Lots of blogs are weighing in on the most influential painting meme kicked off by Newsweek’s Peter Plagens:
Tyler Green Modern Art Notes
Archive for June, 2007
In Sunday’s NYT Holland Carter checks in with a look at the Smithsonian. Or part of the Smithsonian anyway — in a series of mini-overviews of the SI’s museums Cotter leaves out American History, Natural History, Air & Space, the Renwick Gallery (which is sort of part of the American Art), the National Zoo, the National Postal Museum, and the Anacostia Museum. He never says why he doesn’t include them.
Cotter’s essay has nothing whatsoever to do with the scandals racking the Smithsonian’s leadership, the apparent reason that this piece is running on Sunday. But however inadvertent, his approach reflects The Question facing the Smithsonian: Is it possible for the Institution to focus on a big-picture mission and purpose when the Smithsonian is made up of umpteen semi-autonomous fiefdoms? Should it even try? Do we need a national museum that tells our national story?
Yes, there are good programs at some of the Smithsonian museums (and Cotter is particularly astute on the Hirshhorn and the Freer/Sackler) and there are bad programs at others (American Art is a perfect metaphor for W’s government), but the Smithsonian problems that need to be addressed first are about governance, accountability, and infrastructure. What’s the point of museums strengthening their collections if the buildings that hold them leak so much that repair estimates approach $3 billion? Only when the big questions are addressed can the questions about collection-building, exhibition programming strength, and so on be considered.
I know that WSJ stories don’t get discussed much on the web because they are usually hidden behind a firewall, but this line in James Panero’s Venice Biennale review from yesterday is too shocking to go unmentioned:
One can only imagine that anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism are the natural extensions of Mr. [Rob] Storr’s understanding of avant-garde art.
Nowhere in Panero’s review does he explain how anything in Storr’s biennale is anti-Semitic. He doesn’t even come close. Panero’s charge is cowardly: He walks up to the line of calling Storr and his show bigoted, but puts nine toes over that line instead of ten.
It’s quite a charge to hurl… and yet the WSJ ran it despite a total lack of evidence. Certainly not the paper’s finest moment — nor Panero’s.
The NYT and WP have the rundown on yesterday’s Smithsonian-related hearing on Capitol Hill. The hearing was Exhibit A for senatorial cluelessness as Sen. Dianne Feinstein urged the Smithsonian regents to forgo a thorough search for the next secretary and to hire someone. Anyone. Fast. This is part of why the Smithsonian’s governance is a mess: Clueless senators urging dimwitted solutions on delinquent regents.
Of special note is this DiFi quote from the NYT story:
Ms. Feinstein said the Smithsonian should not count on public support to cover $2.5 billion in revitalization and maintenance costs.
“What I’m trying to do is push you into the mode of coming up with a program that solves the problem instead of coming up with a piecemeal solution year by year,” she said.
Mr. Sant replied, “We accept the challenge.”
First, excuse me for not feeling terribly confident when I hear an asleep-at-the-switch-for-years regent accept a challenge. But more importantly: This is the big question about the future of the Smithsonian. Will it be eventually be ‘privatized’ into an independent non-profit? Or will it continue to be the national museumplex? As I asked in a 2005 LAT op-ed, the biggest question is this: Should America have a national museum that tells the nation’s story?
Plagens makes a plenty convincing case. You can’t pick Les Dems and go wrong. But I’d still take Matisse’s 1907 Blue Nude, the painting that was so revolutionary, so avant-garde that it pushed Picasso to make Les Dems.
The first account of Picasso encountering Blue Nude comes from an American art student named Walter Pach, who included this encounter in his 1938 memoir Queer Thing Painting:
“Does that interest you,” asked Picasso. “In a way yes…” [Pach replied.] “It interests me like a blow between the eyes. I don’t understand what he is thinking,”
“Neither do I,” said Picasso. “If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman. If he wants to make a design, let him make a design. This is between the two.”
And of course Les Dems is too. Jack Flam also wrote about Les Dems as springing from Blue Nude, pointing out that while Picasso certainly took something from African sculpture (as Picasso oft claimed), he was only able to do it after Matisse showed him how.
Flam also notes that Picasso remained obsessed with Blue Nude for many decades. He points to 1934’s Nude in a Garden, and I’d add that there are Blue Nude-referencing figures in Picasso all the way through his Women of Algiers series: In this 1955 example Picasso makes his reference to Matisse as clear as possible.
Sure, Les Dems is more famous. But Picasso needed Blue Nude to make it, and for decades thereafter.
Let the NYT cover Hirst like mad. Here at MAN we’re more amused by the funky side of the art market. Take this David Hockney, Untitled (Two Apples and a Lemon), a ‘color offset lithograph, signed in marker.’ It was originally available 20-plus years ago for $0.25, that is, as a free insert in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner newspaper. It just sold at auction for $1,200 (with buyer’s premium), a 480,000 percent increase in value. Or price. Or who-knows-what. Many tens of thousands of these were printed, so cumulatively they’re worth well over $100 million. Sorta.
It was hard to miss this line in NYTer Carol Vogel’s Monday story about the London art market:
[London] is teeming with contemporary art galleries, and most of them had special exhibitions timed to the auctions. One, White Cube Gallery, is getting the most attention as people line up to see Damien Hirst’s $100 million, platinum skull set with 8,601 diamonds. (It was still unsold as of Friday.)
You can’t blame the New York Times for the skull’s availability. The paper has written about Hirst’s opulent tchotchke five times in the last 24 days, six times in all. While the NYT’s critics rail against the impact of the art market, their own editors have apparently decided that a mere ‘for sale’ sign is newsworthy. (Meanwhile the Times’ critics haven’t said one word about the Hirst.) What Paris Hilton-goes-to-jail is for Perez Hilton and cable news, Hirst’s skull is to the NYT.
The paper’s coverage started on May 23, 2006 when the ‘Arts, Briefly’ section mentioned that Hirst was creating a work out of “8,500″ diamonds costing $15-18.8 million. Nice, quiet, sure, fair enough.
Just over a year later the Hirstian onslaught began in full: On June 2 Alan Riding cited the price as $98 million and upped the diamond count to 8,601, where it has remained ever since. The next day William Shaw reported in the Magazine that “if, as expected, it sells…” it would be” the single most expensive piece of contemporary art ever created.” (No, not the most expensive ever created, the most expensive ever sold. If it sells..)
Still, at least Shaw and the Magazine hedged, however mildly: That Vogel story yesterday declared the Hirst a bona fide $100 million work of art even though $100M is only the publicity-seeking asking price. (In a related story, I’m a $15/word magazine writer.)
Back to the onslaught: On June 13 Riding wrote about the skull again, questioning the price tag: “But $100 million for a diamond skull that cost $23.6 million (£12 million) to make? Even Russian oligarchs and hedge-fund billionaires might think twice.” (And they apparently are.) So in an effort to perhaps be helpful, Vogel checked in last Friday with tips on how to view the bloody thing. Given the continued availability of the Hirst, maybe that’s where the Times should have started.
On Sunday the New York Times featured a major story on what the paper calls a “ferocious” crackdown on dissent in Iran.
In the current Brooklyn Rail, Robert Morgan writes about his recent experience as an art juror in Tehran. Morgan’s piece is well worth a read, but I wondered: Was the art he saw pre-screened by the authorities in any way? If so, would he know? (I don’t mean to criticize Morgan in any way — I’m sure he wondered the same thing.)
Somewhere between these two stories is another Iranian art story: The issue of artists practicing self-censorship in the interest of self-preservation. A couple of years ago I heard Iranian-based artist Farhad Moshiri tell a (very crowded) room at Virginia Commonwealth University about making art in the Islamic Republic. He presented nearly every slide/work of art as a compromise between what he wanted to make and show, and between what he could make and show — and be left alone by the state.
I have, by now, become accustomed to NYT critic Holland Cotter’s cheeky asides about the art market. (Unfortunately that’s all they ever are — I can’t remember Cotter having written a think-piece explaining his apparent disdain for how art is bought and sold. Given how much attention the NYT pays to the art market — more on this tomorrow — I think a little critical discussion of all this is in order.) Cotter’s review of Documenta included the usual market-slamming cheeky comment, except, well, except…
Cotter, on how Serious Curating is apparently opposed to the market: “By being almost perversely esoteric, at least by Western market standards, [Documenta] takes the usual “international” roundup in another direction, away from the New York-London-Berlin trade route.”
Cotter, a few paragraphs later: “The Beijing-based Conceptualist Ai Weiwei may not ring corporate bells in New York, but he is a figure of Warholian celebrity in China and a major force in that country’s neocapitalist vanguard culture. As if to make the point…”
So apparently it’s only the American-European market that’s worthy of derision, and it’s OK for the ‘neocapitalist’ market in China to pick its culture’s vanguard and to start a conversation? (This strange dichotomy/loose editing reminds me of this.)
New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has recently returned from a trip that more northeastern elites ought to take. In last week’s New Yorker, Ross wrote that he was all-too-familiar with the big, famous orchestras such as those from Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. He found a flight to somewhere in the middle of the country, rented a car, and drove to hear what he could hear. He visited the symphony orchestras in Indianapolis, Birmingham, Ala., and Nashville and reported back that each were awfully good:
I learned what touring musicians have been saying for years: that lesser-known orchestras can deliver sure-footed, commanding performances, and that the notion of a stratospheric orchestral élite is something of an illusion.
From the first day I started writing MAN I’ve tried to do the same thing: Art in America exists away from the so-called elite northeastern institutions. Many of those alleged elites — say the Met, the National Gallery of Art, or the Whitney — have contemporary art programs that are so so-so, that institutions in Minnesota, Texas, California, and elsewhere have blown by them. Collections in cities such as St. Louis, Kansas City, Fort Worth, and Minneapolis might not have the depth of New York or Washington collections, but they show a broader range of art history. In many cases their high points are just as high. There’s nothing anywhere like Chinati. The way the sun moves through Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis so that it hits an Ellsworth Kelly just before sundown has to be seen to appreciated.
So check out Alex Ross’ journey. Remember Jerry Saltz’s observation that NYC isn’t the center of the art world, it’s just the trading floor. Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out how I can get to Taos to see a Richard Diebenkorn survey…
Related: On AJ’s Flyover blog, Joe Nickell makes some darn good points.