For the Best of 2012 In Print, see the December Issue of Artforum.
FROM THE SUBLIME TO THE RIDICULOUS:
“Matisse: In Search of True Painting” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dec. 4, 2012 – March 17, 2013); “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Feb. 28 – June 3, 2012). Any opportunity to see Matisses from out of town is a treat and this show, which emphasizes his serial treatments of various themes, including photos of his tableaux-in-progress, is a stunner. In a landscape dominated by so much “relational” art and performance, Matisse’s drawing, composition, and painting chops—and of course his color choices—hit you with the shock of the old: pure beauty. And the mastery of a lifetime of practice. Earlier this year, I very much enjoyed “The Steins Collect,” which was really nicely done, including a delightful trove of Matisses and the Cézanne Bathers, compact and solid as a tank, that he kept on his studio wall for thirty-seven years as an inspiration. It worked!
The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield). “Why am I making the biggest house in America? Because I can,” muses time-share king David Siegel, who along with shopaholic trophy-wife Jackie is building “Versailles,” a thirty-bathroom “dream house” (modeled on the Vegas version of the French joint) that will upgrade the seventeen-bathroom hovel where they currently reside. With their frantic buying and selling, the Siegels embody the unrestricted appetite of the “free market.” As un-self-aware as they are avaricious, they allow Greenfield to document their beyond nouveau-riche lifestyle from Boom into Bust. The result is a brilliant case study of the “American Dream” run amok: sans taste, sans responsibility, sans everything but greed.
After playing with the banks’ “cheap money” during the Boom, Siegel battles post-Bust bankers as they close in to foreclose on his empire: “Lenders are pushers. Got us addicted to cheap money and now we’re junkies,” he says, without a trace of irony that he’d been doing the same thing: hard-selling time-shares to “nobodies” who could hardly afford them. (“We sell the same unit fifty-two times!” he crows.) Greenfield’s point of view is documentary “neutral,” even nearly sympathetic as she lets the Siegels’ situation and their stuff speak for themselves.
Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream (dir. Alex Gibney), takes a less neutral point of view. “I wanted to talk to the wealthy interests who are manipulating our political system,” said Gibney, “I hope it will make people as angry as I am.” Focusing on a Park Avenue building which houses more billionaires than anywhere in the world and the same street way uptown in the South Bronx (where food banks run out of food in an economy of unprecedented “growth”), Gibney provides a devastating portrait of the income inequality that has exploded since the 1960s. He shows how the American Dream where “anyone can make it” is actually a rigged game where the rich hold all the cards and actively work to subvert popular democracy: “As long as our political leaders depend on the rich to win elections and stay in office,” says Gibney, “they will write laws to protect the mansions… (and) all the gains of our economy will go to the very top.”
Lauren Greenfield, The Queen of Versailles, 2011, digital video, 100 minutes.
In keeping with the neo-Gilded Age some of us are currently enjoying, labor strikes made a comeback: Years of stagnant wages and hollowed out benefits have (finally) inspired high-profile work stoppages by Wal-Mart workers (on national shopping holiday Black Friday), Chicago teachers, and NYC fast-food employees. A living wage shouldn’t be a controversial concept. Perhaps more people would grok that if they weren’t mindlessly distracted by stuff like…
The Internet Cat Video Film Festival at the Walker Art Center (August 30, 2012. Yay! “The Golden Kitty award, chosen by visitors to the Walker’s Web site, went to Will Braden for his two-minute opus ‘Henri 2: Paw de Deux,’ about the existential angst of a black-and-white French puss” who had me at meow: “I wake to the same tedium.” Voila.
Cat-fanciers in general enjoyed an upgrade from the Grey Gardens association (not that there’s anything wrong with that) to the height of chic. Karl Lagerfeld came out as a Cat Lady, the doting daddy of Choupette, a pampered pussy with two maids, a private jet, a “penchant for pate,” and 24,000 (and counting) followers on Twitter. In classic Chanel fashion, she even has a knockoff Twitter account by a wannabe cat-tweeter. Daddy’s obsessive documentation of his kitty offers the added bonus of a peek at his insanely chic and white private digs, upholstered with the soft white underbellies of baby unicorns (just kidding). This touching interspecies relationship has yielded a bonanza of artifacts: Grazia’s Special Issue “Starring Choupette the Cat (and her pet, Karl Lagerfeld!)” sports a cover image of the Kaiser hugging the all-white kitty who sheds all over his black jacket with aristocratic disdain. A double-head shot of the pair in Harper’s Bazaar confronts us with Karl’s sunglass-hidden gaze, his white coif tastefully styled into cat ears as he hoists the indifferent puss over the bottom of his face where a beard would be. Purrfection.
Not to leave out the doggies, Pit Bulls & Parolees is an excellent reality show that warms my heart every week chronicling a pit bull rescue facility that hires parolees, thus giving second-chances to both dogs and humans. To see these dear animals so capable of love and healing after horrific circumstances is amazing. The parolees do ok, too. The show is a great example of “fixing the world” and how much more needs to be done.
In the most meaningless Presidential election in my memory, a cipher-fest which managed not to address the most important issues of our time—climate change, corporatocracy, endless military adventurism, looting by the “wealthy criminal class” as Teddy Roosevelt quaintly put it, the erosion of the rule of law—Roseanne Barr ran for President! They elected Ronald Reagan and Sonny Bono. But an actually smart celebrity with a social conscience? Didn’t have a chance.
Rhonda Lieberman is a contributing editor to Artforum.
Jennifer Wen Ma, Hanging Garden in Ink (detail), 2012, 1,500 living plants, Chinese ink, 65' 6" x 26' x 10'.
IN A YEAR OF major political transition across the whole of Asia, contemporary art programming was defined by a trend toward metanarrative. In Taiwan, the 2012 edition of the Taipei Biennial was an intellectually exuberant affair that confronted modernity as a global syndrome while also considering Taiwan’s specific position within it. Curated by Anselm Franke and themed “Modern Monsters / Death and Life of Fiction,” the biennial gave voice to narratives marginalized against the juggernaut of a rising mainland China. Kao Chung-Li’s The Way Station Trilogy, 1987–2012, is a video biography of the artist’s ninety-three-year-old father that explores the intersections between his life and the broader currents of Chinese history, made physically manifest in a bullet acquired during a decisive battle during the Chinese Civil War that is still lodged in his skull.
On the mainland, programming at major institutions attempted not only to show the “right” kind of artists, but also to assert primacy over their narratives. Two of the most prominent examples were the Minsheng Museum’s Geng Jianyi retrospective, “Wu Zhi,” and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art’s Gu Dexin retrospective, “The Important Thing Is Not the Meat.” Both of these shows dealt with deserving and iconic artists, although the exhibitions were not without their ellipses. My favorite retrospective, “Męme Lit, Ręves Differents” (Same Bed, Different Dreams), was at the Faurschou Foundation, where a collection of Chen Zhen’s most well-known works were on display––a poignant tribute to an artist whose concern with interiority and mortality mediated frictions in the changing world order.
Lastly, Jennifer Wen Ma’s Hanging Garden in Ink, 2012, also at UCCA covered a hanging installation of foliage in black ink. During the time of the installation, green buds grew out from beneath the denseness and obscurity of the black ink, showcasing entropy and life reasserting themselves within the white cube.
Asunción Molinos Gordo, El-Matam El-Mish-Masry (The Non-Egyptian Restaurant), 2012. Photo: Robert Stothard.
DURING THE FIRST WEEK OF NOVEMBER, the Spanish-born, Cairo-based artist Asunción Molinos Gordo invited a top chef to create haute cuisine from the best Egyptian produce that money could buy, and then offered six dishes to neighborhood diners for just five Egyptians pounds apiece (around eighty cents). This was the opening act in Molinos’s four-part, monthlong art project titled El-Matam El-Mish-Masry (The Non-Egyptian Restaurant), a site-specific installation doubling as a performance that was conceived for the five-year-old art space Artellewa. Located in the depths of a sprawling informal settlement—squished between Cairo’s larger, more volatile slums of Imbaba and Boulak El-Dakror—Artellewa isn’t usually a restaurant but Molinos transformed it totally. For week two, she invited women from the neighborhood to cook the food they usually prepared at home, such as koshary (which is mostly starch). For week three, the artist made meals from what could be harvested within a mile radius of the restaurant (mostly trash). And for week four, she invited a leading Egyptologist to excavate the area and forage for food (mostly dirt). The work was illuminating on a range of socioeconomic and geopolitical issues—not to mention confident as a proposition, graceful in its execution, and above all deeply empathetic to the environment.
Earlier in the fall, SALT Beyoğlu in Istanbul opened a major midcareer survey for the Egyptian artist Hassan Khan, which had, at its heart, the mesmerizing video installation Jewel (2010). Although it was essentially no different here than it had been in Paris (“Intense Proximity”), New York (“The Ungovernables”), or Doha (“Told, Untold, Retold”), the quality of the image seemed incredibly rich, and the pounding shaabi soundtrack both warm and crystal clear. A meticulous choreography for two men that multiplies ambiguities with every move, the piece draws on body language Khan observed and adopted from the street, making a formal grammar from the tenderness of friends, petty crime, and police brutality.
And back in June, among the hundreds of artworks scattered around the central German city of Kassel for Documenta 13, was the weird, womblike Kaskade Cinema. During the opening week, the space hosted around a dozen performances of the French choreographer Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater (2012), a five-act drama featuring the cast of Zurich’s Theater Hora. I caught the first one, and having felt sufficiently eviscerated—charmed, humbled, manipulated, implicated, delighted, deeply saddened—returned two days later to see the piece again. An incredible sequence moving deftly through euphoria and criticality while still somehow honoring dance and questioning deformity, disability, and difference, Bel’s work defeated me completely as a writer. But like all three of these works, it overwhelmed me, worked on me in layers, taught me things about the world (and myself) I thought I knew but clearly didn’t, showed me formal intricacies I never could have imagined, and made me extremely grateful for the challenges art poses to us all.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in Beirut.
Joan Mitchell, Trees, 1990–91, diptych, oil on canvas, overall 7' 2 3/4“ x 13' 1 1/2”.
“Joan Mitchell: The Last Paintings” at Hauser & Wirth, London (February 3–April 28, 2012) The most unjustifiably underappreciated Abstract Expressionist, Mitchell painted as intensely as she lived. This intensity galloped to a defiant crescendo as sickness and death encroached, as the paintings gathered for this exhibition made ringingly clear, with their electricity, thick drunken lines, and preponderance of bright blues—primary color of vitality.
Hai Bo’s “The Blind” at Pace Beijing (July 25–August 31, 2012) “[T]o see and have the color stay where color stays, to see and have the water lie where water lies, to see and have the trees have leaves the way the trees have leaves, to see and be the one who has the work that makes the way that has the form that shows the land that is the grass and holds the weight that is the light and is the last that is the same as it is when it is where it is that every one encouraging themselves are denying and are not remaining to be sharing.” – Gertrude Stein, G.M.P., 1911–1912
Chris Kraus’s Summer of Hate (Semiotext(e), 2012) It might take a decade or two, but eventually people will come around to the fact that this is the most definitive novel of the Bush Years we’re likely to get. One of few novels brave enough to delve into the concept of moral integrity in the context of American intellectual life, it only reveals that every act of generosity is doomed to fail when it is performed within the context of a hyper-capitalistic infrastructure. A novel that shows how truly nightmarish this world has become at the hands of power-hungry men unable to exercise any foresight beyond their own petty wants, and who thus rationalize their promotion of greed as the sole model of desire for the disenfranchised, whose sole option is to follow course and fuck over those who have the potential to offer them genuine help. Most importantly, Kraus shows that there really is a hidden causality behind having shitty luck: Once branded a loser, you’ll remain a loser, and the ways out that the branders provide you with are actually tools for digging yourself further into an inescapable nightmare, and a “good day” is one in which you are simply left alone for once.
Travis Jeppesen is a writer based in London and Berlin.
Eliot Porter, Blue-Throated Hummingbird, 1959, dye transfer print, 9 5/16 x 7 3/4″.
I’M TEMPTED HERE to list off some of the great monographic undertakings of 2012. They were certainly satisfying, but the year’s instances of artists refusing to supply demand seem to be more memorable in the end.
What should have been a staid pairing of two bastions of art history, “Rembrandt and Dégas” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art left a surprisingly earnest impression of the young modernist, who defied academic standards by looking to the Dutch master’s penumbral canvases for inspiration. The resulting exhibition included several self-portraits of a vulnerable artist worried over what he would amount to. To bring the (valid) cliché into the present, one can imagine young painters today being forced to reckon with anti-painting authority Michael Krebber or David Joselit’s essays, deciding instead to look further back as a way of going forward.
Or, facing such pressures, one could always take the “deal with it!” approach. Whitney Claflin’s solo exhibition at Thomas Erben, “As Long As You Get To Be Somebody’s Slave, Too” debuted brash new abstractions by the painter. Barraged by feminine signifiers (bobby pins, a spandex dress, eyeshadow), varnished-on text, and thin staccato brushstrokes, Claflin’s paintings offered up a self-aware notion of identity at uncomfortably close range. By marching unabashedly forward with an affable humor, the show suggests a certain determination and comfort in making an abstract painting this far into the medium’s history.
As I was walking recently through MoMA’s painting and sculpture galleries, the glint of a George Platt Lynes photograph caught me off guard—the backside of the lithe ephebe inspecting a Pavel Tchelitchew work didn’t quite fit. “Artist’s Choice: Trisha Donnelly,” to which the displacement belongs, breathed fresh life into the museological apparatus, halting the narrative the institution labors to achieve. In this configuration, Futurism gives way not to Kandinsky but to Eliot Porter’s mystifying and somehow uplifting jewel-toned avian portraits. Further along, Donnelly tightly packs a gallery with works depicting both human and natural subjects, all achingly familiar and easily resonant. “All of these works feel necessary to me. Each one is an epic entity,” she states in the wall text. Donnelly’s tightly wound installation reminds us that the previous capacious galleries had been filled with exclusions, both historical and social. Certain images, especially now in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, whether logs floating precariously close to low-hanging power lines or wave patterns in rippling water, evince a humanism seldom seen in this rarefied space. That Donnelly is able to provoke and awaken with the work of others speaks to the strengths of her associative practice and perhaps the fragility of this moment.
Beau Rutland is an art historian and curator based in New York.
Richard Kern and Nick Zedd, The Manhattan Love Suicides: Thrust in Me, 1985, 35 mm, black-and-white, 35 minutes.
FROM THE DRONING CHORDS of Sonic Youth’s 1984 “Death Valley ’69” that echoed down the pitch-black entry hall to the sinking feeling in my stomach brought on by Richard Kern’s Fingered, 1986, KW’s “You Killed Me First” kept a firm hold on me. My hesitations about the exhibition’s dutifully spray-painted walls aside, the eighteen films on view told a brilliantly fucked-up story of twentysomethings on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1980s and their spite for their parents’ generation’s counterculture-turned–dominant culture. The filmmakers’ assaults on their own bodies––complemented by plenty of makeup, masks, and posturing––intended to leave a mark on the body politic and disrupt its sense of normalcy––and did so to mine.
There’s something to the clothing designs, coffee mugs, glossy portraits, and silk scarves made by Bernadette Corporation that resides below the surface: the conjoined efforts of a social body. The corporate model and its pliant, too-clean identity is all too familiar, as is the blithe investment in high-end retail and consumption, vanity, and celebrity. Still, contemporary consumer culture felt upended within the architectonic exhibition design at Artists Space, which evoked the shops where these types of objects are typically found, but not bizarre versions like these––not without their contextualization as art or the social cachet that it brings. The multipanel history of the artistic collective weaving through the exhibition name-dropped just enough points of reference to keep readers grounded, nothing more.
Braver souls than I accepted the challenge of writing at length about Alice Creischer’s exhibition at KOW––Jenny Nachtigall on this website, Mirjam Thomann in Texte zur Kunst––but I don’t know what to make of it. The two-story installation invited viewers to blow through drinking straws into a balloon apparatus that would maybe raise and lower (or inflate?) mixed-media works suspended from the ceiling; handwritten words in French and a numerical code purported to give something like comprehensible directives for use. The remarkable, handcrafted works––mainly collages and assemblages––occupied a hallowed, Duchampian ground: Pseudo-functional and half-embroiled in a framework where their forms and associations gained increased significance, the objects reaped the benefit of the overlaps and oversights between these two narratives.
John Beeson lives in Berlin and is a regular contributor to Artforum, Spike, and Texte zur Kunst, where he is also an editor.