If art is the gage of our times, then New York currently offers a remarkably hot range of museum experiences. This last weekend of March, I visited the Unmonumental show at the New Museum, the Whitney Biennale, the Guggenheim, MoMA- (a not-to-be missed, fantastic design show), half of the Chelsea galleries, and last, the Armory on the pier- (a real disappointment.)
The overload was revealing in ways that I hadn’t expected. Having digested the recent Art/Basel Miami complex to my utmost, I was looking to focus upon gems offered amid the usual rumble. Instead, the sequence provoked an awareness of cultural shifts- a changing of the guard, such as Cai Guo-Qiang’s powerful, if glitzy show, I Want to Believe at the Guggenheim. Cai also has the singular distinction of designing and directing the opening ceremony at this year’s Olympics. The Chinese are ever more expansively and ambitiously optimistic. They are taking up the big issues in art, dealing in ever increasing visual resonances with extraordinary craft, power and insight. The Europeans are also moving at fever pitch, just as the blockade on Latin American art is falling away to reveal amazing talents long overdue in America. Art history is being re-written amid a fever-pitch uproar of jostling interests and ideas. It’s no longer all about us.
Then there is the Whitney’s oh so clever, schizoid Biennale. Yes, it’s flawed as expected from the debated curatorial intervention. Having just come from the New Museum’s more engagingly argumentative and cohesive show, I found myself getting openly angry for the first time at the art world politics that have churned out such a largely dysfunctional pile of self satisfied visual and conceptual banality turned in on itself. Where is the vision? Yes, many of the ideas, in of themselves- are engaging, yes there are clever works. But it’s small wonder the Chinese are leaving us in the dust. What particularly stunned me were the numbers of well-dressed people almost fainting with rapture at the brilliance of it all- excepting Kiki Smith, who looked like she wanted to bite someone, even as she unapologetically stuck her nose in my notes. Time and again, good ideas died on delivery or fell prey to slovenly craftsmanship or flavor of the moment fashion. Too many materials were not fully pushed or explored or too glib. Too many don’t understand how to manipulate color or the importance of scale or detail. For example, Joe Bradley’s badly-stretched, stiff rehashes would have provoked Donald Judd to grab a furious ax. Horrid. HORRID!
Having read Jerry Saltz’s recent review prior to the show, I concur on one central point- that this is the “Art School Biennale”. However, the idea of concept-stuffed student/turkey into museum/market should be sending up red flags. We have too many art lemmings squealing to make a dive into the jaws of the market. It’s inane- this trotting out unseasoned talent in a museum context. Considering the critical mass of our economy amid a world that hates our guts, the show lacked authentic surprise or apocalyptic fire.
Yes, there are a few gems. I was most delighted with Mika Rottenberg’s rough-hewn video installation Cheese. Its complex associations are quietly ravishing as they gently poke fun amid a celebratory beauty of flowing tresses, purity and other ideas. Jedediah Caesar’s quietly inventive sliced slabs of object/debris embedded resin are a seductive exposure of our throw-away culture. Adam Putnam’s Magic Lantern is spare and haunting. Rubin Ochoa’s An Ideal Disjuncture has a certain promising physical ambition that stops far short of Kiefer, but arises above the self-satisfied inwardness of this exhibition.
I was stunned, yet delighted to see Robert Bechtle’s well-crafted, eerie Hopper-like images, (although I’ve never considered him a great painter), as well as John Baldessari’s three enormous, polished and potent distillations of the American psyche. Both moved far beyond the general tone. The silence between was painful.
What is important to me as an artist is this tone, in this case, set by the museum/market politics, posturing and pandering, and in the end, the overall reflection of our faltering American mindset on money at all costs. Baldessari’s work followed me out of the museum, into the Guggenheim, before finding company at MoMA, and back to Baltimore, with his brilliant shocks of color associations and dysfunctional body fragments. One great plus in aging is perspective. How telling- this grand falling apart…
Although I dearly love America- I’ve not an American soul-and even in my wildly colorful romps around the world, I’ve always been an outsider, a detached global nomad, more in tune to the ‘third world’ nations of my upbringing. So much of this frantic search for the next new trophy reminds me of the art review fragments that have amusingly survived from the late Roman Empire. The works themselves have long gone to dust, but the same old arguments continue to intoxicate far too many of us.