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The obvious, because no one else is stating it

Post #1422 • November 23, 2009, 8:50 AM • 100 Comments

First of all, "Jeff Koons " and "intellectually significant project" are mutually exclusive items. This is someone whose artistic triumph was identifying the self-congratulatory tastes that run the art world and cashing in accordingly. If that is intellectually significant, then the guys who run around after a hurricane selling plywood for five times its usual value are giants of modern thought.

Secondly, as I put it at James Wagner's joint at the beginning of October:

This development at the New Museum doesn't strike me as an aberration of practice, so much as an aberration of discretion about something that has always gone on at some level. I don't know about its financial structure, but whether the New Museum receives public funding or is merely exempt from taxation as a nonprofit, society at large is paying for them to turn a particular strain of contemporary art history into a canon as its curators see fit. This strikes me as a kind of corporatism, akin to farm subsidies and the underwriting of oil exploration. If you look at the germane economics, you would predict that such arrangements would begin to operate irresponsibly given enough opportunity to do so. I think we have finally reached a point in the art world that the collectors have more credibility than the museums, allowing the collectors to act about like we'd expect them to, and obliging the museums to launch into full-blown apologetics about the quality of the art on display and the purity of their scholarship and curatorship as they launder the value of the private collection on their walls.

The government should either start taxing the New Museum as if it were any other self-interested private enterprise, or it should stop taxing me and my collectors, so that they have more money to buy my art and I have more money to invest in my career.

Lastly, I've been complaining about this sort of thing for years. Anyone who says that museum exhibitions of contemporary art are pure exercises in taste and scholarship are naïve as lambs, or, like the New Museum, trying to justify a put-up job. I was disabused of those lofty notions back in 1995, when the Miami Art Museum made its transition from kunsthalle to collecting institution and put on a show (the first of several) of its nascent collection. It featured a recently donated work by Jose Bedia, and the director at the time, Suzanne Delahantey, proclaimed to the Miami Herald that Bedia was one of the most important living American artists, which was absurd then and looks even more absurd in retrospect.

The question is not whether a contemporary art exhibition at a museum is a selfish exercise, but the degree to which the museum has sublimated selfish interests into a good exhibition. And that's an artistic and scholarly question, not a moral one. The moral one won't go away until both the parties involved and the parties not involved are treated equally under the law. The only way to make that happen is to oblige these powerful cliques like the ones at the New Museum to foot their own bill, and for the state to obligate them to the same taxes that fall to everyone else, or relieve everyone else of those taxes in a manner befitting these presumed agents of the public good.



Chris Rywalt

November 23, 2009, 11:30 AM

I'm not one to defend Koons unnecessarily, but...well, maybe all defenses of Koons are unnecessary. But I think you're selling him a bit short. What he did -- what he continues to do -- is not easy. Worthless and stupid, perhaps, but not easy. In The $12 Million Stuffed Shark the author notes several failed attempts to play the art world game, including one by Andy Warhol's brother, and what struck me about all of them is how indistinguishable they appeared to me from the typical art world success. And yet clearly there was something lacking, some detail I couldn't discern. Koons has got the game down cold. You've got to have some kind of respect for a guy who can not only sell a sculpture for several million dollars, but sell one that itself costs over $75,000 a year to maintain.

I realize that respecting Jeff Koons is like respecting Auric Goldfinger, but still.



November 23, 2009, 3:27 PM

Of course no one else is stating it, Franklin. There are too many major collectors heavily invested in his stuff, and too many supposedly serious institutions who've bought into it. Even the Met caved in, for heaven's sake. The guy is practically untouchable by now, since admitting the truth would cause massive and widespread loss of face, to put it mildly. This sets up a kind of vicious circle, where his reputation must be upheld, at least until there aren't so many art world people around with serious vested interests, or conflicts of interest.



November 23, 2009, 3:49 PM

And Chris, rather than being impressed by Koons, you should be appalled at the degree of idiocy prevalent among the artsy rich.


Chris Rywalt

November 23, 2009, 4:09 PM

You always say that. But those anecdotes in that book changed my thinking a bit. The superrich who buy art aren't just gullible. They're gullible in a very specific way, like a complex, folded chain of amino acids acting as an enzyme. They only catalyze reactions between specific compounds that fit exactly. So it's not just a question of coming up with some concept that appears to fit the art world of today. Plenty of people have tried that and failed, as documented in the book. I mean, Andy Warhol's brother! That's like finding out that Andrew made it into Heaven but not Simon Peter!



November 23, 2009, 4:33 PM

Chris, if you're even remotely surprised that Warhol's brother (or cousin, or doorman, or cleaning lady) didn't become an art world star, you need intensive reality therapy. I mean, please. Talk about lightning striking twice.

There is, of course, an element of luck involved. Right time, right place, right contacts, right maneuvers and so forth. There's also a big element of salesmanship, showmanship and PR skills, which people like Hirst are truly talented at, and that can make a big difference.

And being gullible in a very specific way is still being gullible. There are people who are very sharp in some areas and hopeless in others. It happens.



November 23, 2009, 4:48 PM

Re the piece that gave rise to this post, Franklin, here's how I read it:

This is a fabulous show awash in fabulous people for a fabulous institution. We're so fabulous we shouldn't even have to look at, let alone address, anybody who dares to question us. So please, do yourselves a favor, and shut the fuck up. And thank us. You're not worthy of our fabulousness.


Chris Rywalt

November 23, 2009, 6:58 PM

Good lord I just discovered something called The School of Saatchi on BBC2. Maybe the world really will end in 2012. Time to start working out on the treadmill.



November 23, 2009, 8:26 PM

I may respect Koons, Hirst, etc. as businessmen. This is not the same thing as respecting them as artists. Successful businessmen (and women) are good at gauging what will sell, regardless of whether or not it has any esthetic value. Look at the great success that this guy who dreamed up toy mechanical hamsters is enjoying!



November 23, 2009, 10:17 PM

Here are the choicest and most salient bits from the New Museum's apologia (not to be confused with apology), in addition to the one Franklin already shredded (added italics mine):

"one of the finest and most original collections of contemporary art in the world"

"some of the most powerful, challenging art of our time"

Koons as "one of the most important artists of the last quarter century"

"The New Museum has followed the highest ethical standards"

Dakis Joannou is "a world-renowned art connoisseur"

"the shifting boundaries of the public and private realms of contemporary visual culture"

"We have never shied away from difficult art, provocative subject matter, or important issues of the day"

This strikes me as absolutely classic, textbook stuff--the system, the establishment, in short, the official art world in full dress uniform and on parade. One is at a loss as to whether to laugh hysterically or cry in despair, so I'd go for a third option: cold, contemptuous disdain.



November 23, 2009, 10:29 PM

Howard Roark's corrupt antagonist, Ellsworth Toohey, representative of The System in Rand's The Fountainhead, confronts Roark and asks him "What do you think of me?" Roarke unemotionally replies "I don't think of you."



November 24, 2009, 12:37 AM

Tim, If only I could say what Roarke says and have it be true.

Piri, I would go you one better, the "businessmen" not only know what will sell, they know how to sell it. I am frankly amazed, almost totally. If God appeared at the burning bush and told me an aquarium full of basketballs would sell for hundreds of thousands, I would not doubt him, but neither would I have the slightest idea how to go about making it work.

That it works so well, and is repeated so many times for so many artists makes me wonder if it will ever get sorted out. Jack's #2 is spot on, so many commitments have been made that unwinding them may never happen. 100 years from now curators will stumble into the deepest basement of a major museum, turn on a light, and say "This is what happened in the last half of the 20th century, guess we might as well leave it here."



November 24, 2009, 8:31 AM

You can't say what Roarke says, John, because you're an artist. I'm not, so I can. Or rather, I can answer Toohey's question with "You don't want to know. Trust me."



November 24, 2009, 8:39 AM

The art world is like a gathering of old whores who still dress the part and tell each other they've still got it and always will. Whether or not they believe it is moot; the point is the illusion/delusion is all they've got to keep going, and they're not about to face reality.



November 24, 2009, 11:50 AM

Not sure what 'artist' has to do with it, Jack. In the story, Roark is an artist who realizes from his experience in college that he's on his own, that it's all up to him. Toohey is just the real-world representative of what Roark ran in to in college. So, Roark can either use his wits, etc. to make things happen on his own or he can get caught in Toohey's trap and become invested in Toohey's system by either going along with it or fighting it. Even if Roark elects to fight Toohey, Toohey knows he's got him involved in his corruption.

Similarly, one or more of today's art-world hucksters that there is so much concern about is, no doubt, already making money off of that concern, turning or preparing to turn The Great Debate into just another spectacle in their parade of spectacles. I'm betting that there are already gallery shows about it.

You're right that whether or not they believe their deal is moot. With them that's simply not an issue. The issue is whether the deal is working and paying, which it obviously is. But they do have something besides the illusion/delusion with which to keep going, and that's all the attention (whether positive or negative, it doesn't matter) they're getting, which they are so capable at turning to their own advantage.

In the land of caveat emptor, the problem is not hucksters. It's that the people who are spending money are guided by ego rather than discernment, public edification, public good, their own good... The hucksters' role is to see that ignorant, ego-driven money coming and get it. That's what they should be expected to do, and that's what they're doing. I'm seeing that clanking wagon pull into Dodge and the snake oil peddler set up shop, and the townsfolk gather round, and there's nothing the marshall can do but shake his head because it's all legal.



November 24, 2009, 12:31 PM

Jack's #2 brings the phrase "too big to fail" to mind.

Will Hirst's recent widely-panned work cause a widespread re-valuation of all his old shite?

It'll happen eventually, no doubt, but I don't see the house of cards folding anytime soon, with all the surrounding scaffolding of peripheral people heavily invested in holding it up.



November 24, 2009, 1:42 PM

Tim, I assume John can't totally ignore the Toohey/Koons types in the art world because he's involved in or with the system, like it or not. I'm not dependent on or beholden to that system in any way, so I'm perfectly free to reject it, neglect it or ignore it if I so choose. The same applies to every member of the art audience who's not part of the system in any dependent way, and if those free people said No to the BS, things would be very different. Unfortunately, that's clearly not the case, since most of them don't know, don't care or are too insecure or opportunistic to buck the system.



November 24, 2009, 1:44 PM

Yes, MC, "too big to fail" is basically it.



November 24, 2009, 1:47 PM

I agree with all you folks who say it's a mass madness. John, the businessman-artist gets a lot of help in selling his product -- starting with the dealer who exhibits it & whose only purpose in life is to sell. Also the curator who puts the art on view in a museum, with flattering press releases and/or brochures to help the public "appreciate" it. Also the collector who buys it & then boasts about it to his friends and to the press. Oh, and let's not forget the critics who praise it, especially those "critics" who write catalogue essays in defense of it (catalogue essays being as Peter Plagens says, a form of advertising). And how about the general public, which eagerly pays museum admissions to see this stuff, admires it, poses for photographs next to it, and writes appreciative little notes in gallery guest books? All of these people could be marshalled in behalf of good art, but alas, they only too rarely are.


Chris Rywalt

November 24, 2009, 1:54 PM

The only problem with The Fountainhead is no character in the book speaks or acts the way an actual human would.

It's wonderfully idealistic to act as if those who don't agree with you don't exist, to work outside the system, to simply ignore and dismiss as irrelevant anything not directly related to your own concerns.

This is similar to the high road bandied about on this blog. I know Franklin's expressed similar philosophies (and I suspect there's more overlap than I'd like between Franklin and the Objectivists, but that's okay).

But as we've discussed here also, particularly in regards to art, no one works in a vacuum. As John has said, unless you're in the right cave, your cave paintings might as well not exist. Ayn Rand conveniently doesn't address that, an especially egregious shortcoming since her protagonist is an architect. A painter could conceivably toil in obscurity his whole life while creating masterpieces -- although we've argued against that idea on this blog -- but an architect absolutely must work with others in some kind of system.

And it's not just a matter of being in the right cave to be seen. It's also a matter of being part of a give and take, an environment of development, a dynamic atmosphere in which talent can grow. A knife can't sharpen itself; it needs something to be sharpened against.



November 24, 2009, 2:42 PM

Chris, of course Rand's novel is a story, so we don't read her characters as actual personages, but as means of expression. But, Roark was based on Rand's experience with F. L. Wright, not exactly a 'system' person.

There is no idealism here. The question is not one of disagreement with another. It's about control. And Rand the Aristotelian does treat that by having Roark the individual prevail because of his individuality, not because he beat the system. Roark didn't need an audience for himself or his work. He just needed to be able to do it. I can't imagine expecting recognition, or doing art in order to get recognized, or needing to be recognized as a motivation for doing it. Recognition is for posterity.

And, I think you might be calling 'high roads' what I'd call, given my experiences, real and stark choices.

Just do a slow 360 and see a whole world of things on which a knife can sharpen itself. Life lived provides WAY more than enough give and take, plenty of 'dynamic atmosphere in which talent can grow.'


Chris Rywalt

November 24, 2009, 2:47 PM

I also think dismissing it as mass madness, or delusion, or simply gullibility, keeps us from really being able to analyze and understand the behavior. It's too easy to just sit back and smirk at "those other people over there".

I've come to believe to that anything that can be said about someone else can, to some degree, also be said about me. I'm not sure I've encountered anything, yet, which applies to another person which doesn't apply to me at all. There's a little bit of everyone in all of us.

And so I don't find it useful to dismiss anyone entirely out of hand. There's something to be learned there. Something to learn and apply.



November 24, 2009, 2:52 PM

Chris, I see what Piri called mass madness as simple human nature, which can be at times mass madness. I don't read that as dismissive.


Chris Rywalt

November 24, 2009, 3:12 PM

Labeling it "simple human nature" isn't especially helpful either. Of course there's a difference between dismissing something because you have better things to do and dismissing it because you can't figure it out, or whatever. It's perfectly okay to label it "mass madness" or "simple human nature" if you just don't need to, or want to, or feel like, analyzing it. That's fine.

One of things I think we try to do on this blog is analyze these art-related things. It's up to each person here to decide for themselves if it's worth the effort to untangle any particular topic.

This question of why the art world is the way it is -- where things like Koons and Hirst grow and flourish -- is one I've been wrestling with for a while now. I don't necessarily think I'll ever figure it out, but I start by not dismissing it as mere insanity.

Meanwhile Jack starts by picking on me about it. He's fine with explaining it that easily, and that's okay. It's just not enough for me, that's all.

I guess the only thing I hope for in trying to understand it is that, while I'm tugging at this strand or that, the whole thing will unravel. Whether or not I have anything to do with it, that'd be nice.



November 24, 2009, 3:37 PM

Chris, the established art world has already taken up far more of my time and attention than it ever deserved, in exchange for much too little. I once took it seriously, very, and I only wound up feeling like an idiot for being so foolish. If you think I should spend even more time trying to find some sort of special dispensation for it, that's simply not happening. If you want to play Buddha, go for it.



November 24, 2009, 3:42 PM

Chris, what's so hard to figure out? What strand is left to tug at?


Chris Rywalt

November 24, 2009, 8:25 PM

Jack, you've totally misread me. I was trying to say, if you feel like you're not interested in figuring it out, then that's fine. I mean that. Whatever the reason.

Tim, at bottom I'm still trying to figure out what's going on. Simply saying, "Jeff Koons is a talentless idiot selling junk to gullible rich people" isn't good enough for me (right now). The formulation lacks explanatory power. I think there's more going on and I want to unravel it.



November 24, 2009, 9:19 PM

I've figured out as much as I need to in order to take suitable action to suit myself, and what I've figured out is pretty much the gist of the matter. The rest is details, and no, they're not worth my time. Besides, digging into the details of this putrid mess is like insisting on an exact chemical analysis of a pool of vomit. What difference would it make, really?



November 24, 2009, 9:20 PM

I agree that "mass madness" is putting it too simply. I guess how I would really define it is a)a widespread need for figurative art as opposed to abstraction, combined with b)a desire to show that one can appreciate art that is just as daring and unconventional as abstraction fundamentally is (strange as it may seem at this late date, I still believe abstraction is radical enough to scare off the great majority of people who would like to be able to feel they can appreciate contemporary art). When I say figurative I don't necessarily mean representational art (and practically never do I mean classical forms of representational art). More often it's presentational than representational, but this even 90 years after Fountain still seems daring because nobody has ever used a shark before Hirst, or a basketball before Koons. The subject matter becomes all, the style counts for nothing, since the style in piece after piece is fundamentally the same (verism). Thus the novelty lies in choosing "new" subject matter.



November 24, 2009, 9:45 PM

Piri, I think part of the problem with abstraction is that, in some ways, it requires more of the viewer, because there's less to hang on to or go by, fewer signposts, greater need for pure visual engagement and visual judgment and discernment. It makes the insecure even more insecure, especially when big money is at stake, because even if they have no eye anyway, it's harder for them to fool themselves that they "get it" when there's no figurative crutch at hand.


Chris Rywalt

November 24, 2009, 10:02 PM

Abstract art is much harder to create, too, which may be why there's less of it at the upper income brackets. It's just more difficult all around because it lacks those figurative, narrative hooks. As I've said before, if you make a lousy composition with a naked woman, at least viewers can say, "Ooh, look, a naked woman!" Make a lousy abstract composition and you've got nothing.



November 24, 2009, 10:12 PM

A little abstraction:

Shino 1
Shino 2



November 24, 2009, 10:42 PM

Yes, it is probably the influence of Duchamp that is at the bottom of what I can't wrap my mind around, regarding the success of what verges (to me) on not being art at all. Might also be at the bottom of what Chris is trying to understand. Fountain, or more precisely, one of its reincarnations as an edition of 6 done long after the real deal appeared and disappeared, was not placed on the cover of Sothebey's last catalog in the 20th c. for no reason at all. The thing had a great effect whether one likes that effect or not.

I agree with Piri that abstraction is truly radical, but that is not how it comes across to the many. Duchamp's verism starts with something real and winds up with almost nothing when put to the demands of art. Abstraction starts with almost nothing (I may be unnecessarily belittling the visual memories of the artist) and proceeds to make something out of it, something that does not lean on anything specific in the viewer's experience for its reference, to the chagrin of the many who seem to need a specific referent. (Read Piri's book for more on this.) So verism in extremis conjoined with a toxic level of innovation satisfies a now academic mandate to be avant-garde, though common sense argues that we cannot have hordes of avant-gardists, but common sense never was a strong suit in any academy, so saying this is avant-garde makes it so. Duchamp has become immortal thanks to the need for the many to think of themselves as the few.

Whitehead would have us believe that with most new concressing occasions, the memory of the past, though retained, is diminished as it passes into immortality. But the trajectory of Duchamp's Fountain defies that interpretation because its memory has gained more clout than it ever had when it first appeared.

It is a strange aberration of aesthetic cosmology that an artist who left very little except memories of what he did is put in the same league as the old masters whose reputations depend upon the physical things they made, and our continual reaffirmation of the value of those things, day after day. Even the deification of the old masters, to extent it exists, is tied to their objects, not their memory.

It's as if, given that Duchamp did so little art at all, there is nothing in the way of pumping up the importance of his tiny little rebellion of 1917. Whatever the motive, if there is a motive, the fact is he is now the reigning big-shot of the 20th century.

Must we "get over it"? I don't think so. But acknowledging it helps explain things.



November 24, 2009, 10:54 PM

But Chris, if you make a brilliant composition with a naked woman, the same viewers will say "Ooh, look, a naked woman!"

I don't know if I agree with you about abstraction being more difficult to make. My best work is abstract arrangements dressed in representation. The arrangement is the 'presentation' that Piri mentions, if I've understood her correctly, and it's always the active, important part of the work. And to the prepared eye, abstract or not makes no difference, but that arrangement, that presentation, has to be there.



November 24, 2009, 10:57 PM

Jack you are sort of right, especially that abstraction requires "more" of the viewers. But that is not because there is "less" in it, but rather "more". (Read Piri's book for a better explanation of this than I can provide.) Rather than void of referents, it is jammed with them.

The need for "pure visual engagement and visual judgment and discernment" is equally important to enjoying art that depicts limited referents and that which depicts multiple ones.

Abstract music (without lyrics) has been around for a long time and does not cause that many problems for itself, with reference to being enjoyed. Abstract art has not been here that long, from one point of view, anyway. The pots you love so much, once detached from their function of holding liquids without leaking, are abstract too and that does not seem to bother anyone. Perhaps with the passage of a couple more centuries, abstract high art won't be so troublesome either.



November 24, 2009, 11:02 PM

I agree with you Chris that abstract art is hard to make, perhaps harder than "the other kind". When I start a painting it seems like the source is almost a vacuum. Sometimes I long for the days of doing the figure, where the startup was not so tenuous, and where the likelihood of making a mess was greatly reduced. Not to mention that it is almost impossible to do a figure that descends into the land of doodles.



November 24, 2009, 11:07 PM

"Must we "get over it"? I don't think so. But acknowledging it helps explain things." Level-headed attitude, I think. Perspective being an antidote to anxiety.



November 24, 2009, 11:29 PM

Chris: "And so I don't find it useful to dismiss anyone entirely out of hand. "

No kidding?



November 24, 2009, 11:40 PM

John, I didn't mean to imply that abstract art is devoid of referents, but rather that it is devoid of obvious, "easy" or prefabricated ones. And certainly, what I said about what boils down to a good eye is always important when faced with any art of any kind. However, abstract art makes it harder to cheat or fudge, as it were, by providing fewer ways to evade pure visual judgment going off on tangents like subject matter, message, "relevance," etc.

It's no coincidence that so many major players demonstrably have no eye, meaning they require other means to operate or navigate. That's why the purely visual is largely ignored, dismissed or disdained, and the aforementioned tangents rule. They're easier to get a handle on, even if it's just bullshit, and obviously easier to fake or bluff one's way through.



November 25, 2009, 12:08 AM

John, I don't think Duchamp is the bog shot of the 20th C. That is all just fashion. It will pass.

And abstraction will flourish as soon as it gets familiar enough. It is already happening; very people scoff at the very idea of abstraction any more, even if they don't like it. It will move to the condition of music, as someone once said of all art.

Everything takes time. In the meantime we should just do what we like. I spent years fulminating at the stupidity of the art world. It was a waste of time.

"Be secret and exult, Because of all things known That is most difficult."



November 25, 2009, 12:09 AM

"bog" shot? Maybe that's closer to the truth.



November 25, 2009, 12:12 AM

"It was a waste of time." Well, yes. I could have been enjoying pots all along, instead of giving basketballs floating in some aquarium the time of day.



November 25, 2009, 12:14 AM

Duchamp has certainly contributed to things bogging down considerably.



November 25, 2009, 12:24 AM

A little minimalism, sort of:

Raku 1
Raku 2
Raku 3
Raku 4



November 25, 2009, 12:25 AM

One could say that Duchamp was necessary in order to show again that his idea (he was not the first to play it) was a dead end, just temporary fun at most.



November 25, 2009, 12:33 AM

"A little abstraction:

Shino 1
Shino 2"


And now Piri I must read your book. What a brilliant analysis in #28. I'll never look at museum crowds quite the same way - or Jeff Koons for that matter. And what a fascinating thread. I always thought abstraction was a process as much as a thing. Like all painters (I imagine), after the first long view, I always get as close as possible to a painting for a close up view (I've mentioned Inness recently as especially rewarding in this regard). First, I imagine it's to see the artist's hand and materials at work - to figure out the craft. But after reading this thread I realize it's also to get to the point where the painting becomes abstract (if it's figurative or illusional or anything short of completely abstract). The "figure that descends to the land of doodles", as John puts it, is actually quite interesting to me and is probably what I was after in my abstractions on furniture. "Pictures of Nothing" as Mr. Varnadoe so beautifully put it. Or are the best abstractions pictures of everything.



November 25, 2009, 12:48 AM

What does anyone think of Richter's new paintings at Marion Goodman? I enjoyed looking at them on the web - like looking at patterns of moss on rocks in endless variations - quite enjoyable - especially all the little ones. I'd like to see them live. I've been reading John Yau's recent book on Jasper Johns "A Thing Among Things" and although I find he gets bogged down, he seems to be trying to describe a kind of abstraction peculiar to Johns. I guess he's trying to decode Johns and saying he's more interesting than many people think he is, but again after reading this thread, I think he's describing a kind of abstraction. The interesting thing is he's divorcing Johns from the dependence on Duchamp that is the conventional wisdom.



November 25, 2009, 8:55 AM

both pots look like fine new variations of the classics.



November 25, 2009, 9:06 AM

The universal opinion among all art people, including those who contribute here, who are certainly in the very top percent of thoughtful and intelligent observers, is that Duchamp is the father of all surrealism and the prime source for pop art and postmodernism and just about everything that is in any way "nonesthetic" in the world of visual art.

It just isn't true.

The narrative impulse in visual art is as old as visual art. A hundred-some years ago, when pictorial narrative got edged out by "pure esthetic" or "art for art's sake" or whatever, the narrative impulse, still as basically popular as ever, was put on the defensive and had to find how to express itself in ways that could stand up to the dominating trend of radical innovation exemplified by Cubism and abstraction.

This was accomplished by a new kind of realism which came in several variations in the teens of the 20th C and later, among them being realism which further brought in the open the idea that anything could be art, an idea which had been stewing one way or the other since the 19th C French painters told us that common subject matter was OK for painting.

This was a fall back, a safety net, in the face of the "threat" posed by "pure art", which tended to undermine the deeply held assumption that pictures and sculptures should represent things or at least be comprehended by a label of some sort. Art needed to "say" something, not just be felt. That wasn't enough. In fact, the very idea was deeply subversive.

Duchamp was one of the artists who made these "anti-art" objects, but he was only one of them. There were hundreds of others, and the basic Surrealism impulse stuck around in force through the first half of the 20th C.

Abstract Expressionsism, like Cubism, created an dominating high tide of "pure art", and, like Cubism, got quickly smacked in the face by a manifestation of surralism, namely Pop art, followed by postmodernism, which rode the wave of the new post-war vogue for "advanced" art.

Duchamp was taked up by the artists and critics and the new academics who flowed into the new post-war art departments, but, once again, he was only part of the movement, not the originator nor the primary mover or inspiration.

In the 60s, Sidnet Janis, a marketing genius of sorts, decided to get Duchamp, who was hanging around NYC playing chess, to come up with an "edition" of urinals, the original of which was lost. Duchamp was happy to comply, and the stage was set for the great myth of Marcel's pisspot as the exemplar, indeed the "fountainhead", if you will, of everything that happened in the anti-pure-art branch of 20th C art.

It is nothing more than a legend folks. You are swallowing manufactured history, history based not on fact but on a good, easy to understand story which takes its place, as so often happens.

Really. I saw it happen.



November 25, 2009, 9:19 AM

Sorry for the overlong post, but I am really completely fed up the damn Duchamp legend.

David, Richter is my candidate for one of the half dozen most overrated artists of our time, based on auction prices. To my taste his paintings are cold to the point of painfulness, and his color is no better than a hack painter like Leroy Nieman. Jed Perl wrote an excellent review ofhis show at the Modern a few years back.


Chris Rywalt

November 25, 2009, 9:35 AM

A few of years ago I found a copy of an auction catalog someone was throwing out in Chelsea. I wrote about it. The short version is, OP, that I discovered what you witnessed, namely that Duchamp's story was exactly that, a story. I still find it amusing that "Fountain", seen in museums, is actually a very carefully handmade reproduction -- that, in fact, the six or so editions of "Fountain" are really sculptures, not readymades at all.

Part of me -- the fulminating part (I think my liver does a lot of the fulminating, actually) -- is very angry at the art world and its embrace of Duchamp, and by extension, angry at Duchamp himself. But part of me finds the whole joke hilarious. As practical jokes go -- as dada -- it's really pretty fantastic. It's a little like finding out that, whoops, Lenin was only joking about Communism, but still.


Chris Rywalt

November 25, 2009, 9:38 AM

The latest batch of Richter's, by the way, reminds me of what my friend Steve has been doing, only not as good. That is, Steve is better than Richter.



November 25, 2009, 9:56 AM

But Richter's German, OP. And Serious. And vague. And equivocal. Seriously vague and equivocal. And blurry. And he can mash bright colors together. What more do you want?



November 25, 2009, 10:01 AM

You're right, Jack. What more, indeed? I am just being totally unreasonable.



November 25, 2009, 10:32 AM

The universal opinion among all art people, including those who contribute here, who are certainly in the very top percent of thoughtful and intelligent observers, is that Duchamp is the father of all surrealism and the prime source for pop art and postmodernism and just about everything that is in any way "nonesthetic" in the world of visual art.

Not me, that's too sweeping, especially pop and surrealism. He made some surrealist pictures, but their influence was not that great. But when it comes to sharks, basketballs, and the like, he is an important source, the most important source, if you will (you probably won't), simply because he's the one everyone turns to for the ultimate justification.

You are swallowing manufactured history, history based not on fact but on a good, easy to understand story

A different way of saying that the memory of Duchamp is much bigger than what he did. I can add that a lot of art history is manufactured. What's remarkable about Duchamp's is that there is so little to base it upon. And thus not much to get in the way of imagination.

The narrative impulse in visual art is as old as visual art.

True, but Duchamp's legacy provides an explanation and justification more than a narration. All three are literal, but they are not the same thing. "Narration" is intrinsic to the picture or statue, "explanation and justification" are extrinsic. That's why the basketballs are so vacuous. There is no story in them, only a story about why they are so "valuable".

... he was only part of the movement, not the ... inspiration.

Fountain's appearance on the cover of Sothebey's final catalog for the 20th c. strongly suggests otherwise. The amusing "500 British art pros" who voted him the most influential artist of the 20th c. adds a pathetic touch.

It is nothing more than a legend folks.

Correct. But in this case legend and reputation are virtually the same thing. In the end, an artist's legacy is utterly dependent upon art opinion. Today the opinion on Duchamp is very very high. Whether he deserves it or not is beside the point of its reality. Well, beside the point today. Someday that could change.

Really I saw it happen.

I don't think this is contained by the past. It is still happening.



November 25, 2009, 10:56 AM

I wrote about Duchamp a few years ago - with a critique of the simplistic master narrative - in the context of a description of the large Joseph Cornell show in '07. I used Duchamp's Boites-en-Valise, which Cornell helped produce, and his friendship with Cornell as an excuse for some scattered ramblings for the craft crowd. I was really most interested in Cornell's poetry, and in proposing Cornell as a favorite uncle for contemporary studio crafts.

Duchamp and Cornell

As for Richter, I did just re-read Perl's piece and yes, yes. Still, I was trying to look at the latest things as though they were by my friend, the painter Gerhard, and not by GERHARD RICHTER. One interesting thing about Richter's photo based paintings - You need to move away from them for clarity, rather than towards them as I was describing above. And as is often the case, his paintings of his loved ones, especially the one of Sabine reading, are pretty sublime.


Chris Rywalt

November 25, 2009, 11:05 AM

Is Gerhard actually your friend or are you speaking metaphorically?



November 25, 2009, 11:09 AM

No no he's not my friend Chris. I also have friends who paint much much better.


Chris Rywalt

November 25, 2009, 11:36 AM

I think trying to look at someone's work as if they're your friend is an interesting idea. It's one I sometimes wonder about. Because I know for sure that I judge work differently if I know the artist. Part of me wishes I didn't, but then I think it's appropriate and okay. My judgment, too, gets cloudier the more I know the artist, I think; although there's a point where, maybe, if I know them well enough and feel they're strong enough, I can be really critical very freely. So it's sort of a curve, where I can treat artists I don't know about as badly as I can treat artists I know really well, but in between I find myself being nicer than perhaps I should.

Also, there are times when I know I'm holding back criticism, and there are times when I'm not consciously doing so, but I worry I might be fooling myself.

What this has led me to do, at times, is try to view an artist's work as if they're my friend or my brother-in-law or something, in an attempt to give them the benefit of the doubt. All that goes out the window, however, when I see work that's really bad.



November 25, 2009, 11:58 AM

Thanks for the URL to your essay David. Damn those baby Fountains are cute. And I never would have imagined that Duchamp's influence would spread into furniture making.

As far as your statement at the end about reproduction of Duchamp's works, I found one on Wiki that is claimed to be in the public domain: Fountain. The article on it quotes Calvin Tompkins (his biographer): "it does not take much stretching of the imagination to see in the upside-down urinal's gently flowing curves the veiled head of a classic Renaissance madonna or a seated Buddha or, perhaps more to the point, one of Brâncuşi's polished erotic forms." My word. D did select a relatively good looking urinal, compared to what I see these days, and turning it on its back helped some too, but Tompkins demonstrates just how much "manufacturing" goes into art history. Interesting that Tompkins also said that the original piece was probably thrown out as rubbish by Stiegliz, after he photographed it.

The "true' history of Fountain appears to be:

1917: the real deal purchased at a plumbing shop.
1950: Duchamp authorized repro exhibited
1953: Another authorized repro
1963: Yet another repro
1964: Edition of eight in earthenware glazed to resemble the original's porcelain, with signature in black paint produced. Members of this edition are now in the collections of the Tate, Centre Georges Pompidou, Philadelphia Museum, Frisco Museum of Modern, and Indiana University's museum.



November 25, 2009, 12:05 PM

The original was in Steigltz's gallery after the exhibit, and was photographed in what looks like an inventory photo at some point. I could never find any info on what happened to it, and Duchamp himself didn't know. Perhaps some enterprising plumber made more appropriate use of it.



November 25, 2009, 12:13 PM

Opie, I didn't mean to imply that Duchamp started EVERYTHING with Fountain. I just used it as the starting date for presentational art (though actually it started with the less deliberately offensive Bicycle Wheel of four years earlier). By "presentational" I mean art that instead of depicting an object, consists of the object itself (not how it's presented but what is actually presented). Not a picture of a Brillo box, but rather the actual box (or at least a fascimile so accurately done that it looks like an actual box). Not a picture of a bed, but an actual bed, with actual sheets and a quilt (?) and pillow. Duchamp was reacting against the "purely retinal" art of Analytic Cubism, which looked like pure abstractions to horrified art lovers of his day (even though in retrospect we can see references to actual objects). Rauschenberg, Warhol et al. were reacting against the (mostly) pure abstraction of abstract expressionism, trying to act (as Rauschenberg put it) in "the gap" between art & life by reintroducing subject matter that could be described in words and hence thought about as opposed to merely appreciated (you have to be able to describe something in words in order to think about it, as we think in words). Rauschenberg, Warhol & all the rest of their generation certainly knew about Duchamp, who was living in NYC throughout the 40s & 50s, leading an active social life & being represented in occasional shows and accorded generous coverage by the press (both art press & Time & Life). But that doesn't mean these younger artists were necessarily imitating him. I think rather their minds simply worked in similar ways, as having a common "enemy" in abstraction and choosing parallel means to get "beyond" it(how I hate this word, "beyond" when applied to dada & neo-dada & pop & their relationship to the art that preceded them. Actually, reverting to figurative art was a step backward, but because both the materials used to create the objects & the subject matter depicted in conventional paintings (soup cans, comic strips) hadn't been used before in the fine arts, they could be described as a step "beyond" to the many people who welcomed them, having been pretty much at sea throughout the early 50s when ab-ex was the reigning avant-garde). PS David, thanks for mentioning Richter at Marion Goodman. I shall try to get to see it.



November 25, 2009, 12:32 PM

Richter's "September 2009" is a pretty strong painting over all. There's a smear that looks just like the 727 which makes a kind of case for abstraction and realism as two sides of the same coin.

September 2009



November 25, 2009, 12:53 PM

"Thanks for the URL to your essay David. Damn those baby Fountains are cute."

Aren't they just too adorable?

"And I never would have imagined that Duchamp's influence would spread into furniture making."

It's a strange thing about contemporary craft these days that most makers, as we call them, study or teach in academic institutions and so are well indoctrinated in the master narratives, such as they are. Many furniture makers do go on to a "journeyman" phase if they really want to develop their skills, although many just go back into academia and the journeyman experience is more and more carried out in academic environs. Those who have ambitions to be part of the big contemporary conversations about art start with the same old stories about Duchamp and I'm afraid rarely advance much beyond them.



November 25, 2009, 12:54 PM

Here's the actual quote from my book (in Chapter 23, on the reception of abstract expressionism in the '50s): "An untraditional foe of abstract painting was living in New York in the ’50s: Marcel Duchamp, who voiced his dislike for “retinal” painting to anybody who would listen, and who was affectionately described by McBride in 1950 as “the acknowledged but unofficial ambassador of good will from France to this country....” Duchamp was far from invisible, even in the early ’50s. Volume 8 of The Art Index (November 1950–October 1953) listed eight entries for him, and eight more under “dadaism” (after subtracting for duplication). Besides stories in Art News and The Art Digest, this list included one in Time and two in Life." Henry McBride was the art critic for the New York Sun in the 40s; after the Sun was merged with the World Telegram in 1950, he contributed to Art News (from which this quote was taken). This was all more than a decade before I started writing about art for Time -- I was only graduating from high school in 1952.


Chris Rywalt

November 25, 2009, 1:11 PM

David, September 2009 doesn't seem to be a painting but "print between glass", whatever that is. In fact that whole show is all over the map: Oil on wood, oil on canvas, and oil on something called "aludibond" which I can't figure out but which may be aluminum sheets to which photo paper can be bonded.



November 25, 2009, 1:25 PM

(Piri) That wicked uncle Marcel.

And Chris about "September 2009". Curiouser and curiouser. May just have to go see the show - as a craft artist you understand.



November 25, 2009, 1:35 PM

A little jive:

Takatori 1
Takatori 2
Takatori 3
Takatori 4

It's a sake cup, smaller than it looks (3.5 inches lip diameter by about 2 inches high).



November 25, 2009, 2:11 PM

David, now that I think about it, I should not have been surprised. I wrote about the same phenomenon for a glass magazine (NEW WORK), the title of which was "The Problem of Imitation". It seemed, from the show I reviewed, that glassblowers wanted to be big time artists, and had gravitated to where the big time artists were written up, to find their clues - the art mags of the day. Imitate the "major" artists they did, sometimes with a better result because of the intrinsic appeal of glass, but their problem was the starting point - the wrong cave.

Today it strikes me that the shallower the stuff, the easier it is to spread, and the more likely it is to find support in the academy. Really deep art inspires, but does not readily spread, though it does evolve from one generation to the next.

In that glass show the best things were the ones that hung on to their tradition and carried it into the present. I was told my praise for those artists, Richard Ritter in particular, upset "the Studio Glass Movement" tremendously. I wonder whatever happened to all that.



November 25, 2009, 2:14 PM

Jack's jive - nice to look at. Thanks.


Chris Rywalt

November 25, 2009, 2:49 PM

I may have to put the Richter show on my list also, David. Just to keep up.


Chris Rywalt

November 25, 2009, 3:21 PM

From the sound of Jerry's review of Richter, he had to change his pants afterward. One thing he notes which I didn't get from the images on the gallery site: This show is connected in some way to September 11th. I didn't see it but now I see that September 2009 is very reminiscent of 2001.



November 25, 2009, 4:26 PM

Re Saltz, I'm sorry, Chris, but he lost me at "ultrapowerful technique" in the review heading. I have a very low tolerance for breathlessness or hyperventilation, especially from someone who's a known problem.


Chris Rywalt

November 25, 2009, 5:21 PM

I don't always agree with Jerry but this time he really went off the deep end. It makes me sad because if Jerry could only see my friend Steve's work in a blue-chip gallery, he'd probably write the most glowing review since the Gospels and then drop dead. Instead Steve is toiling away in obscurity (and now fighting cancer) and Richter is cutting out Jerry's column for his bulging scrapbook.



November 25, 2009, 6:06 PM

Chris, you have a 2005 Saltz piece on your blog called "Seeing Out Loud" which I didn't finish reading because it was too embarrassing. I mean, I suppose he deserves credit bor being relatively unguarded, but all things considered, maybe he should opt for trying to fake it better.



November 25, 2009, 6:07 PM

That should have read "for being" not "bor being," obviously.



November 25, 2009, 6:38 PM

I feel sorryt for Jerry Saltz. I have read columns by him in the past that were models of tough common sense. Now he is "brought to his knees" by Gerhard Richter.

This picture illustrated in the article is apparently one of those which caused Saltz to nearly faint with delight, exclaiming about Richter's "discovery" of techniques which Olitski and many others were using to far greater effect almost 40 years ago. It is a vapid, ineffectual blue smudge which would fade off the wall next to a Kinkade. And some fool will exchange millions of dollars for it.

The art business is surely nothing more than a somewhat stabilized incarnation and sublimation of human lunacy. There is nothing we can do about it except go back to the studio and paint.


Chris Rywalt

November 25, 2009, 7:00 PM

I'm not going to judge the new Richters here, because I haven't seen them in person, but I can say that, yes, Jerry can sometimes be insane. He loves Matthew Barney, for example, and has for a long time. Completely incomprehensible to me (the love for Barney, not his movies).

I can say that the squeegee kind of thing has been popping up a lot of places. Steve LaRose does some, and I also really like Harold Hollingsworth. I've seen it in a few other places. The squeegee is the new drip, or something. I don't care about the fad so much as I care about the result. I think Steve's got the goods, and I think Harold does too, but I don't know about Richter.

As far as Jerry goes, and "Seeing Out Loud", I link to that essay because I like it a lot. It's Jerry when he's good. Just my opinion of course.


Chris Rywalt

November 25, 2009, 7:05 PM

Rereading it, I have to admit that stuff like "I'm interested in people who rethink skill, who redefine or reimagine it: an engineer, say, who builds rockets from rocks." is pretty stupid.

Then again, when he quotes Melville or writes, "Good criticism should be vulnerable, chancy, candid, and nervy. It should give permission, have attitude, maybe a touch of rebellion, never be sanctimonious or dull, and be written in a distinctive, readable way." I have to agree.



November 25, 2009, 7:19 PM

Chris, just to cite one small example again, no self-respecting critic would ever use the phrase "ultrapowerful technique." That kind of crude bombast is what I'd expect from some Hollywood mogul/trophy collector. To me, it's an obvious red flag. And let's not talk about "mojo."


Chris Rywalt

November 25, 2009, 7:33 PM

You can't talk about mojo. You either have it, or you ain't.

I do think Jerry sometimes drops into the vernacular a bit more than he should. Especially since he's not some street urchin but a New York Jew, with all the intellectual history that implies. (Although I'm not sure if he grew up in New York.)

Still, I appreciate his direct style. Unlike, say, Donald Kuspit, who also says good things but couched in enervating prolixity.



November 25, 2009, 7:44 PM

"You can't talk about mojo. You either have it, or you ain't."

Maybe you should tell Saltz. Somebody should.



November 25, 2009, 9:58 PM

OK, Chris, I read all of that Saltz what-I'm-about piece. This part, near the start, is what stopped me in my tracks before (italics mine):

"I don't look for skill in art; I look for originality, surprise, obsession, energy, experimentation, something visionary, and a willingness to embarrass oneself in public. Skill has nothing to do with technical proficiency; it has to do with being flexible and creative. I'm interested in people who rethink skill, who redefine or reimagine it: an engineer, say, who builds rockets from rocks."

I'm sorry, but that's embarrassing, and also shows symptoms of the now endemic Artworld Disease. It'd be embarrassing if you'd written it, but coming from Saltz, it's practically laughable.

Then we have this:

"Having an eye in criticism is as important as having an ear in music."

No shit, Sherlock. He continues:

"It [having an eye] means discerning the original from the derivative, the inspired from the smart, the remarkable from the common, and not looking at art in narrow, academic, or "objective" ways. It means engaging uncertainty and contingency, suspending disbelief, and trying to create a place for doubt, unpredictability, curiosity, and openness."

Then this:

"Critics must connect their opinions to a larger set of circumstances; present cogent arguments; show how work does or doesn't seem relevant, is or isn't derivative; explain why an artist is or isn't growing."

Again, evident symptoms of the disease, and note how, while concerned with "originality," and of course "relevance," he never mentions evaluating art in terms of formal values. I guess that's too "objective." Or maybe the concept simply hasn't occurred to him or strikes him as "academic."

I'll grant you that, elsewhere in the piece, he makes a number of sensible statements, but they're so common-sensical that they shouldn't even need to be articulated.

Again, given his clearly undeserved status as a major critic, this is simply unacceptable. Like I always say, if you want to be a diva, you'd damn better be able to sing like one. And I mean a real one.



November 25, 2009, 11:16 PM

Having an eye means being able to tell what is good. A critic who feels obliged to list characteristis is lost before he begins.



November 25, 2009, 11:36 PM

Oh, I thought some of what Saltz said about having an eye made sense. The trouble is that he simply doesn't have one. I spent about 5 minutes at the Richter show today --- will have to go back to study it in more detail before I write it up in my column, but what amazed me, at first glance, was the pretentiousness of it all, the acres & acres of mostly to entirely mediocre abstract paintings. I mean, maybe some of them are not bad (as I say, I haven't studied them in detail). But it's as though Richter emptied his studio of every abstract painting he's made for the last 5 years, occupying all of Marion Goodman's oversized space on the 4th floor, then spilling down into her little annex on the 3rd floor, where one "painting" is simply a piece of mirror, fastened to the wall. Puleese!



November 25, 2009, 11:47 PM

Just as brazen hucksterism "becomes" Hirst, and slick banality "becomes" Koons, pretentiousness "becomes" Richter. Think of it as different flavors of (bull)shit.



November 26, 2009, 12:22 AM

No jive:

Hagi 1
Hagi 2
Hagi 3

It's a sake cup. I like how it's like some sort of seashell, a created object that remains highly organic.



November 26, 2009, 11:41 AM

The trouble with Richter is that he rarely finishes a picture. Decent to good starts abound, but he leaves it there. He might be better off simplifying his starts so the temptation to call it quits too soon would be abated. But then, there is always the siren call of old-enough-to-be-valid minimalism that could be as equally tempting to the disaster of stopping too soon.

Then again, I may be giving these things too much credit. Instead of unfulfilled starts, they may simply be dead ends, the point at which Richter's talent runs out and his intellect takes over.

To hark back to a comment from opie (#49), Leroy Nieman at least finishes his illustrations or whatever they are. His talent is up to the task of carrying his limited ambition to a point of rest.

I suppose I ought to be grateful that Saltz is giving credibility to abstract painting as a type worth looking at. Typecasting art is treacherous, but it has come to that with respect to abstraction. I don't mind at all the help, twisted as it is.

To Piri (#84), five minutes may not be quite enough, but I find my first take is usually the best one. The exception is when I confront something that is raw, in which case I have to give it longer, so that I can pass through the rawness, to see if there is anything on the other side. But regardless of whether you see his pictures as cold or unfinished, Richter isn't raw. My bet is you are not going to like that show no matter how long you look at it.



November 26, 2009, 12:07 PM

Richter's paintings don't deal with their edges well, if at all.



November 26, 2009, 2:38 PM

Here are some photos of Richter's use of some of those 70s 'color charts for a giant stained glass window in Cologne Cathedral:

Cathedral 1

Cathedral 2

Cathedral 3

Stick to what you know, Gerhard.


Chris Rywalt

November 26, 2009, 5:59 PM

Those cathedral windows are hideous and wrong. I think they might be actively insulting, certainly to casual viewers, and maybe also more specifically to real stained glass artists. Somewhere there's a true artist and craftsman who didn't get that commission.



November 26, 2009, 6:19 PM

And to have allowed that in one of the truly great landmarks of Western civilization! But that is just the thing that has been occurring in Europe since WW2.



November 26, 2009, 7:31 PM

As far as the responsible parties are concerned, this is probably no different from what Matisse did at St. Paul de Vence, though in reality it's obviously totally different.



November 26, 2009, 7:45 PM

Jack, I want to believe that the relationship between those nuns and Matisse who attended him during his convolescence, which led to the Vence chapel, was not at all the same as the relationship between Richter and whomever. But I don't know. It has me curious.



November 26, 2009, 7:51 PM

I mean Matisse and those nuns who attended him... It's the tryptophan.



November 26, 2009, 8:21 PM

I'm thinking the difference is that Matisse had a real elationship with those nuns. But with Richter, it is a case of a branded artist's deal getting slathered all over everything whether it works or not.



November 26, 2009, 8:32 PM

I think I wasn't sufficiently clear. I meant that it was probably no different in the minds of the responsible parties, or in their opinion. I personally have no doubt that it was an entirely different situation, and obviously the one involving Matisse was far more valid and legitimate.



November 26, 2009, 9:55 PM

Jack, perhaps I'm a little slow on the uptake this evening. By 'responsible parties,' do you mean those who signed the checks? The Church?



November 26, 2009, 10:11 PM

I meant Richter and whoever sought, approved and/or negotiated his doing those windows.



November 27, 2009, 11:41 AM

The good thing about the Richter stained glass is that it'll be easy enough to remove.


Chris Rywalt

November 27, 2009, 12:14 PM

I think, Jack, you're probably right, also, about whoever brokered the deals, whoever financed them and set them up, assuming Matisse didn't work out it entirely by himself dealing directly with the nuns.

You know, guy with fat checkbook, or guy in charge of organization with fat checkbook, says, "Wouldn't it be great if..." and finds Big Name Artist to add work to building. Whether it's Matisse or Richter, to the guy with the checkbook it's the same, because all the Mr. Checkbook knows is Big Name Artist is a well-known brand and Mr. Checkbook will be known to other checkbook-bearing types as the guy who made the deal.



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