Meta-Practice

Saltz, NYC galleries, and spaces for dialogue

Jerry Saltz makes some interesting observations in “Saltz on the Death of the Gallery Show” in NY Mag (3/31/13).

His main point is that

A great thing about galleries …  is that they’re social spaces….  places where one can commune with the group mind.

But due art fairs, mega-collectors, and skyrocketing rents in Chelsea, galleries are

playing a diminished role in the life of art.

The problem is

When so much art is sold online or at art fairs, it’s great for the lucky artists who make money, but it leaves out everyone else who isn’t already a brand. This art exists only as commerce, not as conversation or discourse.

….Many artists are now in “abundant production,” seducing collectors on the prowl for stuff to fill their oversize atriums.

Baffinglingly, Saltz goes on to make these statements about NYC-centrism:

Art doesn’t have to be shown in New York to be validated. That requirement is long gone. Fine. But… a good Los Angeles dealer chided me for not going to art fairs, not seeing art in L.A. and London, and not keeping track of the activity online. He said I “risked being out of touch with the art world,” and he was right….

I brooded for months over this. Then … I started thinking about “the art world.” Something clicked and brightened my mood. There is no “the” art world anymore. There have always been many art worlds, overlapping, ebbing around and through one another. 

This last realization seems a bit belated. Artists outside of NYC have had to cultivate their own art worlds for ages, not because of the recent overabundance of fairs, but because of long-standing NYC-centrism. NYC is home to major publications and art commerce, yet artists outside of NYC have found ways to persist—regardless of the facts that NYC critics focus on NYC shows (ahem!), and art fairs diminish Chelsea galleries’ audiences.

And, paradoxically, it seems as if Saltz is using the de-centralization of the art world to justify his own NYC-centrism. No one critic could see all the art in these different art worlds, but could certainly try harder to get out of his own city—and borough—more often.

He ends on an upbeat note:

When I go to galleries, I now mainly see artists and a handful of committed diligent critics, collectors, curators, and the like. In this quiet environment, it may be possible for us to take back the conversation. Or at least have conversations. While the ultrarich will do their deals from 40,000 feet, we who are down at ground level will be engaging with the actual art—maybe not in Chelsea, where the rents are getting too high, but somewhere. That’s fine with me.

That Saltz has been able to seek out dialogues in commercial galleries seems like a fluke, in my book. Most Chelsea galleries feel too-cool-for-school to strike up conversations.

Those spaces where dialogues happen, where art by artists’ artists is shown, are non-profit, alternative, and artist-run spaces. NYC has its share, but nothing like the vibrancy of SF Bay Area’s community, in my opinion.

I also sense that many NYC alternative spaces show a higher proportion of artists with commercial gallery representation (artists further along in the “emerging” spectrum) than those without. It would be fantastic to take a survey comparing the proportion of represented artists shown at Artist’s Space, White Columns, Sculpture Center, Socrates Sculpture Park, Smack Mellon, Momenta Art, Art in General, Apex Art and Flux Factory against those at Southern Exposure, Intersection for the Arts, The Luggage Store, The Lab, SF Camerawork, Pro Arts, and San Jose ICA. It would beg the question of what alternative art organizations are for, who they serve, what kind of dialogues they  create, and with whom.

What if more commercial galleries fold in NYC, but an equal number of new non-profit and alternative spaces sprung up in their wake? What if they focused on truly emerging artists—not trying to compete with commercial spaces, but were real, imaginative, risk-taking alternatives? What if big-time critics visited and wrote about alternative spaces more often, not just when they mount shows by established artists or shut their doors? What if, essentially, NYC can learn a thing or two from other cities like San Francisco?

Standard
Research

Why Not Blog About Art?

Do bloggers have the right to have opinions about art?

On March 28, as reported by Lisa Radon on Hyperallergic.com on March 29, Richard Flood, chief curator at the New Museum, said

I just found out about blogs three months ago…

The internet is still a ghetto.

[Does Flood really only research artists in person or via 35 mm slide?]

Blogs … are not communicating with each other. They have no idea. History means nothing to them. Truth means nothing to them. They have no mechanism in place for checking [facts].

Flood then called out New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz, who wrote a response entitled, “How the New Museum Might Stop Annoying People” in which he advised Flood

Don’t hate the Internet.

A few days before that, on March 23, James Foumberg posted “The State of the (Visual) Art” on New City:

…information tailored to a digital audience promotes emotionally reactive and flippant responses, and somehow seems unserious. This is not, traditionally, how critics like to proceed.

As the Internet is all about audience,… the voice of the critic fades. For some types of art, … it’s an unwelcome flood of amateurs, hobbyists and Sunday critics. …the need for expertise, and good writing, will resurface….

Foumberg’s remarks strike me as rather tired re-hash of the blogger-vs-journalist debate. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend following how critics traditionally “like to proceed.” For example, I once read two reviews by Clement Greenberg in a writing course. In the first, he slams a painting by Piet Mondrian. In the follow-up, he decided that he liked it—a lot. He also recanted his initial observation about the color (something along the lines of mistaking yellow for lavender). This demonstrates two ideas. First, just because Greenberg, the critic of critics, published his ideas in print, it doesn’t mean that he enjoyed what Flood holds so dearly, “a mechanism in place for checking [facts].” Second, the appeal of tradition for its own sake is conservative, and its place in contemporary art ought not be so sacrosanct.

It’s also interesting that Foumberg appropriates the term Sunday painter in the service of maligning recreational critics. I hardly think sanctioned art critics will gain sympathy from the artist-bloggers who Foumberg sees as infringing on their turf, because just as any yahoo can open a WordPress account and call themselves an art critic (myself included), so too can amateurs set up online portfolios and call themselves artists. While I also chafe at being lumped together with hobbyists — it disregards the years of education, work and sacrifice I’ve invested into my practice — I wouldn’t make the mistakes of blaming the Internet and finding fault in other people’s right to share their hobbies online.

On March 26, Bad at Sports contributor Claudine Ise posted “Hot (okay maybe only lukewarm at the moment) Topic Alert: the Crisis in Art Criticism” in response to Foumberg and more chatter on another blog post about art criticism. She helpfully points out that

…ALL writers need editors. …writing for a publication that actually employs an editor … has become a luxury that only the luckiest of us is afforded from time to time….

From their inception blogs have always been about commentary derived from a personal standpoint…. It’s not really fair to criticize art bloggers for their lack of objectivity, or for not holding to certain journalistic or critical standards.

I stand with Ise’s points here. Most bloggers aren’t purporting to be journalists or vying to usurp seasoned art critics from their dwindling numbers of staff positions.

Readers of art blogs are fairly intelligent. We’ve got critical faculties of our own. We read, dissect and disagree with opinionated blogs and critical publishing alike.

Standard
Research

Criticisms

I think what’s incredible and incredibly maddening about the art world is its openness, its idiosyncrasy, its nebulous criteria. The lines between art, non-art, craft, kitsch, high art and low art, are all blurred—yet, people like what they like and defend their tastes. So be it.

I read art reviews to learn about exhibitions, but I’m always aware of critics’ subjectivity. In fact, my favorite critics, like Holland Cotter of the New York Times and Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine, balance descriptive exposition with opinions and a discussion of praxis—helping viewers see how artists put theory into practice. The feeling I get is that they aren’t writing because they have a deadline to meet, but because they have something they want readers to know.

Some critics, though, are primarily descriptive, revealing their own position only implicitly. I thought this was the modus operandi of East Bay Express staff writer, DeWitt Cheng, so I was surprised to read a recent review:

The comedian/actor Will Rogers once dismissed communism as “one-third practice and two-thirds explanation.” One might similarly criticize a fair amount of contemporary art that is conceptual rather than visual in its orientation, thus requiring some explanation on behalf of viewers. The idea that priorities are askew is especially problematic when the verbiage seems unsupported by the artwork, or inflated.

DeWitt Cheng, “Tangible Modern Art,” East Bay Express, December 23, 2009

I think when critics articulate their positions, it’s fantastic. I’m for transparency in the art world. Having a position explains why critics review some exhibitions or venues and not others. It also suggests to readers and young artists who may not know any better (poor things!), that critics are not objective, do not speak for the art world as a whole, nor are they authorities whose opinions are exempt from questioning.

These institutional structures that we kneel and bow and defer to are not inviolate institutional structures…. They’re not entitled to exist without challenge…. So you have to put yourself in a position where you are capable of knocking them off the position they occupy, because we are not bound to defer to anything that exists. Everything is available for critique—and also displacement….

—From Kerry James Marshall lecture at SFAI (via podcast)

Furthermore, readers would be well advised to seek out multiple critics, including ones of different critical positions. In this case, critics whose interests in visual art extend beyond art with “visual orientations” could make the East Bay contemporary art print journalism more balanced. (Some places to start: Artopic, ArtPractical).

My position is well documented on this blog (the world’s most rambling critical statement?). Another way to sum up my boosterism of art that is not primarily visual in orientation might be articulated in Lee Johnson’s recent interview with Ryan Gander:

LJ: Has your artistic practice i.e. the aesthetic of your work, been effected in any way by the turbulent economy?

RG: Not really, in the beginning I worried about it, but it had no effect. I don’t think the type of collections that buy my work stop collecting, people don’t buy my work for investments, they buy it because they want to own it, share it with others, or take care of it. They are collecting and preserving art history in the making in some way. I guess it would have more effect on artists that make things that sit pretty in people’s homes. The things I make are a bit beyond that, very little of what I make looks good, the things I make are by-products of the idea, so the Collector has to fall in love with the idea, not the thing.

LJ: Your practice draws on multiple layers of fact and fiction, and you work in a variety of different media including photography, printed word, film, performance, intervention and sculpture. Is it vital for your life-force and inspiration that you mix things up in the way you do, and keep surprising people?

RG: Its the nature of art making, it is in fact the only way of making art. I don’t trust anyone who starts everyday knowing they will make ‘a photo’, or only ‘a painting’ to be an artist. Art has to precede craft otherwise it isn’t ‘art’, its ‘the arts’. I love painting, it makes me sincerely happy, but I can’t do it everyday! I am an artist and I have a job to do, and the process of painting doesn’t fit every idea and starting point (in fact very, very few – only really ones that talk about the history of painting itself). I see being a painter, or a photographer in contemporary art like masturbating a bit, just pleasing yourself, really selfishly, but sharing nothing.

“Lee Johnson talks to Ryan Gander at Frieze Art Fair 2009,” White Hot Magazine, November 2009.

Gander makes his position undeniably clear. It seems grounded in a belief shared by many conceptualists: that the art medium has to be appropriate to the idea; that to work in a visual medium because the artist is most interested in its visual orientation, without considering its appropriateness to the idea or content, is conventional and inexcusable, perhaps even willfully ignorant. I don’t include Gander’s comments to knock our dear, much-maligned painter friends and uni-disciplinarian artists, but to help explain that art of a visual orientation, too, is subject to criticism, and can fall short when you consider different criteria.

Finally, two other ideas to explore—to know one’s position as a critic might be to also recognize the limits of one’s subjectivity. I am a young writer, and writing intelligently about work I don’t like or understand is challenging. Further, to take a position as a critic is to identify the work you’d gravitate to, as well as that which would leave you unaffected. But the third kind of art—arguably, the reason we keep looking and writing—is that which surprises you, and challenges your assumptions.

Standard
Art & Development, Values

Criticism v. opinions

I really wish I was in NYC right now to see Charles Ray’s show at Matthew Marks. It sounds amazing.

I also appreciate Jerry Saltz’s write-up of Ray’s installations:

all brilliant examples of post-minimalist/conceptual sculpture, each created in the late eighties and new to New York, rattled my perceptions, jangled my faculties, and made me go “Wow!” … Ray’s sculptures, part of a long tradition of minimal installations, are also forerunners to much of the theatrical Festivalism of recent times (e.g., Maurizio Cattelan and Olafur Eliasson). Each piece is nearly invisible and formally economical. Yet each is outrageously labor-intensive….

–Jerry Saltz, “Dude, You’ve Gotta See This”, New York Magazine, June 7, 2009

Brilliant! I’m impressed with how concisely Saltz formally and historically situates the art, and conveys his viewing experience, enthusiasm and rationales.

And, I love that Saltz seems to be taking a stand. The public (including artists!) can harbor so much skepticism (if not outright antipathy) towards postmodern/minimalist/post-minimalist art, it’s nice to see a critic try to bridge the gap, and say, Yes, this is art, even if it looks like nearly nothing. And it’s hard work to make this kind of art.

He goes on to tell the viewer You have to look closely and think before you get your rewards.

All three of Ray’s pieces … are more than Merry Prankster sight gags. Each makes you ultra-aware of spaces outside the one you’re in, of rooms above and below you, the things that make these rooms and effects possible, and how your own body relates to all of this. They put you back in the realm of the unknown, of double vision and oddity.


Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for great art and arts coverage is sometimes marred by readers’ comment boards.

It takes a lot of time, work, consideration and nerve to make art and to write art criticism. So when it’s met with knee-jerk reactions from people who are convinced they could do the job better, I’m reminded of drunken ringside smack-talkers. The reality is that few people have the heart to wake up for 6am runs, much less step into the ring–not just once for their fantasy Rocky moment, but again and again, in spite of the anxiety, exhaustion, injuries and the constant availability of easier paths in life.

Likewise, in art, anyone can make an expressive gesture, but few have the nerve to dedicate themselves to a lifelong creative pursuit.

And in art criticism, any yahoo can have an opinion, but few have the patience and skill to form thoughts into well-reasoned, timely essays.

Recently, I’ve heard from artists who believed that MFA programs are scams, grad students are mindless sheep, and if they leave with anything, it’s how to regurgitate trends. Attacking participants in order to critique a system is lazy and immature. I attribute this attitude to learned helplessness and inadequate self-actualization. When you see the art world as a separate entity from yourself–rather than a group of people that includes yourself, in which you participate and shape with your words and actions–you cease to be accountable for it. You’re free to bash it, thereby legitimizing your own disappointments.

As one of my esteemed professors liked to ask,

What’s at stake?

When it comes to offering knee-jerk reactions, I’d like to see more armchair critics toe the line. You think you can make better art? Write better criticism?

Game on.

Standard
Art & Development

Dreamy utopian radicalism in art

I find the backwards-looking tendency in contemporary art to be a bit nostalgic, so I was really glad to hear a respected art critic rail against the trend of valorizing the sixties…

[Martha] Rosler’s show is simply mediocre. What is points to, however, is far worse and more widespread. Too many younger artists, critics, and curators are fetishizing the sixties, transforming the period into a deformed cult, a fantasy religion, a hip brand, and a crippling disease. A generation is caught in a Freudian death spiral and seems unable to escape the ridiculous idea that in order for art to be political it has to hark back to the talismanic hippie era—that it must create a revolution. It is sophistry to think that everything relates to Europe and America in 1968. The very paradigm of revolution, of right versus wrong, good versus bad, is a relic with no bearing on the present. Yet artists, exhibitions, and curators valorize the sixties [in a generational cycle of critical writing]…. It’s a trap set by a previous generation in order to preserve its legacy a little longer, or at least until its members relinquish their positions in academe, museums, and media. Many things happened in the sixties, but the period is no more significant, better, or more “political” than today. It’s time to turn the page.

Jerry Saltz, “Welcome to the Sixties, Yet Again,” New York Magazine, October 13, 2008.

Last year I wrote about the sixties trend, but never published it. Here are excerpts…

If art by emerging artists is any indication — recurring images include utopias, rainbows, communes, self-help books and God’s eyes — we’re entering a new New Age.

god's eye
God’s eye

Authenticity is IN. Irony is OUT. And many contemporary artists and curators are looking back at the 1960s and 1970s’ youthful idealism and radical social change.

For example, sixties- and seventies-style collectives were celebrated in Whitney Biennials past, museums all over are taking a look at Feminism, and Sixties poster art shows too. Maybe it’s nagging White guilt, or a feel-good riposte to 1990s Identity Art, or Presidential Regret (Blame my administration—not me! We ARE the world!) towards a more humble, human-scale, wishful we-can-change-the-world movement.

I like the idea of an injection of radicalism. I like cooperation and collectivity over competition and materialism. I like authenticity, not irony and distancing oneself from the world. But artists in their 20s and 30s weren’t there, and much of this recent contemporary art idealizes radicalism. Symbols of hippie communes abound, while images of war, the tumultuous end of colonialism, and the beginning of the Cold War are largely ignored. It seems like the 1960s and 1970s is standing in for an age of innocence. And I think that’s a problem. Why? The widespread politicization of hippies (read: white people) in the 1960s stemmed from two things: the groundwork laid by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s (read: people of color–who took real risks: Where to send the kids to school? Go to work or stare down the fire hoses today? and made real, permanent change in groundbreaking Federal-level legislation–and white allies), as well as a real cost to the middle class (read: the draft).

The 1960s and 1970s wasn’t an age of innocence. It was a time of radical social and cultural change, yes, but it wasn’t the idealized, nostalgic era that many artists seem so enamored of.

Standard