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Is the New Museum Slipping?


The biennial problem is perennial. The Whitney Biennial has been difficult to deal with for years, so now as punishment for our art sins, the New Museum will offer another survey of "new" art every three years. The Whitney has already complicated and partially reformed its offerings by going global, using guest curators, and even augmenting its space in '08 with an off-site venue--- the magnificent Park Avenue Armory


But last year when I was feeling more benign I wrote:



And how many curators? Alas, this Biennial gives me the feeling of too many cooks. Only a committee could include photo-realist painter Robert Bechtle, photo-conceptualist Louise Lawler and abstract painter Mary Heilmann. There are too many lookalikes and almosts. Could this be because Henriette Huldisch and Shamim Momin, the curators of record (both Whitney staffers), were "overseen" by chief curator Donna De Salvo and advised by Thelma Golden, Bill Horrigan and Linda Norden?


But that was all before the fall --- the fall of the art market. Leading to? Yet another global survey. You were hoping  for the end of hegemony?


No, the NuMu is not slipping. It has very little to slip from. Last year Massimiliano Gioni's "After Nature" was o.k., but little else has been up to snuff. True, galleries have sprouted around the ungainly stacked cubes of its fake building, but that has been the NuMu's only real success: real estate.


And we all know where that's going.


So why bother trying to copy The Biennial? The Whitney is NuMu director Lisa Phillips' alma mater and the institution that spawned Marcia Tucker's New Museum (by giving her the boot).



More Boring Than the Buddha


The NuMu "The Generational" has an attention-getting but foolish extended title: "Younger Than Jesus", which  seems to mean that all the 50 artists from 25 different countries are younger than The Christ when He was crucified. I find this truly offensive. And I am not even a Christian.


Will future titles be equally insulting? How about: More Boring Than the Buddha; Bossier Than Moses; Louder Than Luther; Madder Than Mohammad; More Baffling Than Madame Blavatsky?


The Whitney Biennial of '06 had a title too: the irrelevant,  but perhaps anti-cinema  "Day for Night."  Since the Whitney insists upon including established artists with the newbies, thus pleasing and puffing up the latter, the downtown Whitney wannabe can't do that. On the other hand, the Whitney Biennial has, as already mentioned, gone global, the NuMu Triennial must be global too.


Well, yes, art is indeed global. But so is late capitalism and so is tuberculosis. In spite of transnational trends like the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Enlightenment,  and then Modernism, it was once thought nations were little, much cherished pockets of stylistic development, language tics, and even aesthetic surprise. Not so anymore.


But wait. I take it back. Currently art is not global; but art education is. The stress-free Generational  feels like, looks like, smells like any MFA thesis show that one might happen upon anywhere in the world.


Even the three curators (Lauren Cornell, Massimiliano Gioni, and Laura Hoptman) cannot make head nor tales of their 50 choices, selected from 500 artists, all born after 1976 and - hold onto your seat belts---nominated by "150 curators, writers, teachers, artists, critic, and bloggers worldwide." This  methodology must have sounded really clever in a curatorial meeting or graduate seminar, but the results are dismal. Artists over 33 never innovate? Matisse's late works are his best. And how old was Duchamp when he finished Etant donné?


Furthermore, you are asking for it when you call something "The Generational" and the demographics don't add up to anything really important. Even the curators can't explain what's going on.


If you think the 500-word labels in the exhibition are mind-boggling, here are some pungent quotes from the catalog essays, each title in large letters. The curators herewith reveal that they have set themselves not an art problem, but a packaging problem. 


New Age Thinking


Lauren Cornell:


The elusive state of relevance, in which art becomes worthy of attention, is informed by intergenerational tension. Practices of emerging artists call older or less-well-known ones into prominence. People hit their so-called strides when receptive forces are favorably aligned, and artists, in general, glean and reject ideas from different movements and moments. 


[Say the first sentence over and over until you levitate. JP]



We Are Too Many


Massimiliano Gioni:


In his classical study on generations, sociologist Karl Mannheim constructs a mental experiment that has almost a dark, science-fiction tone to it: What would our societies look like if one generation would live forever? What would we remember? How would we forget? How would we expand our knowledge? And who would fight out wars or pay for our peaceful retirement? 


[What? Well, at least Gioni got to drop Mannheim's name.]  



Laura Hoptman:


I am a visitor to this Millenial Generation, a generational tourist, come from the far end of the previous generation, which is now pretty well on in years, and also studied, packaged, targeted, and even historicized. There is no doubt about it: Generational parameters are flawed, even arbitrary tools for the analysis of contemporary art. In terms of art, a generation, particularly on a global level, cannot be defined by the visual culture it consumes, but only by what it produces.


 [And if it produces nothing of value?]




banana peel 37.jpg 


We Are Tested Again


Artopia is supposed to be optimistic. So here are two positive responses:


  1. At least the Triennial is not every two years. Or every year.


  1. Five out of 50 artworks are excellent (A+), which is the same as the usual 10 percent in any given large, nonthematic survey, such as the dreaded Whitney Biennial. 


I am afraid the Triennial follows the 10% rule, proving that even curatorial transparency of "methodology" (which would please any ill-informed art professor) does not make a difference.


The whole shebang is no better than random. You would end up with the same percentage of good artworks by pulling names out of a hat. That 10%, by the way, is not just an Artopian percent. Even if one had conservative taste or just liked bad paintings or only abstract art or were a sucker for anything video or digital, the average would still be 10%.


What would make a difference?


A consciously developed theme. Focus, focus, focus. And, oh, yes, better curators.


Our clever curators have, after the fact, spotted the following themes and chosen artists from "The Generational" to illustrate same:




*IMAGINING THE FUTURE: Possible worlds and fantasies of identity.


*THE ROMANCE OF OBSOLESCENCE: The artist as archeologist.


*REWRITING THE PAST: What do we remember? How do we forget?


*DOCU-FICTION: Storytelling and reportage.


*THE IMAGE-MAKING MACHINE: How can art cope with the explosion of  images in the digitalsphere?



The assignment of artists to each category is so arbitrary, so off-base, I will not bother you with that part of the listing.


 Freshman Assignment: Find artworks in any Whitney Biennial since 1962 that will illustrate these themes equally well, merely changing the neologism "digitalsphere" to "realms of mass communication."


 Themes that the Artopian researcher found:












Sophomore Assignment: Make up your own subtitles for these "themes" and list the sorry "Generationals" in each category.













To the Head of the Class


But before I forget, here is the Artopia 10%, A+ List, which of course is at the top of the grade-inflated, good-taste heap:


Liu Chuang (Beijing): Buying Everything on You (2006-08). The artist approached people in the street and bought "everything on them," all of which is here displayed; wallets, items of clothing, etc.


Loris Gréaud (Paris and Ho Chi Minh City): Nothing Is True Everything Is Permitted, Stairway Edit: A multivalent, free-standing, revolving metal spiral staircase to nowhere.













Cyprien Gaillard (Paris) Desniansky Raion.  Russian fight-gang mobs, a Paris housing project being blown up, and then an aerial view of a Kiev apartment block. This video (with music by Koudlam) is virtually the only artwork that screams "Generational!" Even the curator is inspired by the spectacle:


In his videos Cyprien Gaillard portrays buildings of the '60s as if they were the submerged ruins of ancient civilizations. In Desniansky Raion -- his best-known piece -- Gaillard juxtaposes these sublime landscapes with scenes of violence among hooligans. Seen in this context, they are transformed into strange rituals of an extinct people.


Andriana Lara (Mexico City): A guard eats a banana everyday and drops the skin on the floor. Is this in homage to Warhol's Velvet Underground album cover-art?











Chu Yun (Shenzhen): A woman, utilizing sleeping pills, passes out under a white comforter during museum hours. She is being paid for her efforts and is not the artist. Does Andy Warhol's Sleep one better. When I saw it, a dainty foot and a hank of hair peeked out from under the comforter.





And now , courtesy of YouTube, is the first part of Gaillard's chic video:





                                           *    *   *


History Lessons


So why are we plagued by these surveys? One template is the ancient Academic Salon of yesteryear, really yesteryear -- like, you know, around the time of Louis XIV. But now we have commercial art galleries! In any case, the Impressionists, in their anti-establishment battles, proved that the academic salons were pointless, right?


But, unlike the self-congratulation of the Salons, the Whitney Biennial, according to an '08 press release, once had at least two forthright, albeit contradictory, goals: providing a forum for contemporary American artists "struggling to free themselves from the prevailing art and culture of Europe" and aiding "the advancement and assimilation of modernism into the traditionally realist tradition of American art."


Times have certainly changed.


Later, paranoids in the latter part of the last century complained that Whitney curators simply swept through the art galleries on a kind of shopping spree and/or were doing the recruitment work for the art outlets -- because, it was clear, by the time the Biennial opened most artists were represented by dealers.


Now it may be that because of the economy we will have fewer galleries next fall. Chelsea will be a ghost town. Soon we really may need biennials and triennials and institutional salons in order to see any art at all.


Some sages, nevertheless, have opined that even if all the galleries keep their doors open, we will still need these turgid, pointless, blockbuster surveys as excuses to get together.


But can't we have parties without bothering about the art? Aren't we all on FaceButt? Can't we just watch videos on YouTub? Can't we complain about art without the Whitney and the New Museum?  We do not  need either to learn about new art. There is no new art!






















The Artopia Manifesto


  1. Art is on vacation.
  2. Art has been destroyed by the investors.
  3. Art has been crippled by the mandatory MFA, now visible on every artist bio in every Whitney Biennial and now in the NuMu Triennial, making them both Academic Surveys, not unlike the Academic Salons of ancient France.

Surveys in museums should focus on art that because of ageism, sexism, racism, geographical origin, difficulty, and/or lack of commercial viability cannot be seen in commercial galleries. We want to se biennials and triennials that are not business as usual.


The official Artopia doctrine is that art has been done in by a fatal disconnect from poetry and from the metaphysical. Whatever art was, it is being continued somewhere else.



We must take the china shop by its horns.

We must throw out the baby with the bath.

We must no longer look both ways before crossing the street.

We must abandon all ships.

We must sink before we can swim.









April 26, 2009 4:17 PM |



















The New Art History


Blessed with hindsight, it is now quite clear that in the late '60s the big question in art was how to include content without compromising abstraction. Pop was too popular, offering the spectacle that the critique far too easily became that which was being attacked. Celebration during the Vietnam War was untenable.


Yet immediate art-world forefathers (women did not yet count) were divided, in more ways than one. A separation between beliefs and actions is a kind of moral schizophrenia. Art and content, particularly political content, were sealed off from each other. Artist elders with a social conscience, such as Ad Reinhardt, maintained a kind of Berlin wall between their political beliefs and their art, maintaining the hard-won right to make art that was art-about-art, that was pure, that was totally abstract -- descending from Mondrian and Kandinsky, but spared from theosophy. If your art had no recognizable imagery, you could not be held accountable for political mistakes or be hounded by some latter-day Stalin. Or Joe McCarthy. 



The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing. Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. Art-as-art is nothing but art. Art is not what is not art....


Words in art are words.

Letters in art are letters.

Writing in art is writing.

Messages in art are not messages.


from Art as Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, Univ. of Calif. Press, 1973.


The logic escapes me, but behavior based on fear is never logical. We honor Reinhardt's all-black paintings, but rereading his writings makes it clear that all of his writings were self-promotion: I, Ad Reinhardt, am the only artist. My all-black paintings are the only possible art.


And Reinhardt's "dogmas" could now be mistaken for the formalism of his political opposite Clement Greenberg at his worst and most unforgiving. One of the best things you can say about Reinhardt is that Greenberg hated his work. And he apparently did not like the paintings of my personal hero Barnett Newman, a far greater artist who, unlike Reinhardt, was not afraid of form or spirit and who in 1933 ran for mayor of New York. He was an Artopian ahead of his time. The platform of his Writers-Artists ticket was for: a municipal art gallery, sidewalk cafes, city opera, and playgrounds for adults. He also, by the way, in 1954 sued Reinhardt for libel, for classifying him as a huckster, among other things, in that artist's very silly article in the Collage Art Journal.


And then a little bit later, along came Sol LeWitt -- who Earth Artist Robert Smithson privately referred to as Saint Sol. LeWitt was a great artist and he was also a genuine liberal and believed in all the right things. His wall drawings, nevertheless, have absolutely no political or social content.


In short, for many serious artists, representational imagery was to be avoided at all cost: It smelled of the academy, of boring Social Realism, and of Pop.


Enter Conceptual Art, which tried to replace recognizable imagery and Forefather Abstraction with words. You could have your cake and eat it. Words were not representational in the same way images of grandma and grandpa and all their sandy-haired descendents sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner were; not representational like murals showing the triumph of the workers or -- headshots of movie stars. You could even say words that were abstract, since they did not look at all like what they referred to. Yet the advantage over squares and monochromes is that words can be read; words allow content without depiction.


Did the use of words really solve the problem? Well, the history of art is based upon moves that are never as clear and uncompromised as some would like. And although we do not believe in art progress, sometimes a sidestep is indeed a step forward.


I don't think Conceptual Art wiped out either abstract or representational art, any more than photography did. And it certainly did not wipe out poetry. If there is any poetry in Conceptual Art, it is of the same order as the poetry that painting and sculpture have sometimes attained: a poetry that has nothing to do with words. Nevertheless, Conceptual Art -- coming directly out of Minimalism in painting and sculpture -- was a great opening up for art just beginning to be assessed, now that the puritanical, macho, monotonous aspects of both Minimalism and Conceptualism have faded.


Bear in mind however that a lot of what still passes for Conceptualism is really Dada Entertainment  -- of which I am fond -- compared to the tough stuff I also like. I try not to confuse the two. Because there was recently an exhibition of his work (called Im [sic] Full of Byars) at the Kunstmuseum in Bern, which will travel to London and Detroit, James Lee Byars comes to mind as an example of the former. Yet his gold-leaf room and his sphere made out of roses really hold up. And I remember a performance of his at the Architectural League in New York, in which (dressed in flowing red cloth and his trademark hat) he just sat there and answered or entertained any question that was asked. Sometimes time edits out all the bad stuff. Well, maybe not... 




The good thing and the bad thing about Hard Line Conceptualism is that it is not charming. After the '60s, Minimalism and Conceptualism seemed to have left a big void that needed to be filled. Pluralism stepped in.



view best.jpg 















Much Ado About Nothing


To some, Conceptual Art is one big nothing. How big is nothing? Is nothing something? In the previous Artopia screed we tried to address that void, artwise. The question today, inspired by the new Robert Barry exhibition, is: What are numbers? Or how much is too much? Or better yet, does multiplicity equal infinity? Does infinity equal eternity?


Philosophy, perhaps rightly, no longer cares. These kinds of questions are medieval. But we live in neo-medieval times. Physics, mathematics, and theology converge. We not only exist in a world of objects, a world of persons, and a world of words, we also exist in an equally mysterious world of numbers. We now hear trillions of dollars spoken of without a pause. But who can picture a trillion dollars for this or that rescue plan? These trillions are needed, but what do they look like? How much do they weigh?


Money is just another form of information. It is one big nothing.


As we approach vast numbers, they disappear. In all worlds, close examination leads to erasure. How odd. The more you look, the less you see. Some numbers are so big they surpass all understanding. They are abstract and vaguely symbolic. Measurement cannot itself be measured.


At the root of number is paradox. Please remember that Lewis Carroll was a mathematician and quite advanced for his time. At some point, multiplicity beyond understanding or sense - is another Void. The invention of zero was more important than the invention of the wheel.


When I first read of Barry's One Billion Colored Dots -- now on view at Specific Object (601 W. 26th Street, floor 2M, room M265; M-F, to April 24) -- I imagined books full of gummed dots, perhaps of various colors, but definitely red ones. Red dots on walls next to paintings or on wall labels were once commonly used to denote that the artwork in question had been sold.


Scooped again. Which, I thought, was what I get for being a secret artist. In the  '60s I filled two blank books with thousands upon thousands of red dots, page after page. In one book, the dots were placed randomly all over each page; in the other, they were in neat rows.


The 601 West 26th location is a gigantic, multiuse building on the western border of Chelsea. The lobby looks uptown, but once you pass security and get off the elevator, you are in a kind of grungy, industrial warehouse time-warp. The door to Specific Object could be guarding deep storage of fur coats or ancient computer equipment. But never fear, once inside, the nostalgia abates and the modest exhibition room is pristine.


Fortunately, Barry's books are not at all like mine. My books were about art commerce (at least on the surface); his dot books, for starters, are about "number" and a certain self-referring opaqueness.


For the current project -- which slyly approaches the sublime -- he has expanded a piece he made in 1968 for Conceptual Art entrepreneur Seth Sieglaub's Carl Andre/Robert Barry/ Douglas Huebler/Joseph Kosuth/Sol LeWitt/Robert Morris/Lawrence Weiner, usually referred to as "The Xerox Book." Each of the artists in this tightly curated list was allotted 25 pages. Barry, to the tune of 40,000 dots per page, produced One Million Dots.


Then, as I found from the online essay by LINK Frédéric Paul, in 1971 he created the first One Billion Dots: a single set of 25 volumes. Now what's offered is a new edition that consists of 30 sets of 25 volumes of dots. Here's a precise description offered by the Specific Object/David Platzker Gallery:




In this project Specific Object presents a new edition by Robert Barry consisting of twenty-five volumes -- each volume composed of 2,000 printed pages, each page with 40,000 dots, each volume containing 40,000,000 dots, thus presenting 1,000,000,000,000 dots through the course of the 25 volumes. Additionally, each volume has been printed in a single color. The edition contains one volume in each of the following colors: red, blue, orange, violet, green, yellow, maroon, blue green, light green, ochre, light purple, light grey, dark blue, pink, yellow green, purple, light orange, red violet, light yellow, silver, light blue, grey, gold, white, and black. Over the span of the twenty-five volumes one billion colored dots are presented.


The presentation is appropriately immaculate. One book is open and white gloves are supplied.  And since I  am familiar with Barry's work, I know that there will not be any surprises. No pornographic inserts. No sudden change in the size of the dots. For as he himself once stated, "I always do what I say I'm going to do."


I was and am relieved. On another level, I once asked myself, "I always do what I say I'm going to do? What fun is that?" But we soon learned, and learn all over again, that Conceptual Art on its highest level is not about fun.

























Mathematical tablet from Uruk, late third or early second century BC, containing one of the earliest known instances of the Babylonian zero; Louvre, AO 6484 side B.








Zeroing in on Art                          


For obvious reasons, I am more interested in zero than in all the other numbers. Well, maybe not for such obvious reasons.                           


Zero, we are taught, began in Babylon, c. 350 BB; it was also later invented

independently by the Maya, c. 300 CE.Europe didn't have a clue until around the 12th century, when zero was appropriated from the Arabs. The word zero, we are further informed, comes from the Arabic sifr, which also yielded cipher -- a meaning not unrelated to zero. "Zero" in Arabic is a dot.



Arabic numbers.jpg 

The word zero, however, has at least two separate meanings. It is both a place-marker, allowing easier counting and arithmetic than other systems, and, more mysteriously, a number in itself.


In terms of the latter, the Ancient Greeks would have nothing to do with it 

Because, they "reasoned," how could a number be nothing? Confusing numbers with things, however, is just as bad a confusing words with things. Silly Greeks.They even had trouble solving Zeno's paradoxes, didn't they?


The Indian subcontinent also beat out Europe in figuring out zero. 


In about 850 A.D. Mahavir, a Hindu mathematician, wrote in his book, Ganita-Sara-Sahgraha (The Compendium of Calculation): "A number multiplied by zero is zero, and that number remains unchanged which is divided by, added to, or diminished by zero."


Today we agree on most of what he says. We can add or subtract zero to a number and just get back that number. When we multiply a number by zero we get zero. The division by zero is where we disagree. Today division by zero is undefined.  Reference.


The paradox we most like is that one needs zeros or nothings or voids to express big quantities like one billion (1,000,000,000) in other than words.









Barry, Douglas Heubler, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, c. 1968 





It's Only Words


Barry belongs to the small group of Conceptual Art pioneers -- most, I would venture to guess, influenced by painter Reinhardt's gnomic pronouncements. These were so ultra-formalist that they opened the way for a Dada antiformalist reissue with a political, often neo-Marxist edge.


Like Lawrence Weiner (who almost patented the move), Barry has produced word-works on gallery walls. Isn't it time for a survey of word art? Partial list: Barry, Heubler, Jenny Holzer, On Kawara, Kosuth, Barbara Kruger, Weiner.


But Barry's best works now seem to be the 1969 closed galleries -- rather than the 1970 Some places to which we can come, and for a while "be free to think about what we are going to do (Marcuse) recently reinstated in "Void" at the Pompidou -- the inert gas series in which he released rare gases into the atmosphere; and, of course, the dots.


Is his art as scattered or as "free"  as it sometimes appears? Has Barry successfully avoided a marketable identity, a product line?  Is there a difference between focus and product, between identity and brand?


Does it still hold true that the best art provides questions, not answers?










April 8, 2009 11:17 AM |


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