with matches, and Orozco's show looks most like a dead end when he takes up painting. Speaking of bare walls and conceptual art, Ilya Kabakov has constructed a delicate plaything with his Empty Museum. The handmade has itself stood for opposites—an individualism that modern art felt excluded common humanity and, conversely, for feminine and craft traditions that Modernism had marginalized.

Smith's article resonates with artists everywhere for a very good reason: it captures two striking and nasty trends as no one else has, myself included. It also captures a widespread anger at being left out, sometimes mixed with plain, naive dislike of contemporary art. When Jerry Saltz linked to her article on Facebook, he said he agreed with every word—although he has lavished more than his share of praise on bad boys and empty museums alike. Comments on his post poured out, with not one dissent. I just wish that the comments had gone beyond populist fervor to ask who is sticking up for them.

Gold and glitter

Smith, in fact, more than anyone is making a very good start. She is already the most balanced daily or weekly critic out there, able to see both sides and to describe before judging. She is also onto the culprit almost despite herself—in identifying museum institutions with the economics of "big-box chains." She is even onto the breakdown between excess and conceptualism. Smith's appreciation shows in her pairing the two articles and in her Sunday title, "Post-Minimal to the Max." I may not care all that much for Gelitin, but I like how the group has fun with the breakdown.

Now one just has to dismantle the star system and the power of money. One also has to help more working artists get past the politics of resentment. They, too, may need an appreciation of diversity in art and ideas. None of this is necessarily going to happen. Money is not going anywhere soon, and art, even without the idea of an avant-garde, is not losing its ability to provoke. But at least master narratives are already dead.

I could return blindfolded to Gelitin. (I wrapped my scarf around my face on my second visit, but I was afraid I would hurt something—or myself.) Suppose instead that I take another of Smith's examples, El Anatsui. The West African artist makes huge murals from the metal seals on liquor bottles. They bulge unpredictably, in folds out from the wall. With or without assistants, they are decidedly handmade.

From a distance they look all gold and glitter, not unlike contemporary Africa for Wangechi Mutu or Elias Sime. Up close they look darker and more colorful. From a distance, too, they look abstract, while up close one sees clearly the element of Pop Art and appropriation. In the middle distance, they look more like posters peeling from walls, as in a ghetto, or like fabric, as in traditional Africa craft. Gold may also refer to the African economy ever since imperialism, while booze may refer to its costs. The bulges also made me think of Op Art, and I felt a little dizzy.

In other words, they risk referring to everything and nothing. They are political and apolitical, African and western, tacky and serious. They embody the bad boy mentality in scale, gaudiness, and alcohol, but they have a feminist side, too, in fabric and craft. They are ugly, annoying, glib, and truly memorable art. They are very good indeed and yet very much part of the breakdown. In a later show, they are better still and better at breaking down as well, as metallic as ever and yet unweaving from wall to floor with the bold colors and delicate strands of tapestry.

Like Anatsui, the breakdown is not simply a sellout on the one hand or an answer to complicity on the other. It is the art world as a work in progress. People have a way of mistaking local events for transformations of the arts, as has happened more than once with animation and new media. One can only try to retain a capacity for both anger and appreciation. One can keep singling out power and exclusions, and Smith should at least get one asking. I, too, could stand a lot fewer bad boys and empty museums.

Postscript: critics, artists, and floating anxiety

With two articles on gallery and museum trends, Smith gave voice to more artists than I can say. In asking whether bloated installations had taken over the joint, she spoke to their anxiety. In asking for more attention to painters, she spoke to their felt exclusion. In no time I found myself on that panel at the Verge art fair, discussing how art could recover a sense of personal necessity.

Anxiety is treacherous emotion, though. It is not so easy to explain or to conquer, and yet it is impossible to sustain without a target. Just as in politics, it can therefore turn on anyone, and the backlash has touched Smith as well. She had said little about money and institutional politics, although a rousing review of "Skin Fruit" at the New Museum did soon after. She also took her examples from successful painters, and she has praised quite a few large installations herself, although a follow-up article extends her ideal of folk-influenced painting to others. Could she be part of the problem after all?

She prefers measured or ambiguous judgments as well, when artists are desperate for a firm stance. As the senior critic at The Times, she also has to review highly visible shows. All that can seem like unwillingness to offend, like one more insider talking to another. I raised some of the same points myself, when so many others were taking her as a rallying cry. Now I want to come to her defense—and not just as a contrarian on principle. I was not being polite or, heavens, an insider when I concluded by calling her "the most balanced daily or weekly critic out there."

A firm stand is one thing, but dogmatic attachments in place of explanation is another. When I wrote about Tino Sehgal, I wanted readers to get halfway through and see why it might be interesting—and what might be driving it. By the end, I wanted them to see why I did not much care for it, and I did not flag my points with thumbs up or down. That makes demands on readers, but it can help them, I hope, make sense of something as puzzling and alienating as art always is—and I believe Smith intends much the same. She also knows how to navigate within the limits of her insider status, and that does not have to mean selling out.

When she writes about the big boys, she is pointing to a stifling trend. That still lets her like a show by Banks Violette while calling Damien Hirst over the hill, and why not? It still lets her return, too, to museum displays she has liked in the past. Michael Kimmelman made a career out of following artists around museums, like a disciple following the messiah, and she was briefly passed over as chief critic, perhaps because she did not. Bloggers routinely do more gossip and more interviews. If I tout real skeptics like Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster at October magazine, painting's defenders will see more academic conspiracies against them anyway.

Smith is not even all that responsible for the bloated reputations. Holland Cotter and Jerry Saltz both praised more shows at the New Museum, since Cotter has a soft spot for multiculturalism, Saltz for flash. She may praise way too many hot artists, but they would not be so hot if she had not praised them in the past. No doubt The Times should get out more, although few critics try harder than she. I pride myself that I do. Nuance, firmness, and institutional critiques should go together, because a great review is an argument with someone you love.

BACK to John's arts home page

Gelitin ran at Greene Naftali through February 27, 2010, Banks Violette at Barbara Gladstone through April 17, and El Anatsui at Jack Shainman through March 13. Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times on February 12 and 14, with a follow-up article March 28. I also draw on Anatsui's splendid return to the same gallery through January 19, 2013. A related article shared my contribution to a panel discussion on Smith's articles and conceptual art versus the handmade.


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