Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Art World as a Subculture

Detail: Jan Vermeer, The Art of Painting, c.1666-73, oil on canvas (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
By Charles Kessler

Since reading Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton and Paper Monument’s droll pamphlet on how to behave in the art world, I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette, I’ve been thinking about how the art world, at least the art world I’m familiar with, is a subculture.

Although Sarah Thornton spent five years researching her book, the conceit is that she spends one day in each of seven different art venues: Christie’s auction house, Michael Asher’s class at CalArts, Basel art fair, Turner Prize jury, Artforum, Takashi Murakami’s studio and the Venice Biennale. (Significantly, she skips art museums as a venue, probably because her emphasis is on the art market.) She takes an anthropological approach to the subject. Here are some excerpts:

p. 58: Although the art world is frequently characterized as a classless scene where artists from lower-middle-class backgrounds drink champagne with high-priced hedge-fund managers, scholarly curators, fashion designers, and other “creatives,” you’d be mistaken if you thought this world was egalitarian or democratic. Art is about experimenting and ideas, but it’s also about excellence and exclusion. In a society where everyone is looking for a little distinction, it’s an intoxicating combination.

P. 88: Unlike other industries, where buyers are anonymous and interchangeable, here artists’ reputations are enhanced or contaminated by the people who own their art.

P.118: Artists are meant to find their own paths, make their own rules, and compete with themselves. If they develop a habit of looking over their shoulders, they risk being derivative. But if they are completely ignorant of the hierarchical world in which they operate, then they are in danger of being outsider artists, caught in the bog of their own consciousness, too preciously idiosyncratic to be taken seriously.

And the Paper Monument pamphlet, although tongue in cheek, has some astute and funny insights such as this on introductions at art openings: Within the art world, this form [an introduction] is made even more complex by the ambivalence with which the art community views professionalization. In less rarefied social contexts, simple devices, such as the name-tag, are used to ease the difficulty of introductions. And this on proper dress:  Artists are not only permitted but are in fact required to be underdressed at formal institutional functions. But egregious slovenliness without regard to context is a childish ploy, easily seen through.

I’ve come up with some other miscellaneous observations about the art world, at least the New York fine art subculture. Please keep in mind, I’m not saying these things are good or bad; I’m just having some fun pointing them out.

Continuing with dress: that artists dress more casually than dealers or collectors might explain why Jeff Koons's suits are so disconcerting. And do you remember in the mid eighties when it was fashionable for dealers to wear a suit and shirt without a tie, but with the top buttoned? There was something creepy about that. And finally, it’s no longer considered appropriate to go to openings disheveled and in paint-spattered clothes. Good looking has become fashionable (go figure) -- just check out Williamsburg on a nice Saturday afternoon.

Unconventionality in general is more acceptable in the art world. For artists, it’s more or less expected, less so for dealers, curators and other people in the art world, and even less for collectors. Tolerance for a wide variety of lifestyle choices and living arrangements is much greater in the art world, although it seems drugs and alcohol, especially if consumed in immoderate amounts, is becoming less acceptable. Racism, sexism, homophobia and conservative politics in general, are unusual in the art world, if not totally taboo.

Jargon can seem ridiculous, but it also serves a purpose. It can be a useful short-hand for talking about ideas common to a group. For example, in the art world the word “ironic” has unique and multiple implications related to Post Modern Art. The language specific to a subculture can also serve as a clue revealing whether or not a person is part of the subculture — an auditory secret handshake, so to speak. For example, if someone uses "arty" to mean "artful" or "artwork" instead of either "art" or "work," or "showing" for a show or exhibition, it sends off warning bells that this person isn't really part of the art- world subculture. There may be better examples than these, but the general point is true. (I’ll leave a discussion of snobbery, elitism and arrogance for another post.)
For amusing samples of art world jargon, check out Concepttshirts, a British website that randomly generates art jargon (which they charmingly call "art bollocks").  

The art world has an idiosyncratic approach to money: it isn’t everything — it’s not even the main thing. For artists, the respect of other artists and other people who care about art, and the feeling that they are contributing to a fine art tradition that goes back thousands of years, is more important. Collectors can't buy their way into the art-world subculture, and those who try become a butt of ridicule. And there is an acknowledged ladder of success that doesn’t necessarily involve more money, climbing from the first group show in an alternative space, to a solo show in a gallery, to a retrospective in a museum, etc., with many steps in between. And finally, there are some ways of making money that are more acceptable than others. Earning a living as a designer or carpenter or an art teacher, even if they’re full-time jobs, is okay, but it’s not considered legitimate for artists to support themselves as a doctor or a lawyer. Writing art criticism used to be frowned on (Barnett Newman was considered suspect by his colleagues because he wrote about art), but thanks to Don Judd and others, it’s become acceptable. Likewise, it’s okay for an artist to be an art dealer now.

There are rules to the art market game. The Financial Times had a well-researched article on Annie Leibovitz and the repercussions of her not complying with accepted art-world business practices. Leibovitz is at least as good as other fashion and society photographers such as Richard Avedon or Irving Penn but can only get a fraction of what they get for their photos. According to the article: The problem is that, as Jeffrey Boloten, a managing director of the ArtInsight consultancy in London, puts it: “You do have to play by the art market rules.” That means working closely with auction houses and galleries and doing what they tell you, from making small limited editions of your prints to signing and marketing them adeptly.

Some miscellaneous observations on what’s uncool for galleries:
  • hanging art salon style or in any way that’s too busy;
  • selling tchotchkes or other things besides art;
  • pasting very large red dots near art that sold;
  • presenting contemporary art in elaborate frames;
  • lighting paintings using picture lights that hang directly over a painting or are attached to the frame;
  • being unduly friendly — a friend jokingly observed that there’s an inverse correlation between how good a gallery is and how friendly they are.

Some miscellaneous observations on what’s uncool for artists:
  • showing paintings outside, but showing sculpture is okay;
  • passing out announcements for your show at someone else's opening, but distributing business cards seems to have become more acceptable;
  • sleeping with students used to be considered a teaching perk, now it’s taboo;
  • paying to be in an exhibition, but co-op galleries are all right;
  • promoting your work aggressively;
  • not having an art studio — in fact it seems the more living space devoted art the better.

In addition, the art world has its own systems for production (art supply stores, print and ceramic studios); systems for promotion and sales (art galleries, studio sales, museums, alternative spaces); information and communication sources (art magazines, websites and blogs, artists' bars and other hangouts; studio visits, art fairs, openings); and ways to educate (colleges, art schools and informal mentoring -- too bad apprenticeships don't exist anymore).

Again, I’m not judging these things -- I’m just pointing them out. If you have any observations to add, please comment.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Some Worthwhile Reading

By Charles Kessler
It's good to know that I'm not the only writer to go over the top for an artist I love. Jonathan Jones of the Guardian, one of my favorite art writers, waxes eloquent here about Douglas Gordon:
Douglas Gordon is as profound, serious, imaginative and stylistically bold as anyone could wish an artist to be. He has matured in richer, more surprising ways than any of his contemporaries. He is the best British artist of my generation and I am glad his sublime exhibition now on at London's Gagosian Gallery gives me an opportunity to say so.
 Art organizations are putting more of their archives and publications on the web. Rhizome, the main organization that presents and preserves technology-oriented art, especially web-art, has at last created an invaluable online archive. And The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has so far put 28 of its past exhibition catalogs online and intends to publish more. Included are famous ones like: Art and Technology, 1971, by Maurice Tuchman; The New York School, 1965, by Maurice Tuchman; Billy Al Bengston, 1968, by James Monte (the one with the sandpaper cover); Ed Keinholz, 1966, by Maurice Tuchman; German Expressionist Sculpture, 1989, by Stephanie Barron; and Chaim Soutine, 1968, by Maurice Tuchman. I hope other organizations will follow their example.
Edward Keinholz, Back Seat Dodge '38, 1964 (LACMA)
Will Brand, guest blogging on Art Fag City, has posted on "Terrible" and "Great" gallery websites. He makes several good points that apply equally to artists' websites. Criticizing Pace Gallery's website, which I have also complained about, Brand says:
...the problem here isn’t a lack of information but its absolute uselessness.
...Having a creative site structure doesn’t do you any good in most businesses: if I’ve been looking at gallery after gallery arranged around the same Artists/Exhibitions/News/Publications/About menu, I start to categorize my desires according to that menu; any other structure becomes disorienting and takes longer to navigate. There’s a reason why grocery stores all have the sugar next to the tea, and the butter next to the milk – these systems help people get things done faster.
Features he likes:
Lots of exhibition archives go way back – Gagosian begins at 1989, and Luhring Augustine offers invitation cards dating to 1985 – but how much useful information is made available? Matthew Marks does an excellent job – in particular, artist CVs link to past exhibitions outside Matthew Marks.
... Friedrich Petzel‘s website is clean and functional, but the highlight is the PDF press packages the gallery makes for artists which includes otherwise hard-to-find stuff from journals like Parkett.
...Photographs: Big ones, please, and ones I can use without taking a screenshot and mucking about in Photoshop – which means less Flash.
Bushwick artist Jon Rafman has compiled an impressive collection of surreal, bizarre or just plain beautiful images from Google Street View.
To celebrate their 15th anniversary, artnet, one of the first internet sites to cover art business, news and reviews, has posted a selection of articles from their archives. Included are articles by Lee Rosenbaum (CultureGrrl blog); Eleanor Heartney (art critic and author); and John Good (now director of the Gagosian Gallery). The articles give a sense of the scene in those years, but they're still relevant today.

Finally, the cocky young hotshot Peter Plagens, now approaching 70 (WHAT??), looks back at how the art world has changed. In his typically funny, cynical, insightful, infuriating, brilliant and glib manner, he nails it. Here's a taste:
...There’s no such thing as a “vanguardist” because there’s no such thing as an avant-garde. True, some artists still push the envelope of what’s permissible in sexual and political content, or what’s legal in terms of doing things on public property, or what’s doable in terms of technological sophistication and complexity, or what galleries and museums will put up with in the way of physical risk, inconvenience and insurance liability. But artists doing those sorts of things is so expected it’s almost academic.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


By Charles Kessler

Once again, despite the bad economy, more galleries have opened on the Lower East Side than closed. The one major fatality I know about is Collette Blanchard, formerly at 26 Clinton Street. Rumor has it she's curating shows somewhere in Asia. 

Reena Spaulings Fine Art doesn't answer their door bell or phone, and they have nothing on their website for after March 13th; but Reena Spaulings is a fictional artist/art dealer spawned by an art collective, so you never know what's up with them. Hell, they list 221 E. Broadway as the address of the gallery when they're on Rutgers Street, 1/2 block below E. Broadway. I must admit I'm getting tired of their shtick.

Three galleries moved from other spaces on the Lower East Side. Ramiken Crucible's original space has been closed for the winter and may reopen in the spring, but in the meantime they opened another space (just called Ramiken), at 389 Grand Street, conveniently close to Kosars and Doughnut Plant, and down a short path between a liquor store and a park. As you can tell from the photos below (taken from their website), it's a vast improvement. The old space was hard to find, dark, low and creepy; the new space is light (almost bucolic!) and nicely proportioned. A provocative show is there until May 1st -- see it if you like snakes.
Number 35 Gallery also moved to a much nicer space, and a bigger one. It's too bad for them that a neighbor, Collette Blanchard, closed, but there's still a critical mass of good galleries nearby.  Sloan Fine Art, for example, has a high-spirited group show (through March 26th) of about a thousand+  works on used MetroCards. In any case, Number 35 consistently has good shows, and Cindy Rucker, the gallery director, is amiably informative about the work, so it's well worth the extra few blocks.

A potentially major contributor to this area is the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center (CSV), 107 Suffolk Street near Rivington). It's been around since the early nineties, but the five-story former school has been blighted by ugly scaffolding and graffiti for at least six years, and I'm told the building won't be finished until 2019. Too bad. That scaffolding is a depressing eyesore. Maybe they could hire artists and/or architects to come up with something more cheerful, or at least more interesting.
Google Street View of Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center
But even now CSV provides subsidies for forty-three artist studios, stages plays in four theaters (Art House Productions did a terrific play there a few years ago), provides several rehearsal spaces, and mounts art exhibitions in two spaces: the LES Gallery downstairs (which is also a bar/cafe), and a more felicitous "clean white space," the Abrazo Interno Gallery on the second floor. Who knows, maybe the Lower East Side will someday have another PS1 (the vital PS1 of old, that is, not the conventional establishment it's become). Please note, CSV's hours differ from usual gallery hours -- they're open 3:30 - 7 PM every day.

DCKT moved from a bright, long space on Bowery near the New Museum to a small, somewhat cluttered (at least during this over-crowded show) storefront on 237 Eldridge Street below Houston where the Horton (a.k.a., Sunday) gallery used to be.

Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery used to be in Williamsburg, and off the beaten track even for there, then they moved to Chelsea for a month or so. Now they've settled into a small, relatively high space, but a nicely proportioned one at 54 Ludlow (just below Grand). It's on the ground floor, but you need to walk down a short corridor to get to it. They've shown good work in the past and are worth checking regularly. The Munch Gallery, 245 Broome Street (just west of Ludlow) is new. They have a small, narrow storefront in a great location near a lot of other galleries and the Ten Bells Bar. Mark Miller Gallery (not to be confused with Marc Miller of the 98Bowery website) has a small (750 SF), rather busy storefront space with a 950 SF basement on 92 Orchard Street, around the corner from the Munch Gallery. Miller is president of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District and is an enthusiastic promoter of the galleries. Among other things he's involved with is LES Third Thursdays -- when many galleries stay open from 6 PM to 9 PM.

Finally, I should mention CultureFix, 9 Clinton Street (below Houston -- get to the gallery through the bar/cafe on the ground floor, or through digitalfix, a store upstairs). CultureFix is another of the bar/cafe/art galleries now common on the LES. They took over the Greene Gallery's space, across from where Collette Blanchard was. I single them out because they are open during normal gallery hours, show work on a regular basis, and have a separate space devoted to the gallery -- unfortunately things the other bar/cafe/art galleries don't do.

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer, and lives in Jersey City.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Starry Night / Starless Night

By Charles Kessler

Charles Garabedian, Starless Night, 2009, acrylic on paper, 48" x 81". Collection of the artist. Photo courtesy of L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice, CA.
I couldn’t get this painting out of my mind. It was one of the newest works in the Charles Garabedian retrospective that I just blogged about. The painting is unusual in that he foregoes the universality of the nude so typical of his past work, but Garabedian nonetheless captures the unfortunate universality of mankind’s mad drive to destroy.
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, Saint Remy, June 1889, Oil on Canvas, 29" x 36" (MoMA)
The title is an obvious reference to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and the paintings have several things in common. Both depict a small village in a large landscape.  Both artists draw with paint, employing vigorous and bold brushwork with very little blending of colors (although the shoe and helmet of the crouching soldier are blended beautifully and seem to glow from within).  Mostly they paint with flat strokes fitted together like a puzzle, or with squiggly strokes scumbled and scrubbed with a quick back-and-forth motion.
Click on image to enlarge
And they are similar in the way they use the medium of painting expressively. Van Gogh's swirling brushwork, like Leonardo’s Deluge drawings, evokes the power of nature in a very visceral way. It’s not a mere representation of power; it’s a re-creation of it. Likewise, the chilling impact of Starless Night is re-created by the starkness of the painting itself — the crude, sometimes ugly brushwork, the dry, matte surface, and the flimsiness of the wrinkly paper.

But the really interesting thing is their differences — and their subject matter couldn’t be more different. The Van Gogh, of course, is about the awesome power of God or nature. The man-made structures of Saint-Remy, even the church steeple, look puny in comparison to this cosmic spectacle. Garabedian’s subject, on the other hand, is about man-made ruination. The only celestial activity in the bleak sky is smoke from the village inferno (Vietnam?), and the earth has become a desolate and ravaged ruin. Even the strangely beautiful pool of water looks toxic (radioactive?) in this context.

But it gets even more horrific. The crouching, hollow-eyed soldier, his face demonically glowing from the village fire, is holding something, and I think it’s a hand grenade. After laying waste to the village, is he intending to kill the sleeping soldier and himself too?  And the ordinariness of the act, like the soldiers executing prisoners in Goya's Third of May or Manet's Execution of Maximilian, makes it even more chilling.

Starless Night is a very depressing painting — and unfortunately for us, it says a lot about our era.

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer and lives in Jersey City.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Charles Garabedian Retrospective

By Charles Kessler
Installation view, Charles Garabedian Retrospective, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Photo: Brian Forrest
I came away from the Charles Garabedian retrospective in Santa Barbara California with the conviction that Garabedian, at the age of 87, is probably the best living artist in the world — definitely the most vital. There, I said it! Comment all you want -- Garabedian is the best! His work has the range of Bruce Nauman, the inventiveness of Richard Tuttle, the pure beauty of Helen Frankenthaler (when he wants to), and the power of Anthony Caro — and let’s face it, Lichtenstein, Stella, Kelly, even Johns, are dull compared to Garabedian.  (Let's not get into a comparison with Garabedian's LA compatriot architect Frank Gehry, although that might be an interesting topic for another post.)

So who is this guy? He shows with major galleries (Betty Cuningham in New York where you can see one of his paintings until April 2nd, and L. A. Louver in Los Angeles, whose site has many Garabedian photos).  And he receives raves from art critics -- Christopher Knight in the LA Times just wrote that Garabedian is  "among the best painters Los Angeles has produced." More important, every artist I ever met who's aware of him has the utmost respect for Garabedian and his work. But he is inexplicably unrecognized by the Los Angeles museum establishment — they don't even put him in most of their historic survey shows let alone give him a major solo show; and a San Francisco curator I talked to recently never even heard of him. New York museums have given him somewhat more attention. He’s shown in several Whitney Biennials and had a solo show in 1976 at the Whitney; and he was included in the infamous 1978 “Bad Painting” show at the New Museum.

Kudos to Julie Joyce, the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, for not only bucking the trend and organizing a retrospective (the first major museum survey in 28 years —  that is, since my fellow blogger Carl Belz’s show at the Rose Art Museum), but also for organizing a really major exhibition (60 paintings — several of them huge) and publishing a lavish hardcover catalog (212 pages and 95 color illustrations).

I knew Chaz well in the 1970s when I lived in LA (I'm going to refer to him as "Chaz" because he's a friend and it would feel weird not to). I curated his first retrospective in 1974 (California State University at Northridge) and wrote about his work for Art in America and Arts Magazine (sorry, no links). We are friends, but that's not why I think he's the greatest — it's the other way around actually. We became friends because people were telling me what a great artist he was and I wanted to get to know him. (In LA at the time this kind of thing was easy -- see my post on The Good Old Days.)

Spending time with Chaz was always both bewildering and eye-opening. He was one of the few people I ever met who could always keep me completely off balance. I could never predict what he was going to say, and it was usually something clever, deep and so many levels above anything I, a beginning artist still in my twenties, could conceive of. We'd have these sophomoric arguments like over whether or not Chinese art was elegant, but they always got me thinking. In addition, maybe related, he was one of the quickest wits I ever met (still is, as you'll see). I remember once seeing a drawing hanging in his studio that his daughter Sophia did of a guy sitting on a toilet with the word "poop" scrawled on it. I asked him what it's like having a seven-year old that's better at drawing than he is. He shot back that it's okay, "I'm getting better, and she's getting worse." (Sophia ultimately got good again — she's now an artist.) Or "acrylic paint is like a whore, it just lays there and you have to do things to it." (I’ll be quoting him a lot because his words are so apt and entertaining.)

The exhibition emphasizes work made from the eighties on, work done after I left LA, and there's just a smattering of his earlier work. I suppose that's proper -- Garabedian evolved into his mature figurative style then, and the focus of the retrospective rightly belongs there. But I'd like to say a word about the work I know best, my first love — work that was just so tough, eccentric, inventive, and downright nasty at times, especially in the context of the slick art popular then (LA Cool School, Minimalism and Pop Art), it blew my mind.

Among my favorite works of that era is The Meeting of Greece and China, 1970, which, to my disappointment, isn't included in the Santa Barbara show, so I'll spend some time on it. First of all you need to realize the painting has a very aggressive presence: it’s more than 8 feet tall and made of slats of wood like a butcher block (you can best see this at the top). It’s inlayed with colored resin and crosshatched with scrawls, smears and drips of paint. The composition is crazy and disjointed and throws you back and forth in space; and the raw paint handling and bright, flat, white surface are quite off-putting. There’s no spot you can rest your eyes or allow them to flow gracefully over the surface. Instead your eyes bop from one image to another. The painting feels like an attack.

Charles Garabedian, The Meeting of Greece and China, 1970, wood, acrylic and polyester resin, 97 x 59.5 in.,
Photo: Tom Vinetz, Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.

At the same time, due partly to the deliberateness of the construction, the work doesn’t feel random or thoughtless or done by chance. Arbitrary maybe, but deliberate — intended. There's an existential arbitrariness about Chaz’s early work, a willful manipulation of materials, that I find exhilarating. Chaz just went wherever he wanted to go with a work, neither following the abstract logic of someone like Stella nor the naturalistic "rightness" of realistic painting or the pseudo-casual randomness of Action Painting. Of course all artists do what they want, but their work isn't usually experienced as such. I always intensely felt the willful deliberateness of Chaz’s art.

Perhaps Chaz was able to develop this uniquely personal style because he started late, at thirty-two, an age when he wasn’t likely to be over-influenced by other art, and mature enough to know what his priorities should be. And starting late meant he could never be tempted by facility. From last week’s cover article of Calendar, the L A Times Arts Magazine:
In one of my earlier classes," he recounts, "one of the teachers said to me: 'You're starting too late.' He said: 'You're too old to learn technique. What you have to do is go straight for the poetry.' So I said OK, not knowing what the hell he was talking about."   ... When asked whether he believes that what his teacher said was true, he replies, "Absolutely." But when asked whether he managed to find the poetry, he demurs with characteristic modesty. "No," he says. "No, no, no. But I was able to ignore technique, which is just as important, isn't it?"
See what I mean about keeping you off balance? Chaz has mellowed, but he hasn't lost his edge.

In any case, what mattered from the beginning was his persistent and uncompromising exploration. "There are no absolutes. There's nothing you can really count on. And I think it's better that way. When I open that door in the morning, I keep telling myself I hope somebody new is walking through this door. You're looking to change. That's the exciting thing about it: change, who you can be next, who you can be later on." (from the Calendar)
Charles Garabedian, In Anticipation, The Watchers, 1985-88. Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 120 in.
Photo courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.
Charles Garabedian, Herodotus, 1995-96, acrylic on canvas, 96 x 84 in
Photo credit: Brian Forrest, Courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.

While the older work was bursting with invention, complex to the point of chaos, and often quite nasty aesthetically, his later work is simpler, looser and often downright beautiful. Walking up to a wall-sized painting like September Song, or The Spring For Which I Longed, both 2001-03, I feel like I could dive in and get lost floating in the waves — just let go and accept whatever happens.
Charles Garabedian, September Song, 2001 - 2003, acrylic on canvas, 156 x 300 in.
Photo courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.
Detail: bottom right corner, September Song, 2001 - 2003
We might be witnessing an outstanding example of “late style” as described by Kenneth Clark in his definitive essay on the topic:
...a mistrust of reason, a belief in instinct. And in a few rare instances the old-age myth of classical antiquity–the feeling that the crimes and follies of mankind must be accepted with resignation. ... a retreat from realism, an impatience with established technique and a craving for complete unity of treatment, as if the picture were an organism in which every member shared in the life of the whole.
Most of this has always been true of Chaz’s art, but the “unity of treatment” is new, and it’s what might make this phase of his career a classic “late style.” On the other hand, Chaz is still going strong, and you never know what the hell he’ll come up with.

UPDATE: The exhibition has been extended until May 1st.

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer based in Jersey City