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In Sickness and In Health

The Brucennial

Frieze New York

Stanley Whitney
Team Gallery

Owen Gray
Blue Mountain Gallery

Jeff Wall
Marian Goodman

IN RECENT MONTHS, people who are avidly engaged with contemporary art have been checking their pulses so often that I can only conclude they are worried about their vital signs, not to mention the health of the galleries, museums, auction houses, art fairs, and sundry publications that help to sustain them. These health checks have become global in nature, with frenzied reports arriving from galleries in Beijing, auctions in Hong Kong, an art fair in Abu Dhabi. New Yorkers have certainly had their hands full this spring, what with four major survey shows of contemporary art vying for attention along with a couple of blockbuster art fairs. Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker seems to have spoken for many when, after surveying the Whitney Biennial, he announced with relief that this year’s installment was “decidedly among the best ever.” As for Frieze New York—the first North American installment of an art fair that has been a key event in the London season—the painter Chuck Close, a ubiquitous and much-loved figure on the Manhattan scene, offered a decidedly mixed diagnosis to a reporter from The Art Newspaper. “I love Frieze,” Close announced—and then added: “I don’t want my work to be in a fair—it’s like taking a cow on a tour of the slaughterhouse.” That does not sound at all like a healthy situation.

Perhaps the trouble everybody is having goes back to the question of what constitutes health. At a time when more and more medical professionals are raising doubts about the proliferation of tests that may in fact tell us very little, arts professionals cannot seem to resist their own diagnostic procedures. About this June’s installment of Art Basel, the mother of all art fairs, Carol Vogel reported in The New York Times that an American collector bought an abstract painting by Gerhard Richter from the Pace Gallery with an asking price of $25 million. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It all depends on your view of artistic and cultural well-being. And this is a problem in an art world where many people can no longer distinguish between the value of a work of art and the value of an authoritative presentation. This past winter Larry Gagosian mounted simultaneous exhibitions at his eleven eponymous world-wide galleries of Damien Hirst’s “spot paintings,” which may well have the distinction of being the most numbingly awful abstract compositions ever presented to the public. Each painting—they come in widely varying sizes and are done by Hirst’s studio assistants—consists of rows of same-sized but differently colored spots on a neutral ground. Does anybody really believe that the spot paintings are any good? I wouldn’t even compare them to wallpaper: it would be unfair to wallpaper. And yet the spot paintings constitute a phenomenon that certain collectors feel a need to embrace. Walking through the rooms in Gagosian’s three Manhattan galleries, where the spot paintings were protected by uniformed guards, who could doubt that all was well in Gagosian’s corner of the art world, which is a very large corner indeed?

The more fevered and overwrought the situation becomes, the more efforts there are to figure out what ails us. The middle of the market is pretty much moribund, and that is where most dedicated artists once hoped to find a steady, gradually growing response to their work. As for the high-end galleries, even as they bring in the bucks with their appearances at a half-a-dozen or more art fairs around the globe each year, they find their historic roles as arbiters of taste sadly diminished by a public that refuses to stand still long enough to decide what constitutes good taste or bad taste. The cost of maintaining a presence at the art fairs is punishing for galleries, and the galleries that are not invited to the major fairs or choose not to attend them are condemning their artists to a merely local reputation, which in some people’s calculus is now no reputation at all.

Art fair bashing, in any event, is as ubiquitous as the art fairs. In the catalogue of this spring’s Whitney Biennial, the curator Elisabeth Sussman was anxious to announce that the 2012 Biennial would be nothing like an art fair. She explained in a transcript of a conversation with her fellow curators that “you walk around those big art fairs, and it’s like product, product, product. I think we were really tired of that and felt like we had to interrupt it.” Sussman went on to say her goal was “to present something that was exciting in the moment but that couldn’t be bought, couldn’t generate a new trend in sculpture, say, or a new this or that—something that was just exciting in and of itself.” Am I the only one who hears a note of desperation in these comments? The need to explain where one stands—or does not stand—threatens to eclipse the experience of art itself.

WHAT AN enormous relief it was, amid this ever-growing obsession with diagnosis and prognosis, to come upon an exhibition that insouciantly refused to take the art world’s pulse. This was my reaction to the Brucennial, the latest installment of a counter-Biennial, mounted in a space on Bleecker Street in March and April by the art collective known as the Bruce High Quality Foundation. What was inspiriting about the Brucennial was the organizer’s evident unwillingness to advocate any particular curatorial or critical strategy, or to draw any conclusions about the fix in which we find ourselves. With a catch-as-catch-can selection process, the Bruce High Quality Foundation produced an emboldening, virtually uncurated gathering of several hundred artists. Superstars such as David Salle and Julian Schnabel were hung cheek-by-jowl with relative unknowns and total unknowns (though there was certainly a crowding of art stars in the front of the multi-level space that was once a theater). The names of the artists were casually penciled on the wall next to their works, and the many paintings hung high on the walls could be identified, if you were lucky, from images on a printout.

There was the general feeling of an art world mosh pit, with works displayed every which way and no space in between. The Bruce High Quality Foundation— which participated as a collective in the 2010 Whitney Biennial and partnered for the Brucennial with Julian Schnabel’s son Vito, now a well-known art dealer and art world entrepreneur—is certainly aware of the fashion-forward potential of this particular brand of dissolute comedic swagger. I have friends who are inclined to dismiss the show as pure slacker chic, and they are not entirely wrong. But whatever quibbles I may have with the Brucennial, I found that, of all the big surveys I saw this spring, it was the one in which I recognized the chaotic pluralism and occasional richness of the art world I still call home.

The Whitney Biennial, the National Academy’s Annual Exhibition, and the New Museum’s Triennial, which this year was titled “The Ungovernables,” were surely honorable attempts to take the pulse. A visitor could find something to linger on in each of these shows: an Andrew Masullo at the Whitney, a Philip Pearlstein or a Tom Burckhardt at the National Academy, a Julia Dault at the New Museum. But when I walked over to the Brucennial on Bleecker Street after some hours at the New Museum, I found myself breathing easier, because after all the high-concept art work presented with loads of contextualizing texts at the New Museum, here, in the bohemian frat house confusion of the Brucennial, I felt I could simply have my own reactions. I wrote down the names of artists whose work struck me with some poetic spark. Aga Ousseinov’s Alps Crossing Device II is a mixedmedia sculptural absurdity, its surfaces a ghostly matte white, with sails flying, seemingly set to move on land and in the air, a Jules Verne dream beguiling enough to make me want to see more. What held me in Paul Behnke’s cheeky canvas, with its few shapes in pink, yellow, and orange, was not the dose of zany irony that he brings to geometric abstraction so much as his freshness of attack and his feeling for the power of color to give a medium-sized painting a bold sense of scale. As for the rather twee psychedelic intricacies of a drawing by Ernesto Caivano, I am not sure how long they could hold my attention, but in the laid-back context of the Brucennial I enjoyed his stylish Jugendstil doodling.

There is no doubt that the neo-Dadaist prankster spirit of the Brucennial was in part a pose. Then again, there was something about the event’s messy inclusiveness that was true to the gambler’s spirit that fuels even the most disciplined and discerning artists. There are many kinds of seriousness, and the seriousness of unseriousness, although by now so overplayed as to seem nothing but a cliché, is integral to the act of creation. I certainly agree with what I gather is the general viewpoint of the Bruce collective: that the solemnity of the art world about itself—its obsession with money and status and its theorization of money and status—is pure folly. Some will argue that the global art market dominated by Koons, Hirst, Murakami, and their kind can simply be ignored; and also that all kinds of work continues to be made, irrespective of what goes on in the auction rooms and the art fairs. But everybody and everything, I think, is distorted in the process, and even the artist who works and exhibits and determinedly marches to his or her own drummer will be judged within this twisted context, which nearly everybody deplores to one degree or another. 

I HAD A STRIKING lesson in the extent to which context colors experience while I was going through Frieze New York. Housed in a enormous, meandering white tent on Randalls Island in the East River, the show was accessible by specially arranged ferries and school buses, and generally had the air of a day camp for overgrown children. The curving shape of the tent and the open-plan booths countered the mind-numbing monotony familiar from the Armory Show on the Hudson piers. The Fat Radish Café and Saint Ambroeus were open, serving sophisticated snacks. Koenig Books was offering at very reasonable prices European art publications virtually unobtainable in the United States. And just outside the north entrance stood a food truck selling artisanal ice cream sandwiches of the salted caramel variety to which we have all become accustomed.

But here is the experience I found so revealing at Frieze. I was wandering along, feeling like a cultural anthropologist, noting here and there works that interested me to one degree or another, although as usual at the art fairs the people-watching tended to trump the art. The only work that stopped me in my tracks was an abstract composition by Stanley Whitney, a painter whose one-man show at the Team Gallery in SoHo I had very much admired a couple of weeks earlier. In SoHo, where Whitney’s exhibition consisted of three large canvases, his architectonic arrangements of brushily articulated rectangles of cacophonous color produced a thrilling emotional high. The work has a romantic exuberance that lifts the spirits and brings to mind Hans Hofmann’s jazzy vision of the sublime. But in the Team booth at Frieze, a canvas that had been included in Whitney’s SoHo show looked like a painterly contrivance—nothing more than a medley of postAbstract Expressionist strategies. The deep formal experience that animates Whitney’s work—the sense of the canvas as a realm apart, a dream world where artist and viewer dream together—could not be sustained amid the cheap thrills of an art fair.

In the Team Gallery in SoHo, by contrast, where Whitney was left to his own devices, the authenticity of his feelings took hold of a viewer. I found myself thinking about Whitney’s compositions in terms of an idiosyncratic but elegant kind of stonework or brickwork, with larger and smaller forms snugly joined. And those thoughts led me to remember something Josef Albers once ruefully remarked about the regularization of architectural facades in the Renaissance. Whitney’s painterly facades are unpredictable, improvisational, even witty—mosaics of forms with disorderly shapes and colors marshaled to complicate the overarching order. At the Frieze fair, however, I was hard put to grasp any of this, and I was certainly unable to integrate such thoughts into the immediate experience of Whitney’s striking composition. I was mostly aware of the side issues—that for Stanley Whitney, a painter’s painter by no means young who is just now having a moment, the exposure at Frieze New York was taking him a little higher up the food chain.

Make no mistake about it. There is work of genuine quality being done even all the way at the top of the food chain. Jeff Wall, one of the most widely esteemed of the photographers who now work in large formats, was at his best in his show of new work at Marian Goodman over the winter. I am never quite sure why a particular combination of elements holds Wall’s attention and emboldens him to put together one of his elaborately scripted and designed photographic fictions, but the matter-of-fact poetry of his vignettes can strike with a force as sharp, deft, and alive as the incidents in an Updike story. Like Updike, Wall sees things with a preternatural clarity: a boy falling out of a tree in a leafy suburban backyard; a rock band performing with Bacchic energy before a very sparse crowd; two dark-haired teenagers, barefoot and bare-chested, boxing in a sleek modernist living room; a costume historian lecturing to a group of people who are reflected in a series of mirrored doors while a beautiful model in an Edwardian costume stands nearby. There is perhaps a slightly surreal edge to some of Wall’s scenarios, but they are no more surreal than many a morning or afternoon on a perfectly ordinary day, and in the end it is the beautiful light and the telling details that carry his work. Wall’s deepest loyalty is to a naturalistic experience that has been disassembled—and maybe even dissembled—before being reassembled. At Wall’s show at Marian Goodman I had the strong sense of a man who has discovered some kind of personal artistic regimen, a way of going about things that works for him.

A personal artistic regimen—an idea of how to stay healthy—is the only thing that an artist can rely on in a culture where generally accepted values, which may have always been far less reliable than we like to imagine, are nowhere to be found. And to walk into a one-person show in a gallery and feel this kind of certainty is one of the best experiences I know. This spring I felt it in Owen Gray’s show of new paintings at the Blue Mountain Gallery. These small pictures, something like a foot or two high or wide, are richly worked fantasies in which ostriches, frogs, butterflies, and zebras float in some indefinite aerial region along with lutes, balloons, cacti, trumpets, and ribbons. In earlier exhibitions, Gray’s fantasies suggested a tropical lagoon, with lily pads, frogs, birds, and butterflies packed tight together to create a slightly hyperbolic version of a natural history museum diorama. In the new show there were paintings that recapitulated this crazed naturalism, but in other works the mood lightened and Gray went from earthy fantasy to airy fantasy. It has something of the quality of a Tiepolo ceiling in miniature, with a general sense of celebratory lunacy, all the trumpets blasting, all the balloons ascending, everything striped and beribboned and decked out for a party. What is this obsession Gray has for striped stuff, whether balloons or zebras? I cannot answer the question, but I enjoy asking it. And there are intimations of a darker emotional register: the occasional appearance of tiny human figures, apparently lost in these enigmatic regions, underscores the sense of a troubled dream and brings to mind the work of Richard Dadd, the Victorian madman painter of fairies. Gray’s technique, though, is so supple that the disturbances do not settle into nightmares. His brushwork—deft, fleet, subtly virtuosic—articulates shape and spirit with confidence and ease. There is a rococo panache about these paintings, and the pewter and pastel highlights are grounded in deepening tonalities.

OWEN GRAY, an artist unknown in the global art world where Jeff Wall is a prince of the realm, has over the years gained a tiny but staunch following among those who value visionary clarity and old-fashioned painterly technique. Gray is without a doubt a figure who has operated at the margins, and of late marginality has come to be regarded with a certain fascination by those who operate very much in the mainstream. A romantic nostalgia fuels the ever-growing interest in outsiders and outliers and dissidents. But this desire for at least some temporary relief from the exigencies of the marketplace rarely leads people to confront the injustices and the depredations that go on in their own backyards. Who wants to wonder why Owen Gray or any number of other artists are not better known, when you can indulge your fantasy of marginality with artists who are long dead or who have never even tried to make it in the Big Apple? Forgive me if I sound a little skeptical. I am sadly familiar with the careers of too many gifted contemporary artists who have never received the attention they deserve and are clearly not going to benefit from the new dispensation. When a celebrated contemporary artist is eager to tell us about his fascination with a historical figure who may not have gotten a fair shake—and it has happened more than once in the past few years—the facts of the case often turn out to be so idiosyncratic that no lesson can be drawn. The status quo remains undisturbed. The worship of marginality leaves things as they are.

Robert Gober, a well-known artist with a sly, stinging, and sometimes truly remarkable Dadaist imagination, presented in this year’s Whitney Biennial not his own work but a little show dedicated to the painter Forrest Bess, who died in 1977 when he was in his sixties. Bess was always a thinking person’s painter, whose enigmatic abstractions had a following that included Meyer Schapiro when they were shown by the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. Bess’s intimate compositions have a brusque, peremptory character. His paint-handling is merely serviceable, and his rather spare arrangements of geometric or biomorphic shapes suggest roughly limned glyphs or emblems, with evocations of landscape and human anatomy—a disquietingly earthbound sort of visionary imagination. Bess spent his life in Texas, where he worked as a fisherman, living much of the time on an island off the state’s eastern coast. In the installation that Gober organized for the Whitney, a selection of Bess’s paintings was united with a display of photographs, manuscripts, and printed material, some of which traced what Gober calls Bess’s “idea of uniting the male and female within himself.” This was not an idea that he chose to incorporate only in his paintings. It was also an idea that he wanted to inscribe in his own body, eventually performing, apparently by his own hand, what Gober describes as “at least two operations on his genitals that turned him into a self-described pseudo-hermaphrodite.”

“During his lifetime,” Gober writes in the Biennial catalogue, “Bess longed to show his paintings and his medical thesis side by side. In 1958 he wrote repeatedly to Betty Parsons asking her to exhibit his thesis alongside his paintings as part of his next show. Parsons politely declined his requests, and Bess’s dream was never realized.” At the Whitney, Gober aimed to fulfill Bess’s dream. We saw—at least those who wanted to look at it could see—a photograph of Bess’s self-surgery, which involved making an incision in the underside of his penis just above the scrotum, a “new opening [that] would allow the bulbous section of the urethra to accept another penis.” The Whitney installation also included part of an illustrated text by Bess, relating his sexual ideas to traditions religious, mystical, and alchemical.

Gober—who was the guiding spirit behind the impressive Charles Burchfield show that came to the Whitney two years ago—is a dedicated and scrupulous curator. I do not doubt the seriousness of his intentions. And perhaps if I were more convinced by the ad hoc heraldic devices that dominate Forrest Bess’s paintings, I would take a greater interest in his ideas about sexuality. As it is, I do not see that the man’s theories about his genitals really deepen our understanding of his paintings. I am inclined to agree with Betty Parsons when she wrote to Bess in 1958 that “no matter what the relationship is between art and medicine I would rather keep it purely on the aesthetic plain [sic].”

Bess did not have a happy end. In his later years he wanted to have a further surgery but never managed it. He had skin cancer; he was alcoholic; he had a stroke. In 1974, his brother committed him to a state hospital and he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. And here he is, a generation later, an outlier hero. In addition to Gober’s installation at the Whitney, this spring brought an exhibition of Bess’s paintings at Christie’s, the auction house, with a catalogue containing essays by Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale School of Art, and Wayne Koestenbaum, the author of books on Andy Warhol and Harpo Marx. Could it be that Forrest Bess’s current coronation is at least in some small measure propelled by a desire to expiate the art world’s sins? After the Lucullan banqueting at the art fairs, might there be some desire to don sackcloth and ashes by embracing Bess’s scruffy little paintings and hard-bitten, difficult, unhappy life? By now anybody with even a modicum of common sense has had enough of our Gilded Age. So why not see if there is a way out that involves experiences of failure, denial, abnegation, and darkness? Noir is very now. 

THIS SEASON of pulse-taking concluded with a curious celebration of the dark side of civilization, a group exhibition titled “À rebours,” after Huysmans’s quintessential decadent novel of 1884, mounted in a new space called Venus Over Manhattan on Madison Avenue. The brainchild of the collector Adam Lindemann, Venus Over Manhattan is in the same building as Gagosian’s uptown operations, to whose gleaming white spaces “À rebours” offered a self-consciously gloomy response, although it also included a fair number of Gagosian’s artists, including such international know-nothings as Piotr Uklański (whose authoritarian gestures are delivered with what some must regard as genuine Eastern European authority) and Dan Colen (the one who does the Abstract Expressionist paintings with pre-chewed chewing gum). In a space that felt like an unrenovated shell, with the lighting so low that until one’s eyes adjusted it was impossible to discern much of anything, gallerygoers discovered an array of objects that included a gorgeous four-foot-high charcoal and pastel by Redon titled Le Chevalier Mystique, a nineteenthcentury Jivaro shrunken head, and a Murano glass sculpture by Jeff Koons of a couple in the act. The show had a freaky fascination: in the preposterously low light one could easily avoid the worst stuff and linger instead on a delicious painting by the Swiss eccentric Henry Fuseli and a rather charming sailing ship by Olivia Berckemeyer made of bronze that looked like it was on the verge of melting. There was a sense of an overheated art world trying out castoffs for a new run, with Bernard Buffet, whose early cityscapes are perhaps better than they are now thought to be, represented by a perfectly dreadful late painting of two clowns playing musical instruments. Of course there was a Eurotrash angle to “À rebours”: the School of Paris kitsch was recycled in a speculative spirit, the speculation partly aesthetic, partly commercial, and pity those who try to determine where one part ends and the other begins.

Taken piece by piece, “À rebours” was not a very satisfying show, except that the decadent postures of various contemporary artists—Uklański with a vast sort of macramé representing a woman’s private parts, Glenn Brown and George Condo with their usual grotesque heads—were energized by the presence of more practiced decadents of an earlier era, including Redon, Fuseli, Gustave Moreau, and the reliably raunchy Félicien Rops. There was something unquestionably fascinating about this high-fashion show dedicated to Huysmans’s hero, Des Esseintes, who was described in the zine given out in the gallery as “an eccentric aristocrat who recoils from the manners and values of conservative Parisian society and flees to the countryside to immerse himself in art collecting and exotic fetishism.”

Huysmans’s novel is of course the great indictment of the taste of a Gilded Age that was controlled, as Huysmans wrote, by “the aristocracy of wealth,” “the tyranny of commerce,” “the destruction of all art.” Doesn’t that sound familiar? “Artists and writers,” Huysmans explained, “in their degradation had fallen on their knees and were covering with ardent kisses the stinking feet of the high-placed jobbers and low-bred satraps on whose charity they depended for a living.” It was this state of affairs to which the organizers of the Venus Over Manhattan show were surely comparing our own time. A page of Huysmans’s novel was included in the zine, with Des Esseintes exclaiming in the face of this demolition of the arts: “Well, crumble then, society! Perish, old world!”

For Des Esseintes, who tried to create his own perfect world of aesthetic contemplation, the cultural landscape of late nineteenth-century Paris was precisely the slaughterhouse that Chuck Close sees in the art fairs today. Yet Des Esseintes, with his dark interiors and his jewel-encrusted tortoise, has often been regarded as the one who led the hopelessly unhealthy life—and by the end of Huysmans’s novel he is obsessively consulting doctors, looking for the solution to a malady that seems to be nothing less than his inability to live in a sick society. For Huysmans, who invented this most enduring portrait of the extremes of the aesthetic life, there may in fact be no final diagnosis. The recoil from a sick society can bring about its own kind of sickness. Do the organizers of “À rebours” know how incendiary the text they have invoked really is? It may be that they are content to regard their turn toward the dark side as nothing more than a Gilded Age gambit, a masked ball with everybody dressed in black. There may be no cure for what ails the art world. But I do find it interesting that the Whitney Biennial included a salute to a painter who died diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and surely it is not irrelevant that the season closed with an exhibition on Madison Avenue that saluted Des Esseintes, the greatest loner aesthete of all time. Those who have dedicated their lives to art and have promised to stick by it in sickness and in health have reason to be worried. 

This article appeared in the August 2, 2012, issue of the magazine.