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Cotter Sings a Swan Song

Post #1659 • March 12, 2014, 2:07 PM

Covering the Whitney Biennial, Holland Cotter makes an astonishing admission (emphasis mine).

In an interview, [Michelle] Grabner said forthrightly that she did not take her primary mission to be the tracking down of young talent. She mostly chose artists in mid- or mid-late career, many of them women. Good idea.

Several are painters — Louise Fishman, Jacqueline Humphries, Dona Nelson, Amy Sillman, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung — who work in variations on gestural abstraction. Their work is hung together in one gallery, which may not have been the best move. In the enclosed space, so many energy-generating pictures short-circuit one another a bit.

Still, it’s an impressive display of formal chops, though I come to it with a handicap. I find Abstract Expressionism, a historical style referenced here, overrated and pretentious, a bore. Why would anyone want to bother with it, except maybe to do some constructive damage, which is the option that Ms. Nelson and Ms. Zuckerman-Hartung, in interestingly unalike ways, seem to take: Ms. Zuckerman-Hartung slices up the canvas (or, in her case, a dropcloth); Ms. Nelson messes up the surface with applications of ratty-looking, driplike skeins of paint-soaked cheesecloth.

In general, Modernism — recycled, retooled, whatever — hangs like a mist over the fourth floor, particularly over ceramics that might as easily date from 70 years ago as from today.

Whatever, indeed. That "historical style" bit is a jab—notice that all the Pop-derived work doesn't get the same characterization—and he claims to have no idea why anyone would bother with it. He could try asking some artists working thus, but that would presuppose that he wants an answer.

Cotter and his ilk have waged a forty-year battle against abstraction, considered not as art, but as an expression of politics and values they don't like, and it's clear that this battle is lost. The natural process by which viable ways of making art lose and regain vitality over the course of decades prevailed instead, to Cotter's chagrin. In fact it has become necessary to point out that the war is over to the people who are still fighting it.

If Cotter had made this admission at the beginning of his career it might never have started. It's one thing to be an artist and have no use for a whole genre like that, but for an art critic it's philistinism. Good critics have strong biases, but can get in front of a work of art and judge that one work. Failing that, one leaves criticism of that genre to other writers not inclined to hate it. One does not approach work about which one has a handicap as Cotter put it, and cram it through the sieve of one's own crippled prejudices. Cotter, in retrospect, should not have been allowed near the 2011 de Kooning retrospective at MoMA:

Of course it does much more. In its scale, créme-de-la-créme editing and processional sweep it's MoMA in excelsis, and for many people it will probably represent this institution's history writing at its best. Yet for a while now the museum has been immersed in another history writing project, and an even more essential one, in its continuing and undersung efforts to historicize Conceptualism, the single most influential art movement of the last third of the 20th century.

Conceptual Art, in its classic 1960s form, might appear, at first glance, to be the very opposite of de Kooning's art, though they have much in common. Both are equally obsessed with the material world, whether in trying to erase or embrace it. Both privilege ideas above ego. (De Kooning said many times that his art incorporated but was not about personal expression.) And both are fundamentally expansive in spirit. Conceptualism keeps open a door through which all kinds of fresh creative impulses can flow. The art of de Kooning, so generous and undoctrinaire, does the same.

Cotter is such a thrall to conceptualism that he'll even turn a de Kooning show into an opportunity to fluff for it. Of course, he loves the Alzheimer's-period works, suggesting that he likes abstract painting better when gelded.

From the sound of it, at least to my ear, Cotter is drawing his career at the Times to close, shooting erratically behind him as he retreats in a rout. I thought as much back in January when he reprised an old theme in his writings, in which he associates painting with the market and the market with evil. The above makes me certain of it. As Michelle Grabner put it to James Scarborough,

Now I get to witness the exhibition's bludgeoning by the press. It reminds me that this is truly the people's show. And by "people" I mean artists. And all feel empowered to immediately weigh-in on the Biennial's failings and failed proposition. It is a real blood sport and honestly it is amusing to observe.

Let it be noted that Cotter has supplied some of that amusement.

(Hat tips: George Negroponte, Ernie Sandidge, Steven Kaplan.)

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