Escaping Modernism

John Haber
in New York City

Guildenstern: "Prison, my lord!"
Hamlet: "Denmark's a prison."
Rosenkrantz: "Then is the world one."
Hamlet: "A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o' the worst."

Cellblock and How Much Do I Owe You?

When did Modernism die off? Maybe today or, I don't know, maybe yesterday, like the narrator's mother at the opening of Camus's The Stranger—although feminists might see instead the death of a patriarch. Or maybe never, but it has sure had no shortage of killers. Hamlet might have cried for revenge. Sterling Ruby's Bus (PaceWildenstein, 2010)

Maybe he could just as well have had them locked up. An exhibition goes over the killing ground and finds, not just an ending, but a penitentiary to sustain the old order. Pursuing Peter Halley and co-conspirators from late Modernism to the present, "Cellblock I and II" finds visions of confinement broken by narratives of transgression and escape. If money sounds like a ticket both to freedom and to getting locked up, other artists take over a bank and invite you to descend into its heavy vault. And then they ask, "How Much Do I Owe You?"

Prison, my lord!

Funeral announcements for modern art over the years blamed Pop Art, conceptual art, and Minimalism. And none of that stopped artists from aspiring to be the next Frank Stella—and calling it modern. A whole new generation of death blows came to New York by around 1980, with Neo-Expressionists like Georg Baselitz or Julian Schnabel, the cold sensuality of David Salle and Eric Fischl, and the politically loaded irony of Barbara Kruger and the "Picture generation." Yet maybe none of them felt more like a betrayal than the Neo-Geo of Peter Halley. He saw around him only "a denatured environment of total confinement and perfect discipline." And then he went about painting it.

Halley was writing in 1984, in praise of Robert Morris, whom he saw as breaching "The Crisis of Geometry." That same year, a book by Suzi Gablik asked Has Modernism Failed? Hal Foster, though, raised a more dreaded alternative in his preface to The Anti-Esthetic: it may have succeeded all too well. Halley's Neo-Geo embodied that dread, with geometric abstraction that to him represented prison bars, with the gallery or museum as the jailer's ever-present eye. He adopted the rough Celotex surfaces of Richard Artschwager and the rubbery Rolotex, not to satisfy the formalist demand for painting as art object, but to hold it at an impenetrable distance. Maybe postmodern theory had outrun practice, but it was daunting all the same.

"Cellblock I and II" recalls that moment with a vengeance and then extends it to past and present, but fortunately it is not an open and shut case. In its first ward the curator, Yale's Robert Hobbs, juxtaposes paintings by Halley and Robert Motherwell with two younger stars—Sterling Ruby and Kelley Walker. Ruby's dark geometry and spray paint claim to evoke both California's "supermax" facility at Pelican Bay and the vandalism of street art (and his Bus shown here, not in the show, looks more and more like a jail). Walker, working this time without Ward Guyton, simulates a brick wall in silkscreens of The Wall Street Journal. With its second ward, the gallery has expanded across the street, as well as to nearly twenty artists, ranging as far back as Ad Reinhardt. Hobbs interrupts them with intimations of something darker still, in wall text quoting the Michel Foucault of Discipline and Punish, Plato's allegory of the cave, and the proverbial black box of information in, information out.

Scared yet, or just plain skeptical? Jean Genet tormented his actors, Bruce Nauman once again torments himself by inching down a narrow corridor in Renaissance contrapposto, Vito Acconci sat blindfolded in a basement chamber, and Artur Zmijewski (a frequent collaborator with Paweł Althamer) recreated the infamous Stanford prison experiment, in which student guards and prisoners adopted their roles all too well. Still, you might object, they obtained only the outcomes they imposed and expected. Reinhardt may look harsh, but he drew inspiration from Eastern philosophy, not to mention light and color. Robert Smithson joyfully surrendered to chance and nature, while Rosalind Krauss (also in The Anti-Esthetic) identified Alice Aycock with "sculpture in an expanded field." The rigid outlines of Donald Judd, Beverly Pepper, Jackie Winsor, or Tony Smith have still less to do with coercion—and Marcel Broodthaers riffs on Stéphane Mallarme's poetry in a work called Liberté.

Hobbs is still a step ahead of you. He sees present barriers as also holding out the possibility of liberation, notably for gays like Robert Gober. He also draws heavily on Halley's interpretations of others to find genuine connections, to which one might add global networks for Sarah Morris or Motherwell's memories of a fallen republic and The Little Spanish Prison. Smithson owned a facsimile edition of etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi of torture chambers and prisons, and Nancy Holt photographed him behind the bars of an industrial facility—although sprawled out as happily as ever. One can lower oneself into Aycock's pit and enter her maze, but do not expect footholds on the wall or an obvious escape. Hobbs also plays on the ambiguity between inside and out. Winsor's cube began as a dream of light, but a dream is by definition not a reality.

Will Insley called his wide-open field One City, while Tom Burr spoke of his "garden pavilions" as the erosion of public spaces. Is instead the one a denial of multiplicity, and is the loss of public spaces also the loss of the very conditions for democracy—and is pluralism, at least in art now, itself a trap? Hamlet found the many even in despair. Now Hobbs adds two more wards waiting for the accused to turn themselves in. Maybe his alternatives are a little too all-encompassing and slippery, but maybe, too, I can finally get over arguing in frustration with theory and Peter Halley.

Follow the money

You know what they say: follow the money. Oh, sure, they may have been talking about politics and corruption, but they should just try to keep up with the money trail when it comes to art. In barely a week, one could have traveled from a garage sale at MoMA to still more art fairs in Miami—if one had the money. One could have gone from still closed galleries after Sandy to a lavish museum expansion at Yale. One could have struggled through the IRS rulings that brought Robert Rauschenberg and his Canyon to MoMA, from the estate of Ileana Sonnabend, and through the still mysterious chain of developments that will bring ten murals by Thomas Hart Benton to the Met.

More modestly, one could follow art to Long Island City for twenty-six artists and a bank building. Now, real money departed the former Bank of Manhattan years ago, and a huge banner out front announces Ground Floor Available—precisely the floor with most of the art. Queens Plaza looks as bleak as ever, despite some unsettling high rises, and one may not so quickly follow the paper trail two blocks east, where the trains turn north to Astoria. No matter. A group called No Longer Empty clearly traffics in odd real estate, like the clock tower that Chris Jordan's silhouettes are said to inhabit by night. Who needs money anyway when a show asks "How Much Do I Owe You?"

Besides, artists can always create their own value. Erika Harrsch's large counterfeit bills float overhead, as giant butterflies and a human being in flight. Funded Reserve Even Exchange (F.R.E.E., of course) invites you to draw bank notes, supposedly as contributions to cleaning up toxic lead. If the fund ever reaches three million, the group promises to deliver it to Washington—not that Congress needs money all that much these days, not since Citizens United and GOP-drawn of district lines. Sal Randolf simply leaves loose change on dishes, but he had better encourage tipping. If you have already thrown your money away on lottery tickets, you might find the sad results in Colleen Ford's glass piggy banks or Ghost of a Dream's wall collage, which looks up close like a board game and from afar like a rising Asian skyline.

The actual money trail is not always that clear, even in the very space where tellers once slaved politely away. Susan Hamburger cares about it, enough to update her politicized Rococo wallpaper for the travails of the euro. Alberto Borea at least assumes it, lining the word NOTHING with text from real-estate magazines, while Ana Prvacki supplies video instructions for your own money laundering. (Boy, do the results smell fresh and clean.) Jennifer Dalton invites you to keep your own balances, with a choice of buttons for patsies and chumps, but really just adapting her previous narratives about making love and making art. Two headless mannequins from Guerra de la Paz go about sealing the deal, their neckties coiled upward like poisoning snakes, but you probably got the point.

Even the nexus of art and money, and I mean big money, can feel distant, all the more so in a neighborhood where artists struggle to survive. If Nikki Enright reports on a survey of artist friends, the video places him front and center. And if Tom Sanford parodies Damien Hirst and that notorious platinum and diamond skull, Dollar Bill Y'All looks as mild as it sounds. Several others long to escape the financial nexus to the earth—or to discover the allure of money that has tarnished nature. H. J. Lee weaves an LED dance through spilled rice, Marco Antonio Castro grows basil and wheat grass, Keiko Miyamori embalms old manual typewriters in resin and tree growth, and Sean Slemon paints a pine trunk in gold leaf. Sol Aramendi weaves video narratives of immigrant labor into an installation of corn, lavender, and old LPs that somehow remind him of coins. Theodoros Stamatogiannis sets a ping-pong table between walls instead of players, but maybe only Harrsch altogether knows that not even butterflies are free.

The show at its most haunting ascends the scaffolding and descends into the vault. Paulette Phillips uses the first for a glowing vision of Monument to the Third International, Vladimir Tatlin's towering memorial that never rose to a future that never came to be. Around it, unseen voices tell of their dream careers—and, in the words of one, "I don't want to be doing this for the rest of my life." In the basement vault, Orit Ben-Shitrit's video makes him the arch capitalist hero and villain, while naked dancers play at sex and as soiled clowns. C'est moi qui décrete les lois, he says ("I make the rules"), but that massive circular door could seal him up at any moment. One almost wants to be sealed in, too, only alone with the money.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Cellblock I and II" ran at Andrea Rosen through February 2, 2013, "How Much Do I Owe You?" at the Clock Tower, 29-27 41st Avenue, Long Island City, through March 13.


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