Catholic No. 1: Catsa charming volume put out by Evil Twin Publications and D.A.P. (“with assistance from: VICE”) that celebrates feline grace, beauty, and naughtinessarrives in the mail. “This is actually Catholic v1.5,” editors Jesse Pearson and Glynnis McDaris explain. “This sounds nerdy but it’s true. The first Catholic was published in an edition of 1,000 handmade zines to accompany a group show we curated in November, 2003, at Guild and Greyshkul in New York.” The book contains contributions from over 100 artists and writers, including Roe Etheridge, Richard Kern, Steve and Mary Lafreniere, Matt Keegan, Ryan McGinley, the late Colin De Land, Kembra Pfahler, Terry Richardson, Dash Snow, Jim Drain, Bruce Nauman, Gelatin, and, on the high-end of the blue-chip scale, Balthus (who is represented by King of Cats, 1935). Kelly Kuvo’s “R.I.P. Jabberjaw,” illustrated with kitty-mortuary photos by Adam Dugas, is morbidly droll: “Until a few weeks ago, I wasn’t a ‘bleeding heart’ Libra like my mom. I tried like HELL to be a selfish hard-ass.” But the passing of newborn kitten Jabberjaw during the 2003 New York blackout changed all that. “A couple of weeks passed before I could muster the energy to give lil’ Jabbers a proper funeral ceremony and burial”this I found really creepy, especially coupled with Dugas’s picture of the kitten encased in a Zip-Loc bag“But I did… All remaining eight cat lives were symbolically buried with him.” (A few days later, I run into Kuvo, who informs me that last Halloween she disinterred Jabberjaw’s remains and made art out of them.) Gabriel Orozco’s Cat in the Jungle, 1992, which graced the cover of the April 1996 Artforum, gets a double-page spread, deservedly. Of course, any compilation of this kind is bound to inspire cat-and-art fanciers to complain about omissions. Where was Karen Kilimnik, Vincent Fecteau’s early kitty collages, Nobuyoshi Araki, Warhol? And what about Rhonda Lieberman’s forthcoming Cats-in-Residence program, for which more than two dozen artists will design an “inter-species hangout area” to facilitate stray cat adoption? But this is small beer. On the facing page beside a photo by Kate Lacy of a soulful (and fancy) Ocicat, there’s a guide to proper nutrition, “HEALTHY CATS NOW! Stop Settling for Ralston-Purina,” with a section on “Herbs for FelinesA Beginner’s Guide.” Caraway seed tea is recommended as a digestive aid and “is used as a remedy for flatulence. (Cat farts are the worst.)”
Behind the pale gray facade of a newly built faux-Neutra home at 1482 Inverness Drive in Pasadena, a disc of shimmery transparent plasticone can’t help thinking a giant LifeSaversways ever so slightly on a string. The disc shatters a blinding beam of narrowly focused light, scattering it into multiple eclipses and self-devouring ovals. Elsewhere, a cylinder of what looks like smoky, nicotine-laden glassdichroic, one expert labeled itcreates modulated, rainbowy effects. A giant ball rotates over a very functional-looking kitchen, casting pentacles on the walls. And then the centerpiece: a long, narrow, eavelike beam of glass, jammed into one of the house’s strenuously nondescript walls, forms a gleaming porthole onto Los Angeles and cleaves that keyhole portrait in twain, presenting us with the confounding ecstasy of the City and Its Double.
This is “Place To Be Lived In (Today I Am Feeling Prismatic),” the brainchild not only of Olafur Eliasson but also of gallerist and impresario Emi Fontana, who organized the Pasadena project as part of “West of Rome,” a growing global constellation of site-specific installations. The glamourous Fontana greeted me outside the Inverness house on the show’s opening night with such extraordinary fervor I felt I had collided with some gaily laughing aristocrat from an early-sixties Antonioni picture. It was Fontana’s idea to bring together Eliasson’s Wagnerian giganticism, famously displayed in his two-fisted conquest of Tate Modern, and the sleepy, blandly handsome landscape of woodsy Pasadenaa geography familiar to fans of James M. Cain’s toxic brand of exurban unease. “I like that it makes you feel you are underground,” Fontana said, grinning devilishly. “There is a certain confusion once you are inside . . . that allows you to enter the work more deeply.”
“Place to Be Lived In’s” first-nighters were a motley, happily confused-looking crew of academics, ink-stained journalists, and the odd strand-of-pearls-tugging representative of the purchasing class. In what must have been an attempt to keep the festivities low-key, the celebratory hoopla was limited to two metal coolers of bottled water in the house’s sexily überfunctional garage. The faces around me carried the hurt look of underpaid teaching assistants who had expected the Grey Goose to be flowing like water.
The newly anointed Eliasson, now synonymous with the rhapsodic management of elephantine venues, had a pleasingly modest, shambling, studentlike manner as I peeled him away from the assembled visitors to pepper him with questions. “I wanted a different engagement in domestic space,” he said, “moving from a more institutionalized way of seeing . . . into the domestic sphere. I want you to be in a place that you know is a home, and I want for you to question how much time is appropriate to spend there, to spend on each individual work. This space is small, dark, private. . . . I wanted it to be outside the megalomaniacal project of my recent work.”
“What does this all have to do with Los Angeles?” I asked him. “I wanted to block off the view, to go to a place where people really live instead of the stereotypical Hollywood vista that is ‘Los Angeles . . . I wanted to leave a little gap, like the peephole, for people to look at downtown. That voyeuristic approach makes for a stronger link to the tissue of the city.” Leaving the show, the photographer Emily Kang pointed out that the strongest link to “the tissue of the city” was the series of shuttle buses that schlepped a passel of bewildered patrons from the Rose Bowl parking lot (!) up a series of winding switchbacks to the warehouselike home. “Somebody should do a piece,” Kang gasped, “about the contrast between those poshy echt-modern off-the-shelf walls, and the guy driving the bus with the Nelly ringtone on his cell phone!”
As the Nelly-blaring shuttle bus returned us to base camp, Ms. Kang fumed that the drivers transporting art lovers, Sisyphus-style, up and down the hill, would never even get to see the inside of 1482 Inverness Drive! “I think they’d rather have the fifteen bucks an hour than look at the spinning discs,” I told her. And just like that, the fake-nineteenth-century streetlamps of Pasadena popped on, giving us a silent object lesson in the relationship of Lyrical Light to the Unsmiling City.
Left: Performance view of “Somebody's Coming to See Me Tonight.” (Photo: Stephanie Berger) Right: Mario Batali and Mark Morris. (Photo Alan Kline)
Although it’s been a few years since I last saw Mark Morris, I felt reasonably sure what to expect from the opening night of his five-day engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Morris’s rich choreography, astonishing musical sensitivity, ever-expanding vocabulary of sexual entendres, roving eye for other cultures, and performative bravado have all remained constant since the very beginning of his careereven if the fizziness of his work seems to have flattened somewhat. It’s hard to say if this mellowing-out is due to the fact that Morris has (a) won his very own private culture war to return music to its place as the foundation of dance or (b) ensconced himself in his very own five-story MMDG edifice, along with an orchestra and administrative staff, effectively re-creating the state-subsidized environment he enjoyed during his stint as resident choreographer at Brussels’ Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in the mid-80s.
However, speaking from personal experience, I can say that the older you get, the harder it is to be a provocateur, especially when the world loves you as much as it does Morris. And by the world I don’t just mean le tout New York: Morris’s admirers these days include Altria and Targetunderwriters of the evening’s after-performance galaas well as the expected members of the BAM community, of which Morris is now an integral part, and luminaries like Annie Liebovitz, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Isaac Mizrahi, and Mario Batali (all of whom were milling around this night). It’s one thing for a rebel to have fans, quite another to be a pillar of society, a burgher, who must (in return for the loans and support that led to his paradisical eight-million-dollar dance center-cum-neighborhood playroom) serve the community.
Not that Morris doesn’t try anymore. Take the opener, “From Old Seville,” a fab flamenco duet for Morris and Lauren Grant, with Morris leering all the while at a Rioja-slinging bartender (John Heginbotham). This quick, castinet-clanging mènage a trois (originally choreographed in 2001) is a classic Morris bonbon: Seven minutes of clever choreography, total (but not slavish) fidelity to the music, charisma verging on showboating, and the fierce undertowsexual, emotionalthat’s always lurking in his work.
But the astonishing “Somebody’s Coming To See Me Tonight,” which premiered in 1995, was what I really wanted to see: one of the rare dances that can still send me into orbit. Set to nine Stephen Foster songs often identified with the antebellum South (e.g., “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Come Where My Love Lies Sleeping”) but actually intended by Foster as subtle antislavery propaganda, this unhurried work brilliantly shows how Morris can work in any genre and come up with truly musical dances. Morris’s technical mastery of music is truly second to none (okay, second to Balanchine, but who’s counting?).
But then comes “Silhouettes,” a 1993 duet (here performed by Lauren Grant and Julie Worden) that feels like a warmed-over college performance of ersatz moden dance. “Rock of Ages,” the only new piece on the program, was another disappointment: For me, at least, the piece never got beyond a pretty picture of the music (Schubert’s Adagio in E flat). It’s my guess that for a certain sector of the dance world (namely, tight-assed critics), stuff like this is the second coming of Mr. B. But that’s not what I want from Morris.
Left: MMDG dancer Marjorie Folkman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Isaac Mizrahi and Lisa Reinhart. Right: MMDG building. (Photos: Alan Kline)
What I want is more like the next number, a challenging older work called “Rhymes with Silver.” First performed in 1997 with a commissioned Lou Harrison score and a blowup scrim of vivid Christmas green and red Howard Hodgkin brushstrokes, the piece is a truly subversive dance opera, with the choreography encompassing everything from Laura Dean spinning to kooky kabuki, Martha Graham and Greek line-dancing, and a dionysiac Morris stand-in. This, fittingly, was the finale. And when it was over, Morris, dressed in a gorgeous cream shalwar kameez, took his bows, radiant and happy.
He has every right to be. As we ran across the street to his sleek building (and I mean ran: Word that Batali had catered the gala was on everyone’s lips and it was going on 11 PM) it somehow felt OK that Morris has been promoted from revolutionary to establishment icon. Upstairs in the sleek studio (said to be the largest uncolumned dance space in New York), the Dred Scott Trio played on a round stage in the middle of the room and the chatter was all about Batali’s roast pig. Joe Melillo, BAM’s executive director, and his former boss, Harvey Lichtenstein (BAM’s emeritus CEO and Morris’s most vocal advocate), beamed as if in heaven.
Still, I felt a little deflated. I don’t know why it bothers me that Morris no longer gets standing O’s for being dance’s bad boy. It’s not such a bad thing to be the guy who bridges the gap between Balanchine and the drama queens who love Morris’s opera buffa. At least Morris hasn’t started to take himself too seriouslyunlike Mizrahi, who was holding court with dance critic Celia Ipiotis and Graham imitator Richard Move at a corner table. When I asked Mizrahi how he liked the showwasn’t it a bit trop longue, I wonderedhe glowered. (“I loved it.”) Maybe he just didn’t want anyone to get between him and the pasta. After all, if you’re going to heaven, you might as well do it eating Batali’s gnudi.
Left: Nancy Spero. Middle: Still from Leon Golub: To the Dogs. Right: Charlie Ahearn and Jane Dickson.
Something unexpected happened in the closing minutes of the memorial for Leon Golub in the Great Hall at Cooper Union last Sunday: Robert Storr, speaking rapidly and with increasing urgency, turned a pointedly secular tribute into an almost evangelical call for art-world solidarity with Golub's viscerally political vision, rousing the standing-room-only gathering to thunderous, cheering applause.
Golub died last August, at eighty-two. Like his wife of fifty-three years, Nancy Spero, he stuck to his Old Leftie guns throughout his life, expressing his rage against one state machine after another in paintings that privileged ethics over aesthetics but made powerful visual statements as well.
“It was sometimes frustrating living with such a brilliant guy,” the birdlike Spero said, to appreciative laughter led by her sons Stephen, Philip and Paul Golub. There had been some uncertainty as to whether Spero would appear, as she has been quite frail, but her voice never wavered and she cracked wise as ever. “Leon said he would make a pact with the devil if it meant he could come back and see how the world had changed,” she continued, with a slight turn of the head and a smile wry enough to indicate that it couldn't possibly, not without him.
Hans Haacke was quick to note, at Spero‘s request, that there was a benefit auction for Steve Kurtz then taking place across town at Paula Cooper. Kurtz is the Critical Art Ensemble member whom the FBI charged with bioterrorism last year, confiscating work that was to go on view at Mass MoCA. When that charge didn’t stick, the government indicted him for mail and wire fraud. “Leon would rather have been at the benefit today,” Haacke said, and encouraged others to attend later on.
Left: Kiki Smith. Middle: Ronald Feldman (left), Nancy Spero (middle) and Lesley Dill (right). Right: Hans-Ulrich Obrist.
As Golub told filmmaker Charlie Ahearn, in a powerfully affecting video made just two years ago and excerpted at the memorial, it was seeing Picasso‘s Guernica when he was fifteen that set Golub on the path he would follow in a career that had more downs than ups. Kiki Smith said that Golub really seemed to come into his own in the 1980s, when her own generation, which she characterized as having a romantic relationship to death, discovered and responded to what she called “the reality of his violence.” Seeing Golub’s art, she went on, changed her own into something more subjective. “He doesn't absolve us from complicity in wars we do not like,” she said of his painting, and you could almost hear the “Amens” around the room.
The erotic watercolors in his 2004 show at Ronald Feldman notwithstanding, Golub‘s angry, violent, monumentally scaled pictures of unbearable tortures and war crimes, painted on unstretched canvases that the artist had abraded and torn with a meat cleaver, confronted human cruelty in ways that were sometimes cruel themselves. More than one speaker made reference to the eerie parallels between Golub’s “Interrogation” paintings of the 1980s and the sickening photographs that came out of Abu Ghraib last spring. Yet what emerged from the recollections of curators Jon Bird and Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Irish Museum of Modern Art director Declan McGonagle was Golub's unfailing sense of humorparticularly when it came to his own mortality.
As McGonagle put it, “One thing I learned from Leon is not to go quietly.” Like Barnett Newman, another outspoken letter-writer who called things as he saw them without regard to the consequences for his career, Golub was quick to do the right thing even if it meant defending Tilted Arc by Richard Serra, an artist with whom he otherwise had little sympathy. “There is a tendency not to acknowledge him as a major figure,” Storr said of Golub, telling the crowd to “advocate for Leon” and inciting all within earshot to do as Golub had done: Keep on making art, no matter what, no matter what.
Left: Philippe Vergne and Sylvia Chivaratanond. Middle: View of the Walker Art Center. Right: Richard Flood (left), Matthew Barney (middle), and Jacques Herzog (right). (Photos courtesy Walker Art Center.)
After stopping in New York, Boston, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, we arrive in Minneapolis. I'm traveling with curators Gunnar Kvaran and Hans-Ulrich Obrist to map “The Uncertain States of America,” a project that will result in a
show of emerging American artists in Oslo in the fall. We’ve collected dossiers from almost a thousand prospective contributors and have glimpsed an artistic landscape that we really hadn’t known anything about. Armed with lists of recommendations from friends across the nation, we continue our exploration in the galleries, studios, cafés and hotel lobbies of Minneapolis. We meet the energetic John Rasmussen, director of Midway Contemporary Art, a huge space currently showing a big group exhibition called “Post Notes”lots of young artists, known and unknown, all working with the titular office supply. Arriving at the Walker Art Center just in time for the Saturday preview of their newly expanded building is like coming back to firm ground. This is American art as we know it.
The building’s new Herzog & de Meuron-designed wing—which includes three galleries, a theater, lounges, a “party room” and a Wolfgang Puck restaurantis spectacular, as I knew it would be. Our taxi driver, who had never heard of the Walker, had also absurdly not noticed that this shiny Swiss space ship of a building had just landed. In the lobby, director Kathy Halbreich and curators Richard Flood, Douglas Fogle and Philippe Vergne greet us in the typically gracious Walker way. They are all, understandably, in a good mood. Philippe, equipped with a walking stick, looks particularly glamorous. (He claims he broke his leg, but we all think he just really likes that stick.)
Should museum architecture try to be visual art in and of itself, or should it try to be as neutral a backdrop as possible? Normally I would opt for the latter, but as we make our way through the building I find myself liking Herzog & de Meuron’s auteurist flourishes: the cut-out filigree on the entryways and doors, which is reiterated in the decorations of the almost rococo theater, and even the crystal chandeliers that I at first thought were artworks. I’m not sure whether I’ll feel the same way in twenty years if they’re still hanging therebut there’s no danger that I’ll get sick of the art itself. Why is it that the best and most relevant collection of recent American art is here in Minneapolis, and not in New York where the money and the critical intelligence are concentrated? According to Fogle, who leads our tour, the trick is to collect in depth. Of course, you then have to pick the right artists to concentrate on, and the Walker obviously has. We spend lots of time in the four galleries devoted to Matthew Barney, Sherrie Levine, Kara Walker, and Robert Goberthe last, with early work that seems to contain embryonic elements of everything Gober has done in the last twenty years, being particularly fabulous.
Outside the Gober space I bump into Johann König, the young dealer from Berlin who I first met here in Minneapolis many years ago, when he was a teenager touring the US with his father, Kasper. Back then, he smoked so much that he drove everyone crazy. Now, he says, he has quit, in deference to American attitudes. (His father hasn't.) I also see Venice Biennale director Maria de Corral, but other than that there aren’t many Europeans on hand. It does seem that almost all of New York has made it to Minneapolis, along with much of LAI spy Tom Crow from the Getty, whose presence must have raised the average IQ a few pointsand most certainly all the people in charge of the various galleries through which the works in the collection passed before ending up at the Walker. The comments I overheard indicated I wasn’t the only one impressed to find a critical mass of important, well-presented work in an ostensibly “out-of-the-way” location. The Walker must have a generous acquisition budget, but its great collection also undoubtedly owes something to the charm of the place and the people who run it. On my way out, the tired but beaming director sends me off with a bear hug. Would that ever happen at MoMA?
Left: Aline and Robert Crumb. Middle: One of the Crumb and McCartney T-shirts. (Photos: Patrick McMullan/PMc) Right: The cover of The R. Crumb Handbook.
“You want me to cover a T-shirt launch?” I said incredulously to my editor. Indeed. So I hauled my art-critic carcass over to the Stella McCartney boutique on far West Fourteenth Street to attend a party celebrating underground-comics legend R. Crumb’s collaboration with the designer: His-and-hers T-shirts adorned with pictures that express his befuddlement over the passions ignited by high fashion. McCartney has been a fan for some time and has already hosted a glam party in London for the scrawny, bespectacled poet of lovely buxom ladies with meaty thighs and big butts. My friend Hanna Liden accompanied me, for moral support. The crowd inside wasn’t too dense, though it was difficult for me to parse exactly what sort of crowd it was. Hanna had no trouble identifying them: “Retail, events planners, miscellaneous rich people who just like to attend store parties. I wish I could name some celebrities here”—but apparently there weren’t any. Crumb alone stood out, looking rather different from the character so familiar from Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary: More nattily attired, richer, and with more facial hair. His drawings nowadays often grace the walls of fancy galleries. And The R. Crumb Handbook has just been released by MQ Publications. The cover illustration is a self-portrait of the anxious-looking artist exclaiming, “I’m not here to be polite!”
McCartney’s shop was given only a rudimentary “Crumb” dress-up for the evening, e.g., one table inviting guests to “Enter the Crumb raffle and win a tee shirt signed ‘Robert and Stella’!” and another tendering the enticement “Hey buy me, I’m a Crumb collectible item!” But Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, an eleven-piece bandCrumb’s favorite, I was toldperformed, providing some much needed zest or at least contextual weirdness. The T-shirt itself had been sequestered in an obscure corner of McCartney’s store and made a poor impression. It looked like a Fruit of the Loom, with a Crumb comic strip that reminded me of an iron-on emblazoned on the back.
Dissembling, I introduced myself to Crumb as the editor of Artforum. “It was such a huge honor for me to oversee your cover for the magazine a few years back,” I said, beaming crazily. “I know you’re very involved with the iconography of the well-endowed female bosom, albeit always of the natural variety. Do you have any thoughts about the spectacular rise in enthusiasm for the silicone type, a concern for those of us in the art world, and of course the world at large?”
“I’m not into fake at all. Just reality. But you know, I’m not really that into breasts. They’re okay, but I’m much more a legs-and-ass guy.” He gestured toward the backside of an attractive woman in tight purple slacks. An apposite expression for her derriere would have been, to use the vernacular, shelf.
“Surprisingly, the female form hasn’t been treated in Western art nearly as much as you would expect,” Crumb said. “So much of it’s religious, so you know they had to cover up the women mostly. Brueghel really tried, but there was only so much he could do.” Brueghel? Was he thinking Cranach and just suffered a momentary mental glitch? “And then many of these artists were homosexuals, Michelangelo, et cetera. I suppose Dürer was probably straight. Gays are so powerful in the art world.”
“Don’t I know it,” I assented disingenuously. “But we marginalized groups need our own special industries to control, you know, like Jews and banks.” Crumb nodded.
“In more contemporary art, there’s stronger female imagery,” the artist continued. “Like Reginald Marsh.”
“Really, Reginald Marsh? I’ll have to give him a second look. What about Renoir?”
“Oh yeah, he’s good.”
At this point Crumb’s wife, Aline, interrupted our conversation. “Excuse me, but I need him for a photo op.”
VB55, at Berlin‘s Neue Nationalgalerie, was Vanessa Beecroft’s biggest work to date: One hundred women, aged eighteen to sixty-fivecoached by a psychologist, fed vegetarian snacks, and wearing nothing more than skin-toned pantyhose and a sheer coat of almond oilstanding around in Mies van der Rohe‘s spectacular glass box. Instead of her usual bevy of models, Beecroft cast ordinary-looking locals with red, blonde and black hairthe colors of the German flag and of her grandparents’ and parents‘ hair. For at least one journalist at the press conference, Beecroft’s combination of national and personal histories seemed to recall the Nazis‘ fusion of “blood and earth.” The artist denied any connection between her rules for the “girls” (“Do not speak,” “Do not laugh,” etc.) and the collective sadomasochism of fascism. “I’m from Italy!” she exclaimed, her eyes dilating several millimeters. “The Renaissance, the model, the nude . . .” The reporter was hardly convinced. “What about Italian fascism?” he asked. Ouch! Beecroft attributed any such overtones to her unconscious. Even if she counts Helmut Newton among her many muses, she seemed to replace his wicked humor with innocence, whether pure or calculated. Yet it’s humor that levels any fascistic references and distinguishes the “Big Nudes” of a Helmut Newton from the totalitarian beauties of a Leni Riefenstahl.
The dress, or undress, rehearsal later that eveninga formal, invitation-only affair for sponsors from the Friends of the Nationalgalerie and the academic association Wissenskünstewas also haunted by visions of history. Jeffrey Deitch, moving through the sparse crowd of tuxedos and gowns mingling around the nudes, recounted tales from the long career of VB: “Once we had to buy a woman out of her modeling contract and fly her in on business class!” Others in the Beecroft entouragelabeled like artworks with VB55 stickerswere impressed by the total obedience of the German women, in contrast to the Americans, Brazilians, and Italians Beecroft had previously employed. “These Berliners really excel at executing Vanessa‘s rules,” noted one cameraman as he zoomed in on the contrast between bare skin and black tie. Yet for some in this select crowd of wealthyand olderGermans, the well-behaved rows of near-naked women recalled images recirculated on the recent sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “It’s just too close to history,” whispered one guest over his champagne glass. “And I don’t mean Déjeuner sur l‘herbe.” Benefactor Erich Marx, who houses his collection at Hamburger Bahnhof, looked equally uncomfortable. “The women are not at all aesthetic,” he said, shifting in his tux. “It’s not what I expected, and it's unsettling.”
Unsettling or not, one hundred nude women standing around doing nothing could not help but draw a crowd. The next evening‘s sold-out public performance reproduced the long queues that were a familiar sight when the MoMA collection sojourned at the museum last year. In contrast to the relatively small group of rehearsal guests, this unruly throng dwarfed the performance. Standing in lineand getting crushedwas none other than Giorgio Agamben, a fresh addition to Berlin’s Wissenschaftskolleg. When we finally pressed our noses against Mies‘s grand vitrine, Agamben could hardly hide his disappointment: “Pantyhose. . . ma no!” Speaking of the “vita nuda,” the Italian philosopher asked me a question that has preoccupied him for decades. “How do you imagine people in the perfect world: dressed or naked?” After much deliberation and many glances at VB55, I had to admit that there was no big difference between the two options. Nakedness is just another outfit. “For theologians, there was no nudity in paradise,” he explained. “Adam and Eve discovered their nudity only after the Fall, when they covered their genitals with fig leaves.” Fig leaves, pantyhose . . . What about that ad for Guccione of Beecroft’s old sponsorsin which a prostrate boy peeks into a woman‘s panties, only to discover that her pubic hair has been shaved into the shape of Gucci’s iconic G? Whatever our fidelitiesto God or to the nation, to art or to the brandour bodies have little left to expose, beyond their deterioration as the worn tools of power.
How to regain your writer’s pride as you’re being shunted to the back of a two-block line outside the New York Public Library? Simple. Pass by a similarly shunted rock star (David Byrne), a longtime Rolling Stone editor (David Fricke), and a downtown DJ/theorist manqué (DJ Spooky) on the way. This spottily luminescent throng was assembled to hear Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and Stanford law professor and intellectual property activist Lawrence Lessig discuss copyrights, copywrongs, and their effects on contemporary creativity. Moderated by Wired contributing editor and digital culture writer Steven Johnson, the billwith its attendant sell-out crowdwas a far cry from the library’s hairnet-set events I knew as a child.
Finding my seat amid the indie-rock fans, New Yorker festival regulars, and former Talking Heads, I was soon listening to Paul Holdengräber, the recently hired mastermind of the NYPL’s shock-of-the-new approach to public events, who took the stage to welcome the audience and elaborate on his mandate to “oxygenate” the library, to make “the lions roar” and “this heavy institution dance.” His bookings, under the rubric “Live from the NYPL,” are indeed impressive, but I couldn’t help thinking that our host’s exuberant metaphor mash-up was leaching spare oxygen out of the room.
Following Holdengräber, self-described “pear-shaped nerd” Lessig delivered a PowerPoint presentation about copyright and creativity. The man whom moderator Johnson calls “the Elvis of copyright law” and who inspired a cameo character on “The West Wing” has, over the course of several books, laid out the most compelling argument for freeing culture from draconian, ever-extending copyright privileges that squelch individual creativity while filling corporate coffers. Lessig’s brief, well-rehearsed distillation of his work wouldn’t have flown over the heads of a class of sixth gradersa populist approach that was admirable but a bit disappointing. Outside of a few basic graphics and two amusing video cut-ups of Bush and Blair, Lessig’s PowerPoint arsenal was limited to projecting keywords from his talk in a funky, distressed font. His main point was that the three Ls dominating the copyright debateLawyers, Lobbyists, and, er, Lessigsshould shut up and start listening to the artists who are hamstrung by the laws in their work.
Cue Tweedy, emblematic artist of the low-key, loose-copyright variety, who has put his music (and money) where his mouth is by allowing fans to tape his live shows and offering his studio recordings (including the entirety of 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) on the Internet gratis. He’s also living proof that Napster-style peer-to-peer music sharing does not hurt record sales (YHF far outsold Wilco’s previous efforts). The unassuming, dressed-down Tweedy received a big cheer from the audience as he took his seat for the trialogue with Lessig and Johnson, even if there was palpable regret that he wouldn’t be sharing any songs with us.
A minor technical glitchTweedy’s mic volume was lower and more distant than that of his interlocutorsmirrored the balance of the ensuing discussion. Tweedy was laconic, if sweet, humbly explaining the YHF episode, his legal settlement with the owners of the cult found-sound collection The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations, from which he sampled the broadcasts that gave the album its title, and his view that current copyright laws incorrectly presume that music is created in a vacuum, free from influence or borrowing. He displayed a bit more zing when he noted that the musicians who complain about file-sharing tend to be super-rich stars “who should never be paid again.” “Music makes connections,” he said. “To draw boundaries within it is fascism.”
Lessig, on the other hand, reminded me of John Turturro’s Barton Fink, constantly interrupting John Goodman’s working-stiff anecdotes to pontificate on his own campaign to create theater for and about “the common man.” As an editor friend pointed out, for someone who insists that we stop listening to lawyers on copyright issues, Lessig sure had a lot to say. To be fair, I agreed with most of his points, but the imbalanced conversation suggests that the evening’s format should be remixed. Next time, Lessig should team up with an artist whose volubility matches his own. Busta Rhymes, say.
Left: Robert Wilson, Yoko Ono, and Takashi Murakami. (Photo: Patrick McMullan/PMc) Middle: The Japan Society facade. Right: Alexandra Munroe and Robert Rosenkranz. (Photo: Patrick McMullan/PMc)
It fascinates this Jew to see another culture still trying to digest WWII. Brilliantly curated by Takashi Murakami, “Little Boy” is a hi-lo survey of “otaku” (pop-culture fanaticism) and its relationship to the Japanese avant-garde.” Artist/otaku impresario/Vuitton handbag doodler Murakami chose “Little Boy”the code name for the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshimato locate “these new cultural forms in the trauma and generational aftershock” of the postwar period. It’s a Japanese “loser art” meets Pop meets Shoah moment. Indeed, there is more to Hello Kitty than I thought.
“We’ve only seen the pop stuff,” said Jeffrey Deitchhimself quite the impresario and Japan mavenas we wandered among the cartoony violence and pubescently sexualized space-age mutants: “This is serious,” he nodded appreciatively, “though only time will tell which work holds up as art.” Aficionados congratulated him for the whopper piece he loaned: Noburu Tsubaki’s Fresh Gasoline, 1989, a bulbous acid green texturized boulder with tree branches shooting out. The first quote to ship the thing from Deitch’s San Diego warehouse was thirty-six thousand dollars. It is large. And apparently holds up as Art.
Project Directors Tom Eccles of the Public Art Fund and Alexandra Munroe of the Japan Society realized Murakami’s instructive intro to trauma-based Pop 101. At the opening cocktail party, I tagged along with the exultant Monroe as she lead a small pack of VIPs, including director (and Japan Society honoree) Robert Wilson, on a personal tour of the various vintage and neo-Pop artifacts. Slim, vivacious, and patrician in black-chiffon layers, Monroe evoked a younger Auntie Mame enthusiastically explaining “the underlying hysteria of postwar trauma” and “kids coming of age in the `60s infantilized and stuck in the fantasy world of thirteen-year-olds.” An avid fan of Japanese fan culture, she traded air kisses with well-heeled well wishers without missing a beat in her eloquent, ongoing, infectiously giddy commentary. The energy jolt was almost alarming when she fixed her gaze on me and turned me on to a wall display of illustrated army-toy packaging from which postwar Japanese kids learned their WWII history.
Near a comprehensive line up of various Godzilla action figures, underneath a wall text of the Renunciation of War article added to the Japanese Constitution in 1947, an older gentleman was grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary. A younger, blonde, gal-Friday type“I’m not his wife”introduced him as a major Murakami collector: “Not the biggestthe best,” he couldn’t resist divulging, like a proud Little Boy. He owned three of the big ones photographed recently for the Times. I nodded appreciatively. When they heard I was a writer, they scurried away.
At the dinner at the United Nations afterward, Wilson, Murakami, and Yoko Ono were honored for their respective oeuvres. Ono sported a jaunty white Britney-esque newsboy cap. From the podium, the ever-ebullient Alexandra officially anointed this very important presentation of “otaku” culture to New York. “Otaku” can be loosely translated as “geek” or “pop-culture fan”: “You know, stay-at-home,” two Japan Society ladies at my table glossed for me, “when you don’t want to leave the house!” They were amused to see such banality celebrated in such a high-powered setting. In the elegant dining room with the city’s swankest skyline twinkling outside, each time a socialite at the podium raved about “otaku” this or “otaku” that, the ladies looked my way and giggled. For them, this must have been the cultural equivalent of a Japanese socialite raving about a lavishly funded, groundbreaking American “couch-potato” culture show in Tokyo. Imagine.
Left: The crowd at Tate Modern. Right: Panelists Hal Foster, Mark Godfrey, Benjamin H.D. Buchloch, and Briony Fer.
The lurid green cover of Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism has been haunting art historians since the end of last week. A formidable new textbook, with over a hundred short essays that add up to nothing less than a “comprehensive history of the art of the twentieth century” (as publishers Thames & Hudson put it), is set to strain our bookshelves. The four October heaviesRosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, and Yve-Alain Boisarrived in Britain to promote their tome, first at the Association of Art Historians’ annual shindig in Bristol and then in a panel discussion at Tate Modern. In between the two launches, the publishers threw a plush dinner for the authors and Britain’s intelligentsia at the Orrery, Sir Terence Conran’s chi-chi joint in Marylebone.
The Tate event was strictly demarcated into pre- and post-1945 sessions, mirroring the structure of the book. The first featured a subdued Krauss and an ebullient Bois, joined by former Krauss student Mignon Nixon (Courtauld Institute) and chaired by Adrian Rifkin (Middlesex University). Rifkin began with a rococo meditation on the book’s intriguing anachronisms (e.g., Fried’s 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood” appearing under the year entry for 1945) and then segued into an audience-pleasing protest against the authors’ inclusion of Sam Taylor-Wood. Krauss seemed nonplussed by Rifkin’s comments and responded tersely. Bois was more forthcoming, happily waxing about the book’s “kaleidoscopic grid” structure. When asked if they’d had to do much research, Krauss replied (totally straight): “I didn’t learn anything from writing this book. . . . Yve-Alain did.” Ever chipper, Bois confessed that he had dreaded research that fell outside his usual purview (particularly the bits about Trotsky and the Partisan Review) but wound up rather enjoying it.
This was all moderately interesting, but way too promotional: A metadiscussion that hovered around the book instead of elucidating its implications for art history. The spectators (starstruck students, the Frieze office, Antony Gormley, me) failed to ask lively questionsuntil one audience member pointedly read out the advertised copy for the talk, which promised a discussion of the fate of modernism and modern art history. A round of applause followed. Krauss bit back by declaring that she wasn’t saying farewell to modernism just yet, and Bois admitted he didn’t believe in postmodernism. The fireworks finally arrived when someone from the Open University asked if the book was meant as a riposte to the OU’s own textbooks on twentieth-century art. Krauss tried to unravel their different understandings of modernism and theory and the implications of each for pedagogy but concluded: “Those OU books are inept and confusing, voilà!” The session finished up with an assessment of how important it is that the fab four are also critics. Krauss: “My conviction that Richard Serra is the greatest living artist affects my art history.” Bois gave an ironic thumbs-up to the audiencevoilà indeed.
Session two featured Hal Foster and Benjamin “Heavy Duty” Buchloh, who were joined by curator Frances Morris (Tate), art historian Briony Fer (University College London), and moderator Mark Godfrey (Slade School of Fine Art). Godfrey asked ifin the light of contemporary art’s multidisciplinary inclinationsthe book signaled the impending obsolescence of the type of art history it represented. Buchlohwonderfully full of Frankfurt School gloomallowed that the book is indeed a desperate shoring-up of art history against a “postcapitalist, protofascist society.” Fosteralways keen to find historical continuitiesargued that this problem wasn’t any worse than the issues early twentieth-century artists and historians were forced to confront when faced with new technologies.
Godfrey also observed that the reach of contemporary art was now geographically far wider than the scope of the book. A lame discussion of biennials followed, hampered by the fact that none of the participants seemed to have traveled beyond Documenta and Venice, and then things really began to run out of steam. Buchloh pronounced: “I feel the fatigue of the panel, and the fatigue of the book at the end was similar.”
After five hours of discussion, we all felt that way. But the significance of Art Since 1900 can’t be underestimated: Psychoanalysis and poststructuralism are now inescapable methodologies that must be taken on board by mainstream art history. The book embodies how most of us see art, at least up to 1980. (After this date the selections are more partial and ignore key figures too maverick or sexy for October’s taste: Goldin, Kabakov, Kawara, Eliasson.) The book also signals the making official of oppositional art historyhinted by the “landmark” status announced on the back cover in a tombstone font. There’s always something a bit melancholic about such a moment; maybe that’s why I’m looking forward to the backlash.
All told, Cambridge’s summit on evil last Sunday turned out to be good. Budding gnostic and MIT graduate student Ross Cisneros, one of six candidates in the institute’s visual-art program, had convened “Regarding Evil,” bringing together a “wise clergy” (in his words) that included natty artists Ronald Jones and Julian Laverdiere; bespectacled political scientist Jodi Dean; black-clad, snuff-taking, muscle-bound musician, Church of Satan associate, and Charles Manson friend Boyd Rice; and the presence of Manson himself (in the form of two incoherent missives written from prison). Matthew Barney and Arto Lindsay’s new film on the Brazilian Carnival, De Lama Lamina, 2005, received a special screening at the seven-hour event. Pale undergraduates, hipsters, people who wanted to learn about Abraxas, a surprising number of art addicts from New York, and faculty members (sitting with arms crossed in the back) made up the near-capacity crowd.
Introduced by Cisneros as an experimenter with some of “the world’s most questionable egos,” Laverdiere presented almost his entire body of work, including The First Attempted Manned Space Flight (the Vindication of Werner Von Braun), a work that involved research into the US government’s rehab of the Third Reich-trained father of the American space program. This project also revealed that a ten-year-old New Jersey boy pictured shaking hands with von Braun under the header “Young American meets his hero” was none other than Jeffrey Deitch. Next, with his back turned to the audience, Rice shouted Aleister Crowley’s incantation to the devil into a microphone over a rhythmic roar of maw-of-hell, beyond-industrial music and returned trembling to his seat. Though more or less awkward and simulated, it nonetheless came across as a manifestation of the thing itself about which everyone else was merely talking. When Dean took the stage immediately afterward, academic convention sealed over this fissure as if it never happened. In a fascinating analysis of the Big E’s invocation in presidential inaugural speeches from FDR on, she arrived at how George W. Bush’s use of evil grounds his “conviction effect.” “Now we are seeing absolutism through the lens of relativism,” she said, “and invoking ‘evil’ registers an intensity of belief amongst many individual beliefs.”
Jones, flown in from Sweden, told us how Christian belief links the existence of evil to free will: Without evil there would be no opportunity to exercise moral choice. For scientists, the “step from contemplation to application” can involve the decision to take millions of lives; for artists, Jones noted calmly, that step rarely if ever involves a choice of similar weight. That’s why, since Saint Augustine, art has been framed as “an unserious matter”; and, instead of rethinking the situation from the ground up, artists (said Jones, touching his laptop to project Serrano’s Piss Christ) are too often distracted by “protecting their effete privilege to scandalize.”
Later, after screaming briefly at us (“Do you want total war?”) Rice sat down with Cisneros to talk about ideas (“total opposition to two thousand years of Judeo-Christian tradition”), pranks (handing a skinned sheep’s head to Betty Ford), and friendship with Manson (reading aloud from his letters, Rice did quite a Manson impression). After a short, contentious panel discussion focusing mostly on Jones’s provocations, the new Barney/Lindsay flick began to unspool, showing an Ogun-figure (a Candomble deity), naked but accessorized with a beak and a “root-vegetable butt plug” (as a friend put it later), strapped below the spinning axle of a giant, rusty float in the midst of the drumming crowds at Carnival. The film shifts between his activities (he slowly wraps the axle in wads of slimy cotton to create a masturbation aid, then uses it, penis flopping unwatchably right and left); those of a silent, shaggy woman who builds a kind of harness/jail for herself in a tree, à la environmental activist Julia Hill; and the crowd and musicians, including the sweating, lantern-jawed Lindsay himself, singing hoarsely in Portuguese. Talking to Bennett Simpson the next day (who had written a piece on the project) I came around to seeing the “unsublimated” nature of this new Barney as kind of interesting: good-dirty. Certainly, it bolstered the impression that Cisneros’s conception of evil as a kind of pre- or para-Judeo-Christian magic or life force, inextricably woven into all that is good, was the reading that won the day.
With the Bush twins sighted recently at hipster hotspot Freeman’s and indie provocateur Vincent Gallo proclaiming his admiration for George W. and Nixon while promoting his last film (spawning the label “hipcon”), painters Mathew Cerletty and David Scanavino’s “Neocon”a show of young downtown artists (and one father figure, Robert Moskowitz) at Gavin Brown’s Passerbycouldn’t be more timely. I was half expecting a show cooked up by the Project for the New American Century (the invite even sported a Ronald Reagan commemorative stamp), and the show did offer up a sampling of neocon-inspired values (modernity, denial of nostalgiahowever feigned). Gray was the order of the day (with the notable exception of a NASCAR-hued work by Kristin Baker, the sole female artist in the show) with muted tones solemnly inaugurating (or mourning?) utopic/dystopic returnswhat the press release refers to as “tempered optimism.” A deadpan iconographic everyday (and perhaps an interest in postwar industrial design) characterized much of the work, from Scanavino’s balloon and school-desk silhouettes to Kevin Zucker’s trompe l’oeil Venetian blind. Moskowitz’s ambiguously historical smokestack-void, a study in figurative restraint, anchored the show.
Despite the rather extreme wind and rainI watched a scaffold collapse on Twentieth Street and was chased down Tenth Avenue by a trash canthe opening brought out the crowds. Artists Dan Colen and Sissel Kardel chatted in a corner, Elizabeth Peyton came by, and Gavin Brown made his appearance early on. Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schoeler arrived separately, confirming their blogged-to-death breakup (of note: First daughter Barbara interned with this very design duo). Speaking with the painter-curators, I asked what was the relationship between the work’s interest in, as Cerletty and Scanavino put it, “early modernism, constructivism, Russian guys,” and neoconservatism. Cerletty deadpanned: “Idealism.”
Left: The sign announcing Philippe Parreno's exhibition. Middle: Jutta Koether. Right: Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore.
A kind of ambivalent idealism also set the tone at Philippe Parreno’s “The Boy from Mars” opening the same night at Friedrich Petzel. A pulp-sci-fi neon sign outside the gallery advertised the show; but indoors, visitors were greeted with a seemingly empty gallery space. While the timid hung nervously near a bookshelf lined with minimally packaged DVDs of Parreno’s film, the more adventurous pushed right through: The white shelves turned out to be a secret door, a camp device that somehow seemed unfamiliar when presented in the context of the white cube. (Vito Acconci marched into the gallery and hardly paused before heading into its hidden bowels.) Behind the trap door the rest of the space was darkand emptysave for Parreno’s film playing on a monitor in the rear gallery. Documenting an improbable construction built with architect Francois Roche on Rirkrit Tiravanija’s cooperative farm in Thailand, the film resonates with a history of tropical utopian innovation, from the Swiss Family Robinson to Tacita Dean’s Bubble House. The ravage of the elements that insures the ruin and rot of these structures finds a parallel in Parreno’s DVDs available for free at the opening: Once removed from its protective wrapper, the disk has a lifespan of only forty-eight hours before its chemically treated surface will oxidize and erase itself.
Two blocks down Jutta Koether laughed and chatted amid a decade and a half of her work at Thomas Erben. All the tinsel and Mylar looked postprom and very punk in the one-room show. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore stood grimly near the middle of the gallery marked by a large silver exercise ball. In a room full of brainy art, their sagelike presence seemed almost a part of the installation.