Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dance at Socrates Sculpture Park

By Charles Kessler

Sydney Schiff Dance Project, August 17, 2013, Socrates Sculpture Park.
Norte Maar is sponsoring a series of free outdoor dance performances at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City. The performances take place at 3pm every Saturday afternoon in August, but you can also go during the week and watch the dancers rehearse, and you can talk to the different choreographers as they work on their dances. I went to the first two performances, and they were exhilarating, especially the Gleich Dancers. There are two dances left – try to go if you can. The whole experience was an absolute delight.
Gleich Dancers, Selection from Speak Easy Secrets, Dance at Socrates, August 10, 2013.
Here you are in a beautiful park – naturally beautiful, not manicured – that's situated on the East River overlooking Manhattan, with trees and large sculptures scattered about. Plus you get to watch extraordinarily skilled dancers up close. You can't have a more pleasant experience – at least in New York in August.

I've been seeing a lot of dance lately, and I've come to the conclusion that dance is magical in a way no other art form (except possibly opera) can duplicate. Real live people (okay, younger and thinner) fly, or are effortlessly lifted in the air as if they weigh nothing; and their movements are more graceful (even when they try to be awkward), and certainly more interesting, than ordinary people's. Sure, flying and all kinds of fantastic things happen in movies, but it's not live. In addition, a lot of dance is joyous and ebullient – something that hardly exists anymore in painting and sculpture, unfortunately.

Then there's Socrates Sculpture Park itself. In the early eighties it was an illegal dump – an abandoned four-acre wasteland. In 1986 the sculptor Mark di Suvero brought together a group of artists and people from the area to clean it up with the idea of making it into an informal community park and a place where sculptors could make and exhibit their art. When I first started going there in the late eighties, it was still pretty raw and didn't look much different from the photo below
Socrates Sculpture Park before it was developed. (Photo from the Socrates Sculpture Park website.)
Now it's an official New York City park with an ambitious exhibition schedule and a residency program that not only supplies space for emerging sculptors to make and exhibit their work, but also provides access to facilities, materials, equipment, on-site staff expertise, AND a $5,000 grant. It's much nicer now in a lot of ways, but I miss the exciting entrepreneurial anarchy of the old days.
Anthony Heinz May, one of the 2013 Emerging Artist Fellows, working on his sculpture.
So if you go to the dance performances or rehearsals in August, take the opportunity to look at the sculptures that are in the process of being built, and maybe talk to some of the sculptors.

The address: 32-01 Vernon Boulevard at Broadway, Long Island City (Queens), NY 11106.
Directions: During the week both the Q and N trains will get you there, but on weekends ONLY the
N train goes there. Get off at the Broadway stop in Long Island City, Queens, and either walk eight blocks west on Broadway (toward the East River – 3/4 mile according to Google Maps, about a 15 minute walk) until it dead-ends at Vernon Boulevard, or take the Broadway bus which comes by about every 10 minutes.
Hours: Open every day from 10 am until sunset.

You can also easily go to the Noguchi Museum, only a block away on Vernon Blvd. at 33rd Road, and make a day of it.
Isamu Naguchi Museum Garden.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Tales of Two Artists: Alex Katz and Eric Fischl

By Carl Belz

Invented Symbols by Alex Katz. Charta/Colby College Museum of Art, 2012.
Bad Boy: My Life On And Off The Canvas by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone. Crown, 2012.  

How do we currently write current art’s history? How, given its elastic chronology and ever-widening geographic reach, its self-consciously elusive look, the multiple urges and identities and media it comprises? How, in the absence of a canon of artists around whom a history might be structured, its sources and development traced, its context established, its achievements described? How, in the face of its censure on quality distinctions, its scapegoating of formalism, its dismissal of originality and artistic intent? How, in other words, do we write art’s history within the broader context of postmodernism’s prevailing hegemony?

Our unwieldy culture and its academic strictures increasingly nudge us to write the history of current art not from the outside in but from the inside out, personally and informally, more often than not via the autobiography and the memoir, genres rooted in direct experience that is unique to the individual writer. In doing so, our voices may be unauthorized by institutional structures, but likewise are they unfettered by those structures and the conventions they embody. In the publications considered here those voices richly inform our understanding not of any classroom theory about art’s making but of its day-to-day studio practice – the actual source material upon which any history of painting during the second half of the 20th Century in New York City must ultimately be based.   
Alex Katz, Ted Berrigan, 1967, oil on linen, 48 x 48 inches (photo courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York).
A pair of distinctly separate generations overlap in bringing those years freshly before us. Born in 1927, Alex Katz grew up in an “off-the-boat” Russian-Jewish family in St. Albans, Queens in the 1940s. He first encountered art at the Woodrow Wilson Vocational High School where “you could do artwork for three or four hours a day, and they’d didn’t really care what you did” – pursued it seriously at Cooper Union after serving in the Navy, and then steadily brought his work and his career to early maturity during the 1950s within the legendary hothouse environment of low budget, artist-run galleries such as Tanager and Hansa on 10th Street in downtown Manhattan. 
Eric Fischl, Sleepwalker, 1979, oil on canvas, 69 x 105 inches.
Fast forward 20 years to Eric Fischl, born in 1948. His childhood was spent in Port Washington – ”a leafy suburb on the north shore of Long Island” – and he grew up in the 1960s living “on the cusp of privilege” that was “designed to paper over our family disfunction.” He stumbled through private school in Maryland, “escaped” for a year to Waynesburg College near Pittsburgh that ended in failure, and first tried art at a community college in Phoenix – his family had moved there in 1967 – ”because – well, nobody fails art.” He painted for a year at Arizona State but developed his art in earnest during the 1970s, first at the California Institute of the Arts, his own generation’s hothouse environment, where he earned his BFA; in Chicago, where he was impressed by the countercultural Hairy Who; and then at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where he taught for four years before moving to New York in 1978. 

Observations about art making and the art world anchor both of these autobiographies, though in neither are they presented in equal measure. For Alex Katz the art world is effectively a community identified not first of all by dealers and critics and collectors but by fellow artists working in genres ranging from painting and poetry to music and dance. While he’s circulated widely in that world – and enjoyed wide appreciation within it – art itself is what matters most in the story he offers here. Art as embodied in the modernist tradition, art as art, self-aware and self-defining, art that grasps experience in moments of an ongoing present, art that’s autonomous and impersonal, its existence justified simply by its being before us. In particular, what Katz was already after in his studio in the 1950s was not to tell stories or express himself but to be “an image-maker,” to craft large-scale realist pictures that memorably grasped the look of experience in the here and now, pictures that were clear and sharp, “that made sense as art and as decoration” and would be “strong enough to hang in Times Square.” He got that opportunity in 1977 when he was asked to design a billboard displaying a frieze of women’s heads, each 20 feet high, that was executed from his drawings by a sign painter. “One person recognized his ex-wife in the billboard from a plane circling over New York, waiting to land. We all thought that was pretty sensational...It was one of the great experiences of my life.” 
Alex Katz Times Square Mural, 1977.
Eric Fischl inventories the dead ends he ran into while exploring modernist abstraction during the 1970s before realizing that his real passion lay with the self-expressive, narrative-based “phychosexual suburban paintings” that he began making at the end of the decade and that catapulted him to art world attention at the beginning of the 1980s. While describing at length the genesis of those paintings and their deeply personal meaning for him, the thrust of his narration following their  spectacular reception shifts inexorably from art making to the art world, in particular the over-the-top SoHo art world of the 1980s. A world that was like a force of nature which Fischl compares to surfing: “That’s what the eighties were like, at least at the beginning: that feeling of being swept up and carried by something so much bigger and more powerful than yourself, something you’d worked so hard to catch, and now you’ve caught it and you’re in it.” A world that was also a mass media gold mine: “Going into those dailies and weeklies, the culture of art became populist. We were being written about and photographed on the same pages as movie stars, fashion designers, and rock stars, and by the eighties we had become rock stars ourselves.” Nonetheless, a world that was not without irony: “The truth is I felt like a fraud. I felt I didn’t deserve the recognition I was getting. And part of me wanted even more. And of course the greater the hype surrounding my work, the more distanced I felt from myself.” 
Eric Fischl, Bad Boy, 1981, oil on canvas, 66 x 96 inches.
While both narratives extend beyond the artists’ seminal decades and into the present, their respective emphases on art making and the art world reflect how in each case art discourse was then conducted. Art writing in the 1950s and 60s was based primarily on style, on formal innovations and developments, as it had been since Fauvism and Cubism established modernism as synonymous with the 20th Century. And so it continued with Abstract Expressionism, with the styles of Pollock and de Kooning and their colleagues, when the art world’s critical mass shifted from Paris to New York following World War II. At its best the writing cut through the romanticized artspeak of the time and focused clearly and directly upon formal elements that could be pointed to, described in terms of their interaction and visual effect, and assessed for their originality and significance within the context of modernism’s larger history. Art in that context was perceived as standing on its own and possessing meaning in and of itself, requiring no reference to the artists who made it, other than singling them out for their achievement. By the close of the 60s, however, events both within and outside the art world were shifting art discourse decisively away from that model and bringing it under fire, increasingly associating modernist autonomy with art for art’s sake, with mere decoration, and with engaging formal problems that had little or nothing to do with lived experience.

The new art history that emerged during the 1970s and 80s aimed to correct those shortcomings by focusing not on the formal concerns of individual artworks but on a more inclusive picture of the art making process, on the times and places where particular artworks were made, on the social and political and economic conditions that prevailed then and there, on the media arts that were then popular, and on the backgrounds and lifestyles and personal relationships of the artists who made them – that is, on the contexts in which the artworks were created and exhibited and collected. No longer confined to a timeless Olympian status, the artworks became embedded in the fabric of everyday culture, which was just where Pop Art had positioned them in the process of blurring distinctions between high and low art during the 1960s. And thus, at its best, did the new art history likewise democratize art and make it more accessible. What came to undermine its effectiveness in doing so, however, was the tendency to equate context with content, as if referencing a context – a family relationship, a course taken in art school, a love affair – wouldn’t  just inform the meaning of an artwork but could actually account for it. The quest for accessibility brought art making and artworks closer to our grasp, but it also risked reducing them, leaving us with no appreciation about how hard artists work in order to make art making look easy, and at the same time allowing art objects themselves to seem merely like ordinary, day-to-day things.

Their differences in emphasizing art making and/or the art world notwithstanding, neither Alex Katz nor Eric Fischl possesses a reductive vision of his enterprise. Katz no more engages in solving academic formal problems than Fischl glosses his figures’ psychic identities. On the contrary, the evidence of their respective narratives suggests that each artist conceives of art as capacious and embracing, its practice bountiful in yielding objects that are unique in being identified with meaning. Which makes me think that our concerns about the inadequacies of modernism and postmodernism, about the discourse then and the discourse now, may perhaps say more about those of us who wield the quills than those of us who wield the brushes, more about ourselves than about the artists who make the art in which we currently find insight and delectation – makes me think maybe we should attend a little more closely to their visual and verbal voices when we write their current history.          

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Los Angeles Artists In New York This Summer

By Charles Kessler

By my count there have been six major New York exhibitions of Los Angeles artists this summer: Robert Irwin at the Whitney (until September 1st), Ken Price at the Met (until September 22nd), Llyn Foulkes at the New Museum (until September 1st), James Turrell at the Guggenheim (until September 25th), John Baldessari at Marian Goodman (until August 23rd), and Paul McCarthy at the Park Avenue Armory (until August 4th) and at the mega-Chelsea gallery, Hauser & Wirth (closed July 26th). Plus there is State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970 (until September 8th), a large group exhibition at the Bronx Museum which is getting a lot of media attention.

DIATRIBE WARNING: I can't stand Irwin and Turrell (I love Price and Foulkes – more on them another time). Not only Irwin and Turrell, but all Light and Space art (although Irwin's more minimal work, like what he's showing at the Whitney now, I at least respect). I find Light and Space art light (as in lightweight) and cheap. Of course one's going to be awed by a miraculously floating disc. FFO man! 
Robert Irwin, Untitled, 1968-69, acrylic lacquer on formed acrylic plastic, 54 inches in diameter (MoCA, Los Angeles).

Or a gorgeous colored-light environmental installation.
An installation view of James Turrell’s site-specific Aten Reign, Guggenheim Museum (photo credit - James Turrell).
I mean who doesn't like a sunset? (This reminds me of the time I was looking at a spectacular sunset over the Pacific Ocean with an artist/art historian friend of mine, and I jokingly asked him if he could do better. His brilliant comeback was "He's pretty good, but He's uneven.")

Perhaps this new popularity is precipitated by Pacific Standard Time, the series of more than sixty exhibitions about the history of LA art, but I can't help feeling there's an element of New York condescension at work here, a sop to the cliché of sunny California. (BTW Los Angeles isn't sunny; in fact, it's the grayest city I ever lived in. And it's not just the smog – it's always hazy. The native indians called it the valley of smoke. And, to the credit of the Light and Space artists I guess, they usually capture this hazy light.)  

What really annoys me though is how contrived the work is, and how controlling. I already wrote about Doug Wheeler's risible installation at David Zwirner last year, but they're all so damn controlling. Turrell won't even allow anyone but himself to photograph his precious installations. I snuck this one just to show how people have to lay on their backs to view the work.

I don't have this same general condemnation for all Los Angeles conceptual or transgressive art (I love Mike Kelly), but Baldessari and McCarthy are just plain silly, or, to quote Mostafa Heddaya in Hyperallergic on McCarthy, "infantile." And they've gotten worse. The work they did in the seventies was at least refreshingly raw, but now Baldassari's art is slick and arty, and McCartney's has become overproduced and bombastic (I've provided links above so you can see for yourself). 

I find their popularity particularly galling because some of the artists I respect most from that period, like the painters Charles Garabedian and John McLaughlin; the collagist/poet Wallace Berman; and the many great California ceramicists besides Price, Peter Voulkos foremost among them, are hardly ever seen in New York. 
Peter Voulkos in his studio on Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles, 1959 (image courtesy of the Voulkos & Co. Catalogue Project via the Getty Center).
It's not like they're unknown here, but they're certainly not getting the play I feel they deserve, especially in comparison to the acclaim a lightweight like Baldessari is getting. 

So now that I got that off my chest, on to an important question: Why do some artists go by their nicknames (Ken Price, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons) and others, who are known personally by their nicknames, go by their full names (Robert (Bob) Irwin, James (Jim) Turrell, Barnett (Barney) Newman)? How is it determined? Does the artist decide? The dealer? The first person to write about them? It's a puzzlement.