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Money and Art Marry: Scull Sale at Sothebys

I was in a house the other day, well stocked with art objects, where the latest prized collection of the collector was a hunk of raw beef, embalmed in a block of plastic. It looked revolting and consorted awkwardly with chinoiserie, impressionist paintings, Greek pots. and Columbian figures with which it was surrounded. But the collector told me it wouldn’t rot, and so I imagine it could be taken in a number of ways: from the spiritual aspect — corruption suspended in incorruption — to the coarsely material, an emblem of soaring beef prices and hence the satisfactory state of soybean futures, in which the collector had been briskly trading. Behind all this it could even be taken as a totemic prayer to the Almighty for a return to the great bull market of 1968. At any rate, the essense of the artist’s joke seemed to be about money and the value of commodities, whether artistic or bovine.

Eccentric or highly-strung artists sometimes get irritated by the com­modity fetishism and financial pyramiding inseparable from their trade. An Austrian painter announced a while back that he would be photographed on successive days slicing off portions of his penis with a razor. Photographers gathered and the promised amputations took place. After three or four days the man bled to death. A friend of mine who later went to an exhibition where these photographs were on show reported that they excited no unusual interest.

Apart from Robert Rauschenberg, trim as a biscuit in a light tan velvet suit, no prominent artists were present for the much touted Scull sale at the Parke-Bernet galleries last week, though dealers would have been delighted to lend them a razor, there being no artist like a dead ar­tist to accelerate the value of his work. Crowding into the third floor auction rooms were more than 1000 people to watch a purely financial operation. The terms of the spectacle can be briefly outlined.

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Over the last decade or so, and par­ticularly in the early ’60s, taxi-fleet owner Robert Scull has amassed in his apartment and warehouse a large collection of modern American pain­tings. These cheaply bought treasures have always been dear to his heart, and a source of constant pleasure to him and Mrs. Scull. In 1965 he sold 12 of them for $165,000. In 1970 he sold four more for $197,000. At the latter auction he bought back a Rothko and a Johns since he decided that not enough money was offered. For a seller this usually means he pays the auction house five per cent on the buying in price, gets the pictures back, and lives to sell another day.

By 1975 the Sculls decided the time was ripe for another testing of the temperature. The art market, after all, thrives on exchange. If there were only four Warhol pictures in the world, each of which had been bought for $1000 in 1960, and none of which had been sold, there would be uncer­tainty and confusion about the state of the Warhol market. A sale of one of these Warhols for $50,000 pleasan­tly dissipates the confusion. As Mr. Scull has himself remarked, “art has achieved the stature of a solid com­modity” — evidently the successful sale of some of his commodities would leave the Scull warehouse in­ventory in even more splendidly solid state than ever.

Scull accordingly did a deal with Sotheby Parke-Bernet, Inc. Since neither side is forward with figures, it is necessary to make some guesses, but this is the broad picture.

The conventional procedure used to be that a seller would place his piece of art in an auction. To prevent sale of his commodity for too low a figure, injurious to pocket and self-esteem, also depreciatory of outstanding stock, he would put a reserve figure on the picture. Very often he would put a high reserve on, and the auc­tion house would accordingly put on a high estimate — i.e., the ball park figure they let it be known they thought the picture might fetch — the reserve being about two-thirds of the estimate. If the picture had to be bought in by the auction house for failing to meet its reserve, the auc­tion house would pocket five per cent of the buying in price, instead of 12 ½ per cent — if the picture had been sold — and would return the com­modity to the seller.

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Recently the Sotheby Parke-Bernet worked out an altogether more relaxing system, involving a preliminary guarantee to the seller. In this procedure the auction house guaranteed that the Sculls would receive — to make a guess — $2 million less commissions for the 50 pictures they were putting up for auction. In general such an arrangement soothes the nerves of the seller. If he were in­volved in other financial transac­tions, or (to hypothesize some imaginary seller) even under finan­cial pressure, the guaranteed sum could even be used as collateral. The seller is not prompted to put high reserves on each of his pictures, since the pictures are now regarded as a commercial unit, a global reserve is put on their total value, and a sliding plus or minus scale goes into operation.

Thus let us say that Sotheby Parke-­Bernet guaranteed Scull $2 million. The low estimated price they actually put on the 50 pictures was $1,850,000 and the high estimated price was $2,509,000. Let us say that the global reserve figure was $1.5 million, although it could well have been higher. Now the first picture in the sale was by the only woman in the sale, Lee Bontecou; the low estimated price was $8000. It sold for $7500. Let us assume that it had been sold for $5000, below an expected reserve price; the auctioneer need not necessarily buy the picture in, since the next picture might go for a sum in excess of the estimate, thus re-averaging the reserve scale.

If, of course, the entire collection fetched less than $2 million, then the auctioneer’s commission would in­crease — taking in the 7½ per cent guarantee commission as well as the 12½ per cent selling commission in order to reduce the deficit against the guaranteed sum promised the seller.

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However, speaking now in the sim­ple terms of a one-picture sale, the auctioneers might decide to buy the picture in. In this case they retain the picture, and can sell it the next time they feel the market is riper. So let us say they have bought in a picture for $100,000. They charge the seller 12½ per cent auctioneers’ commission, plus a guarantee com­mission of 7½ per cent. In all, therefore, the auctioneers get a slice of $20,000 plus the actual commodity: and the seller gets his guaranteed $80,000. At this point, terrible bayings of rage can be heard from dealers, whose business lies in inventory and who say that the auctioneer’s func­tion is merely to be an entrepot, not another dealer in thin disguise, gradually accumulating an inventory of his own.

It is impossible to know what precise deal Sotheby Parke-Bernet and Scull made. One can assume that an elaborate system of sliding per­centages was laid out. If, for exam­ple, the pictures had fetched, say, $4 million, one imagines that the auc­tioneer’s cut would correspondingly have decreased from 12½ per cent, since the 7½ per cent guarantee commission could have already become inoperative.

So here we are at the auction. Everybody hopes it will go well: Sotheby Parke-Bernet because they have guaranteed Scull about $2 million; Scull because he has a lot of other pictures in his warehouse and has his artistic entrepreneurial macho to consider; the dealers because it is always nice if a whole new generation of gilt-edged artistic commodities have come into cir­culation. The artists hope for the best too, since — if they are fortunate enough to be still alive — dramatic selling success for an early work will help to promote later output.

In addition to the 100 or so people with real business on their minds there are about 1000 who have come along for the show — smart folk mostly. There is little panache to the horde as it fights through a picket of taxi drivers who are protesting Scull’s confiscation of the surplus from poor taxi drivers and his re-in­vestment of some of said surplus in poor artists — an arrangement which leaves Mr. Scull very rich, some ar­tists richer then they were, and the taxi drivers as rich or poor as taxi drivers will always be.

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Actually there are few things in life more depressing than an up-market art crowd: dealers in grain futures don’t get ideas above their station; somehow the tincture of aesthetic bathes every big occasion in hypocrisy, as though a napalm salesman kept asking you to admire the color of the flames. And there is something depressing about art auc­tions too: as if hundreds massed to watch some unsatisfactory sexual encounter — abundant foreplay; a mood of expectancy; then one person who wants it to stop and another who wants it to go on. In a minute or so it’s all over, and only the price to pay.

Why then is the auction groupie such a common sight? I suppose because it is somehow a pleasant enactment of the business process. You couldn’t get a smart crowd down at the New York Stock Exchange to watch a big trade in Campbell’s Soups, which lost ⅛ on the day of the auction, and closed at 51¾. On the other hand you could watch a Warhol Campbell soupcan painting sell for $12,000, at its high estimate, and then discover that Scull originally bought it for under $100 from Leo Castelli galleries in the early ’60s, thus realizing 12,000 per cent profit on his can. Thus people can have a good laugh about capitalism and celebrate it too.

The auction gets under way. There is bidding on closed circuit TV from the outlying rooms, and lines open to London and Los Angeles. The com­modities are dragged onto the stage; the auctioneer quacks rapidly, and off they go. There is a little stir at the third lot: this is a cushion of sculpted urethane foam from the hand of John Chamberlain, executed in 1967. It looks a little dirty, as urethane foam so often does, and it seems that no such foam-object has ever been of­fered at auction before. The estimate is between $4000 and $6000. The bid­ding is slow, and limps to a halt at $1400.

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One would like to inspect the per­son who has ventured $1400 for the urethane foam, but as always at auctions, unless you are on top of the bidder, it is impossible to know who it is. The onlookers are in a constant lather of ignorance. And even if you see the bidder, do you really, really know what he is up to? Is he a private buyer, or a dealer, buying for a buyer, and if so is the buyer Japanese or Texan. Or is he a dealer, who is in some form of cahoots with the auctioneers? On such occasions there is generally enough insider trading going on to keep the SEC in business for decades.

We press on. Everyone is waiting to see what happens to de Kooning, There are three: the first — one I don’t like — goes for $180,000. We are armed with a form sheet, supplied by Parke-Bernet, which lists previous record prices for the artist concer­ned — a sort of Benthamite approach to art criticism. De Kooning’s previous personal best has been $45,000, so he had done splendidly tonight. The auctioneer looks happy, and the next two de Koonings, both of which I would very much like to have, sell for $60,000 and $80,000, well under their estimates.

Near where I am standing a man has been vainly bidding. He preser­ves the proper impassivity in defeat. Then the Jasper Johns Double White Map comes up. This picture represents a high point in the sale: it has been estimated at between $150,000 and $200,000. My man bids, with a little nod of the head. There are other bids. He keeps on nodding. He is still nodding at $200,000. Unseen at the other end of the gallery, someone else is nodding also, solemn-faced, in the constipated etiquette of the auction room. My man goes on nodding until $240,000. Somewhere the other man shakes his head. My man allows a relapse of his features into a minute rictus of pleasure. He has got it. His wife kisses him: then he is all sternness once more, amid a little ripple of applause. It turns out that he is Ben Heller, who has recen­tly sold a Jackson Pollock to Australia for $2 million. He finally shows all his teeth to Fred McDarrah, who tells me that Ivan Karp, who was the dealer for most of these artists originally, is listening to the Mets game through an earphone.

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On and on we go: a bored pall descends. Everyone realizes it is a matter of listening to a cash register for an hour. Johns’s beer cans sell for $90,000. Barnett Newman fetches high prices, someone exhibiting great confidence in the art restorer’s skill, since one of them has been damaged in transit and is not even in the room. Oldenberg goes for less than expected. The pictures flash by: there goes Warhol’s soup can: here come Warhol’s flowers. They go for $135,000. More applause. It’s the last big buzz of the evening. Suddenly it is all over: 50 pictures have been sold for $2,242,900.

The Sculls appear for the press. He is aggressive — Maecenas at the market, instead of in his tower; she is in evident distress. She stands nose to nose with Rauschenberg, framed nicely for photographers. “It’s disgusting, horrible” she keeps saying. They totter off down stairs, and finally a gray Checker cab bears off the Sculls, her head cradled in his lap.

Certain points have been proved. Pop art — or ‘important contemporary American painting’ as the auc­tioneers like to put it — can fetch good prices, and has made the transition from a speculative commodity to gilt-edged. Fifty dealers and private buyers, half of them from Europe and half from America, have made what they regard as good investments, Sotheby Parke-Bernet, contrary to some reports, are well pleased. They have made something over $200,000 on the evening’s activity. Scull has received a check for around $1 million. One Sotheby Parke-Bernet source tells me that five pictures were bought in. The SPB p.r. people categorically deny this.

It’s true that the artists have not made any immediate cash on the evening: but at least their penises, in the case of the living males involved, are intact. ❖

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Sturtevant’s Imitation Game

Art about “Art” too often exudes the dogma of religion. Whether one worships the crucifix or the canvas, salvation — or the hammer price at Sotheby’s — depends solely on faith and desire. Where there is no intrinsic value there is only judgment, which (at least on this mortal plane) is never final. But just how many angels can dance on the tip of a stretcher key?

Thus, Sturtevant.

Born Elaine Frances Horan, in Ohio, in 1924, the artist went professionally by the last name from her marriage to a Madison Avenue advertising executive, which produced two children and ended in divorce. She died in 2014. Sturtevant made a splash in the mid-1960s by replicating the works of already well-known contemporaries — Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol, among others. (Most copyists, whether students sketching the Old Masters in museums or forgers cranking out fake Mona Lisas, have the veil of time to separate their facsimiles from the real McCoys.) In 1965 New York Times critic John Canaday, in reviewing Sturtevant’s first show of copies, mentioned “a Jim Dine necktie,” a “fine little Jasper Johns flag,” and some “good Lichtensteins,” noting that Sturtevant “must be the first artist in history to have held a one-man show that included everybody but herself.” He then asked, “Does Miss Sturtevant make the ultimate confession that art today is so superficial…that it is only a series of copyrighted gags?” and summed up with another question: “What about those fancy prices for big names, if a little name can give you the same thing just as good?” A current survey of Sturtevant’s work at Gavin Brown offers some answers.

Back in 1965, both artist and critic were indulging in a facile reading of the art of their moment, assuming contemporary art is easily replicated. No one would question that forging a Renaissance masterpiece requires serious technical skill and deft draftsmanship. Sturtevant, though, always said she was seeking something other than exact copies, telling an interviewer in 2007 that, as in her 1965 debut, she was generally after a “total structure…a way of trying to trigger thinking. So you’re not seen as that specific, but you’re seen as a total structure.” By imitating the works of others she sought to create an installation critiquing the matrix of galleries and museums that anointed one artist and not another. Later in the interview she recounted a disagreement she’d had during a lecture in Berlin, when an audience member told her he thought she was a conceptual artist. Despite her desire to “trigger thinking,” she replied, “I have nothing to do with conceptual artists. Their emphasis on language is totally different, where they want to go is different. They never wanted to make objects. I mean, the premise was not to make objects, even though they made objects. So basically I said to this guy, I make tons and tons and tons of objects.”

2017 Village Voice article on Sturtevant by R.C. Baker

But her objects, as she herself pointed out, need the conceptual echo chamber of being surrounded by themselves: “[I’m] practically never, ever, in group shows because it’s just a piece hanging out.” This quarantine tactic faltered during her 2014 MoMA retrospective, when it was simply a matter of going from one floor to another to compare one of Stella’s lustrous Black Paintings to Sturtevant’s flat variant. The proximity exposed her knockoffs of artists from Beuys to Rosenquist as visually inert, with little of the dynamic presence of the originals. This aspect comes across clearly in her unfortunate decision, in 1991, to copy Jasper Johns’s White Flag (1955). Radiant as an atomic burst, White Flag defined the Cold War anxiety of the buttoned-down Eisenhower era through denatured color, even as the sumptuous surface captured the roiling undercurrents of a nascent counterculture that would explode in the next decade. Although partially created with encaustic, an ancient, wax-based medium, Johns’s monochrome twist on one of the most powerful (literally and metaphorically) graphic designs in the world was a shocking cultural breakthrough, subsuming the passions of Abstract Expressionism into a loam that would help engender the dynamism of Pop, the ascetic purity of Minimalism, and the intellectual gyrations of Conceptualism. Yet for all that formal freight, what puts Johns’s revolutionary painting over the aesthetic top is his preternatural touch with materials, his pungent blends of encaustic blobs with slashes of oil paint, a quiet riot of resplendent texture. In Sturtevant’s version in the current show, such startling grace is absent, the pale strokes one-note and rushed across the newspaper ground.

“White Flag” (1955) by Jasper Johns
Can you tell the difference? “Johns White Flag” by Sturtevant, from 1991

So dead-on imitation (a grueling exercise in any event) was never Sturtevant’s intention. She was questioning why one image has more cultural prestige (and dollar value) than a similar version. The immediate answer would be that there is value in all the pick-and-shovel work of origination. Yet there is no gainsaying that in the 1960s, and right up to our current moment, questions of remuneration in relation to the gender or race of the creator resonate forcefully. (In this realm, at least, Sturtevant has slightly evened the score, with some of her works selling for seven figures at auction; at times, her “Lichtensteins” have kept pace with — and in one notable case, well surpassed — what the originals were gaveled down for. Lichtenstein’s compositions were invariably more rote than the comic-book illustrations he swiped from, and such simplicity was made to order for Sturtevant’s strategies.)

Her faux Warhol diptych in the current show — a portrait of Marilyn Monroe on one small round canvas next to a blank companion, both with gold grounds — only confirms that conjuring the aura of exalted tragedy the Pope of Pop achieved in his best work requires more than one of his castoff silk screens. Warhol understood that popular culture gained visual impact precisely from the limitations its creators were forced to work under; hence his insight that clogged printing screens, poor color registration, and other defects of mechanical reproduction stripped away the perfection celebrities strive to project and revealed the flawed humanity underneath. Sturtevant’s bland simulacrum feels wanly precious, an emotion that Warhol, with his iron gaze, never indulged in his paintings.

Sturtevant’s “Warhol Flowers” (1990)

Such criticism begs the question of whether, confronted with a few unidentified Sturtevants salted into a room of real Johns and Warhol canvases, this critic could pick out the ringers. Maybe, maybe not. I’d certainly, though, chalk them up as poor examples from the maestros. After changing the face of painting in the 1950s and early ’60s, Johns has been churning out elegant clones for half a century, to diminishing aesthetic, if not financial, returns. And Warhol’s minions manufactured acres of schlock celebrity portraits over the years; Sturtevant didn’t corner the market on subpar canvases.

She did, however, question the supremacy of imagery that was already becoming iconic — a “Warhol” here, a “Lichtenstein” there — at a moment in history when techniques of mechanical reproduction were gaining ever more verisimilitude; this undoubtedly allowed for cocktail chatter about the artist who was copying copyists. But any sense of shock in the face of such tactics can only exist within the fussy confines of the art world, which sometimes has a tendency to champion minor insights as major transgressions. Sturtevant came to prominence at a time when gallerist Ivan Karp, on viewing Lichtenstein’s blown-up comic panels, declaimed, “It was just too shocking for words that somebody should celebrate the cartoon and the commercial image like that.” Well, anyone who had read Gilbert Seldes’s The Seven Lively Arts anytime over the prior four decades might have felt that, actually, Ivan just needed to get out of the house more. Writing the same year Sturtevant was born, 1924, Seldes zeroed in on the surrealistic pathos of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip, crowning it “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today. With those who hold that a comic strip cannot be a work of art I shall not traffic….For ten years, daily and frequently on Sunday, Krazy Kat has appeared in America; in that time we have accepted and praised a hundred fakes from Europe and Asia — silly and trashy plays, bad painting, woeful operas, iniquitous religions, everything paste and brummagem, has had its vogue with us.” Plus ça change…

Reducing “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America” to “paste and brummagem”: Sturtevant’s Krazy Kat

As it happens, Sturtevant tried her hand at Krazy Kat, portraying the bewitching hero/ine and his/her longed-for beau, Ignatz Mouse, with a wavering, weightless line that Herriman, as incisive an inker as ever wielded a pen, would never have countenanced. Herriman convincingly conveyed head-clonking bricks as expressions of love in its myriad glories — unrequited, passionate, chaste, triangular — but Sturtevant delivers only dithering slapstick.

Tricky business, this cribbing of other people’s work. Consider Han van Meegeren, who had a lucrative cottage industry cranking out fake Vermeers and selling them to high-ranking Nazis during World War II. Accused at war’s end as a collaborator who sold Dutch treasures to the enemy, the alcoholic painter avoided the hangman’s noose by copping to his forgeries, painting a fresh “Vermeer” in the courtroom to convince skeptics. Van Meegeren’s Vermeers are serviceable at best, devoid of the beguiling atmosphere of the originals, but as there were only thirty-some paintings attributed to the Dutch master, van Meegeren found anxious buyers amid the nouveau riche plunderers of the Third Reich, all of whom craved the favor of Hitler, who admired only paintings with a realistic bent.

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Van Meegeren had cleverly decided not to mimic the domestic interior scenes Vermeer was famous for, but to fabricate an earlier body of work supposedly influenced by the painter’s youthful travels in Italy. He then produced a number of “Vermeers” with classic religious themes, such as The Supper at Emmaus. That canvas was eventually acquired by Hermann Göring, who had missed out on a genuine Vermeer that had been confiscated from the Rothschild family for the Führer’s collection. During his trial, van Meegeren pointed at Emmaus, which was now acknowledged by the court as one of his forgeries, and proclaimed, “Yesterday, this painting was worth millions of guilders and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it. Today, it is worth nothing and nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?”

Indeed. When Göring, on trial for crimes against humanity, was informed that his beloved Vermeer was a fake, he looked, according to one observer, “as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.” Had the Nazis triumphed, Göring’s cack-handed Vermeer would be enshrined in the canon and Picasso’s Guernica (postcards of which the Spaniard handed out to German soldiers who visited his studio in Paris during the Occupation) would have been tossed onto the ash heap of “Degenerate Art.” Unlike van Meegeren, Sturtevant was not trying to fool anyone, but their conceptual gambits landed in similar realms when the Dutchman stood in the courtroom and declared himself the proud creator of fakes.

The notion of a “creator” riles culture no less than religion. Take the sad tale of Ruth Kligman’s “Pollock” painting. Dubbed “Death Car Girl” by poet Frank O’Hara, Kligman was Pollock’s lover when he smashed his convertible into a tree, killing himself and a friend of Kligman’s, who herself was thrown clear. Kligman (a Liz Taylor–ish beauty who died at age eighty, in 2010) claimed that during her affair with Pollock — which enraged his wife, Lee Krasner — the brooding Abstract Expressionist gave her the painting as a token of his love. Despite forensic analysis that lends credence to Kligman’s claim, the painting was never authenticated by the Pollock estate, which was staffed with friends of his widow. All the principals are now dead, and, at roughly two-foot-square and as red as a bleeding heart, the painting is undoubtedly striking. But whether it is a genuine Pollock resides in the mind’s eye of the beholder.

Sturtevant’s work treads this heady space between perception and the physical object, between brain and fingertips. Marcel Duchamp, a precursor to Sturtevant’s thought-bubble art, literally dispensed with even the most banal of physical touches when, in 1915, he purchased a snow shovel in a hardware store, hung it from his studio ceiling, and titled it In Advance of the Broken Arm (though he would’ve been more statistically accurate to call it Prior to the Strained Back; alternatively, he might have amped up the drama with Herald of the Heart Attack). Dispatches from the driest reaches of the aesthetic desert that Duchamp created when he declared war on what he disparaged as “retinal art,” such works are unconcerned with any of the corporeal pleasures arising from the form, texture, color, illusion, and other physical properties one communes with in the presence of great visual art.

Some of Sturtevant’s videos, projected by rotating lenses, do deliver a frisson in the gallery space (one section of which — all paint-scabbed brick and raw girders — could be the setting for an Anselm Kiefer painting). Images of a striding figure — Sturtevant imitating one of Beuys’s performances — flare and stab across walls, doors, fire extinguishers, windows, and columns like shards of light from a king-hell disco ball. A heavy, monotonous beat drones as the luminous rectangles stretch and rack like taffy across the ersatz canon of Warhols and Johnses on the walls.

If you’ve made it this far in this article, you have some idea of the effect of a Sturtevant show. Interesting to think about, not so much to look at. Or, viewed more generously, Sturtevant can be seen as a precursor to our present moment, when any image can be Photoshopped, and valuing the original seems an old-fashioned idea. Nowadays, paintings — objects pretty much defined by tactile subtleties — are routinely viewed (and sold) on iPhones. Like Sturtevant’s bland copies, a screenshot supplies plenty of data while truncating beauty.

Sturtevant
Gavin Brown’s Enterprise
439 West 127th Street, 212-627-5258
gavinbrown.biz
Through September 9

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The Whitney Finds the Good Thing About the ’80s

Like time spent staring at roof pigeons, the summer doldrums in New York are good for stocktaking. A recent lunch with an uptown museum curator led to some, as we debated a type of show popular with local institutions since 2008: the historical survey of engagé art (think of White Columns’ “Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993”). Afterward, I strolled a few blocks to the Whitney (ground zero for the 1990s culture wars) to visit its latest manifestation, the exhibition “I, YOU, WE”—a roundup of art’s responses to the crises of the Reagan and Clinton decades.

A walk through the galleries provoked a few lingering, stray questions: Will we have to wait two decades for a show that takes the measure of art’s engagement with the Obama era? Shouldn’t today’s institutions promote exhibitions that address art’s responses to political and social dilemmas beyond the star-making demands of generational shows and biennials? If that show existed today, a book like George Packer’s sweeping account of America in crisis could provide the perfect title: The Unwinding. Like Packer’s bestseller, such a display would go far in illuminating a period that has transformed American culture—from politics to finance to art—resulting in a nation defined increasingly by winners and losers.

“I, YOU, WE” would provide the perfect blueprint. A show that eschews polite curatorial habits for blunt examples of artistic responses from the period, this judicious effort emphasizes argumentative, blistering works as it examines how artists once viewed themselves and their subjects in the round of society at large. Organized by David Kiehl, the Whitney’s curator of prints and special exhibitions, “I, YOU, WE” comes across as a vivid polemic. According to Kiehl: “The brash and often strident, confrontational approaches initiated by artists during this period to address the personal, social, economic, and political concerns of these years have a stirring, thought-provoking relevancy to our present day.” In Ezra Pound’s phrase, much of the art presented in Kiehl’s forthright show remains “news that stays news.

The final installment in a two-year series of exhibitions meant to reassess the Whitney’s permanent collection before it quits Madison Avenue for the retail bohemianism of the meatpacking district, “I, YOU, WE” makes a virtue of both its timeline and location. Despite the New Museum’s raiding of that institution’s 1993 “political” biennial—after featuring Daniel J. Martinez’s museum buttons reading “I Can’t Ever Imagine Wanting to Be White,” it remains the most polarizing to date—the Whitney quite literally owns many of the goods that made the era’s art so controversial. Yet rather than lean exclusively on greatest hits, the museum reframes celebrated and under-known works within a context defined by ongoing “disparities of wealth, ideology and social responsibility.” The result is a fresh picture of a time many people still associate primarily with Madonna and the Porky’s films

The 1980s and early ’90s, of course, were an age characterized by a top-heavy art market (just like now) fueled by a surging financial sector (ditto) in which art with lots of zeros became status symbols for the rich and the famous (Google Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” video for parallels). The gaps that opened up in wealth and inequality became canyons, decades later, though back then a robust response was in the offing among many artists and cultural producers. Identity politics and the AIDS epidemic became effective rallying points. No wonder, then, that this exhibition features both subjects front and center.

Organized into three sections according to their relevant pronouns, “I, YOU, WE” starts at the beginning, with the first person—as signaled by highlighted wall text. Moving through a gallery of self-portraits that includes an untitled photo of Cindy Sherman as a mustachioed dyke, a black-and-white image of Carrie Mae Weems simmering beneath posters of Karl Marx and Marcus Garvey, and an encaustic and collage painting by Jasper Johns, the show invokes modern America’s ur-Whitmanesque self. Yet the Johns makes for a bracingly apposite selection. Appropriately titled Racing Thoughts and loaded down with trademark motifs more appropriate to middle-aged soul-searching than social commentary, it offers insight from an earlier generation. Young curators take note: Reaching beyond the obvious inclusion broadens the company of the converted.

The “YOU” portion also features an expansive examination of the period’s shifting artistic terrain—this time of “The Other,” an intellectual streetcorner that became almost as contentious as the crack-dealing blocks fought over by Bloods and Crips. On view are Shirin Neshat’s portrait of a Muslim woman wearing a hijab (her face and neck are covered by Arabic verses); Richard Avedon’s portrait of Bill Curry, a craggy-faced drifter whose likeness portrays the end of the line for Jack Kerouac’s open road; and John Currin’s Skinny Woman, a Manet-like painting of a casually clad, silver-haired, uptown stereotype pinched and mannered beyond belief.

Appropriately, the “WE” section occupies the majority of the exhibition’s wall space—three rooms, in fact—in its wide-ranging attempt to synthesize contemporary art’s capacity to reflect on shared pain, anger, and resistance. Prints by activist collectives like Bullet Space and Political Art Documentation/Distribution featured in one room make way for graphic images of AIDS in another. Among the last is David Wojnarowicz’s iconic photo-triptych of Peter Hujar—the artist’s former friend, mentor, and lover—minutes after he expired from that terrible plague. Also on view: a highly schematized, acid-colored painting by Ed Paschke of a woman being strangled, as well as a touchingly poignant color photo by Anthony Hernandez. Titled Landscape for the Homeless No. 17, this 1982 picture of a cardboard bed laid on a grassy groove suggests armies of down-and-out folks made visible by their very conspicuous absence.

Last in “I, YOU, WE” is the era’s legendary photographic coda: Nan Goldin’s 45-minute slide installation, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. A picture carousel that constitutes the 1980s’ longest love letter—it includes images of the artist and her friends as they careen through high-risk lives to middle age or death—this snapshot opera sounds the perfect elegiac note to close out this model political show. Like all deeply felt, thoroughgoing essays, it gifts the viewer with something fundamental that’s gone mostly missing from today’s commercially successful scene—art’s commitment to the times it’s lived through.

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WOMAN’S WORK

From Andy Warhol to Jasper Johns, Pop art in the ’50s and ’60s was mainly dominated by men. Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968 gives you a chance to get into a DeLorean, go back in time, and see the work done by women you rarely hear about. The group show features more than 50 works by Chryssa, Niki de Saint Phalle, Rosalyn Drexler, Marisol, Yayoi Kusama, Jann Haworth, Vija Celmins, Lee Lozano, Marjorie Strider, Idelle Weber, and Joyce Wieland, among others. And, of course, pop icons must be in a pop art show, and this one features John Wayne on a wooden horse by Marisol, a photo montage of former first lady Pat Nixon by Martha Rosler, and a collage of Queen Elizabeth sitting alongside her guards by May Wilson. Classic.

Oct. 15-Jan. 9, 2010

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Let’s Renegotiate! ‘Abstraction and the Ready-Made Gesture’ at the Kitchen

Before there was a modernist canon, populist critics relied on such derisive metaphors as “explosion in a shingle factory” to describe Duchamp’s 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase. As late as 1956, Jackson Pollock’s graceful pas de deux with the canvas was reduced to the incoherent frenzy implied by Time‘s nickname for the abstract expressionist: “Jack the Dripper.”

But that was a googol of dissertations and almost as many Jasper Johns exhibitions ago. Audiences and critics are more sophisticated now. For instance, one can resort to critical shorthand to describe just about any painting in “Besides, With, Against, and Yet: Abstraction and the Ready-Made Gesture,” a group show at the Kitchen of 22 artists who, according to the press release, are “renegotiating histories of painting with a mixture of both irony and sincerity.” So indeed, Patricia Treib’s Untitled (Pages) combines late de Kooning with Milton Avery, Charline von Heyl’s Dudo grafts R.B. Kitaj’s fleshy hands onto Daniel Buren’s stripes, and Jessica Dickinson’s gossamer Here, fashioned from oil and limestone, recalls Rothko by way of Albers.

OK, I apologize for that trio of annoying critical mash-ups, but this lazy style of description illustrates the show’s conundrum: Where Pollock declared, “I am nature” to embody his expansive inspirations, this exhibition exists in the realm that critic Robert Hughes aptly termed “Culture as Nature.” Think of Stuart Davis’s paintings of signboards and Sherrie Levine’s ongoing appropriation of other artists’ works.

Besides, except for those brilliant muralists who, some 30 millennia ago, depicted now-extinct beasts on cave walls, anyone who has ever picked up a brush has had to “negotiate” the history of painting. Yet few of the artists here look further back than the 1950s. For instance, Richard Aldrich’s smudgy panels recall Philip Guston’s patches of paint, though with none of that master’s delicate chromatic tuning or compositional solidity. (Guston, for his part, counted the classical rigor of Piero’s 15th-century frescoes among his greatest inspirations.) Nate Lowman’s The Rejects features stencils of malformed fruit with such labels as “Pointed ends” or “Exaggerated curvature.” The rather laborious wit in this 2009 canvas trails a catalog of Warhols, including 1961’s Before and After nose-job painting, the banana adorning the Velvet Underground’s first album, and the underwear bulge beneath zippered jeans on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers cover.

On the other hand, Wade Guyton’s large ink-jet-printed sheets of linen demonstrate that he’s one of the few artists since Warhol to fully appreciate the serendipitous beauty that arises from mistakes in mechanical reproduction, those fascinating flaws that resonate with our own. And even though Agnes Martin’s hand-wrought grids haunt his overlapping stripes, misaligned edges, and spotty printing defects, Guyton summons a gorgeous ghost from the machine.

Similarly, Jacob Kassay doesn’t let conceptual stratagems get in the way of the startling aesthetic pleasure he wrings from “silver deposit” mixed with mossy brown acrylic on rough canvas. I don’t know what price silver fetches on the commodities market these days—no doubt Damien Hirst could tell us—but Kassay’s buckled ground battles the viewer’s vague reflection in the precious metal, a rare melding of the materials’ intrinsic worth with aesthetic value. And Polly Apfelbaum’s stained rolls of fabric arrayed across the gallery’s floor provide the physical tug that great painting has always exerted on the viewer’s body, from Masaccio’s Brancacci chapel right up to Bill Jensen’s recent abstraction of St. Sebastian. Apfelbaum’s Bones (2000) is the oldest work in the show and emanates a worn wisdom; the ribs of color striating each of these thick rolls of synthetic velvet hint at an even more luminous procession, if only they could be unfurled.

Just as I was concluding that the aesthetic chops of some artists had trumped the show’s conceptual conceits, I was snagged by Kelley Walker’s small canvas, 4870 Series. The size of a notebook page, I’d barely noticed it, but when I leaned in to study the almost blank white ground, my eyes registered tiny Benday dots. What I’d thought was a spare painting was actually a “four-color process silkscreen on canvas” and the unassuming image suddenly became a sly koan—a mechanical print scarcely discernible from the wall it hung upon. Depending on your mind’s bent, such an image might conjure Magritte’s picture of a pipe, which is, of course, not a pipe, or Malevich’s white on white Supremacist painting, or ruminations on the visual prevarications of our Photoshopped age.

Not enough to look at, but plenty to think about.

bbaker@villagevoice.com

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YOUNG AT HEART

Today, the radical choreographer Merce Cunningham, who’s collaborated with everyone from John Cage to Robert Rauschenberg to Jasper Johns, turns 90—though one could easily argue that he’s just as young as ever. To celebrate the occasion, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company returns to BAM with the world premiere of a work created in collaboration with three cutting-edge artists, all performing live: Led Zeppelin’s multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones, mixed-media sound composer Takehisa Kosugi, and veteran noisemakers Sonic Youth. Now, that’s a happy birthday!

April 16-19, 2009

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Eva Lundsager, R.H. Quaytman, and Mary Heilman Brush Up on Their Painting

“Sculpture is tiresome,” wrote Baudelaire in the 1840s, back when painting was the Western medium du jour. But the pendulum of critical taste swings both ways: Marcel Duchamp rejected painting after World War I; the New York School revived it; then it was declared dead in the late ’60s—only to be resuscitated by artists like Tom Lawson, whose 1981 essay, “Last Exit: Painting,” has gotten some renewed attention in recent years as the surging art market drew comparisons to, then promptly surpassed, the excesses of the 1980s.

The problem, which Lawson acknowledged, is that painting thrives during boom markets. People always need pictures to decorate their houses—and yachts, planes, and offices. But painting doesn’t have to serve as an auxiliary to interior design; it can still be “subversive.” Instead of skirmishing on the margins, Lawson theorized it could operate at “the center of the marketplace, where it can cause the most trouble.” His model was David Salle—which was kind of like Baudelaire putting his money on Constantin Guy (in other words, the wrong painter of the moment). But Lawson’s ideas might still hold up. Three painters currently showing in commercial galleries could put his theory to the test.

In the relatively traditional painting category is Eva Lundsager, whose exhibition is, appropriately, on 57th Street, where the midcentury painters she borrows from showed. Lundsager’s paintings dip heavily into the New York School’s bag of tricks, using the drips of Pollock (et al.); the concentrated, frenetic gestures of Joan Mitchell; and post-painterly washes of diluted pigment as fodder. Only Lundsager almost comically rearranges them, literally turning Ab-Ex’s sacred devices on their heads.

After the pigment drips down the surface of her canvases, she flips them upside down and continues to paint, so that the downward drips now defy gravity and end up looking like waving sea plants, flames, or stalagmites. Morris Louis­–like streaks slide sideways across the canvas; abstraction merges with landscape. Lundsager quotes oddball visionary painters like Marsden Hartley, mid-century watercolorist Charles Burchfield, and symbolist Odilon Redon. The results of this motley mix are a fabulous affront to high modernist ideas of painterly “purity.”

Downtown, you’ve got R.H. Quaytman, former director of the recently closed gallery-collaborative Orchard—which was virtually across the street from Miguel Abreu, where her current show is. Quaytman’s paintings are considerably less painterly than Lundsager’s: Most are silk-screened onto wood panels; a few are covered with iridescent diamond dust. One group of paintings—although not hung in a serial arrangement—starts with a scintillating-grid motif: a phenomenon discovered in 1994 by one E. Lingelbach in which black dots appear and disappear when you look at a grid of gray lines painted in a black field, with white dots at their intersections.

What you’ve got, in essence, is a conflation of Op Art with Jasper Johns: The grids, like Johns’s encaustic targets or flags, are a painted version of the “thing itself” rather than a representation of it. Only Quaytman drags the game of conceptual painting out further with additional panels depicting a photographed version of the scintillating-grid painting (the optical illusion doesn’t work as well from this remove) and a lamp shining on a grid painting (perhaps the “original” grid painting, perhaps not). In addition to Johns and Op Art, Quaytman pays homage to Po-Mo practitioners like Jack Goldstein and Troy Brauntuch (both mentioned in Lawson’s essay), for whom perception, representation, and the reproduction of images were key issues.

Then there’s Mary Heilman, whose way overdue retrospective at the New Museum, which closes on January 26, has been joined by a show of new paintings at 303 in Chelsea. Heilman is the current master of painting that looks effortless—only it took her 40 years to get there. (Along with Thomas Nozkowski, she’s perhaps one of the most imitated painters working today.)

The New Museum show includes all brands of Heilman trickery, from truncated drips of paint to nesting canvases and brushstrokes that look like meandering Mobius loops. Canvases like Surfing on Acid (2005) suggest the origins of her bright, California palette (Heilman actually studied ceramics with macho potter Peter Voulkos at Berkeley in the ’60s). But then works like French Screen (1978) prove that Matisse has as much to do with it as Ab-Ex, Ellsworth Kelly, Albers, and Klee.

At Heilman’s 303 show, her signature, riotous color is juxtaposed with black-and-white paintings that contrast asphalt roads with the dividing lines painted on them. Two-Lane Blacktop (2008) takes its title from Monte Hellman’s 1971 cult movie about drag racing, while Vanishing Point (2008) feels like an unstated reference to Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph The Road West (1938), in which the road recedes into the distance, the perfect, modern illustration of one-point perspective.

Throughout Heilman’s shows, there’s a self-deprecating hippie humor that undercuts the bombastic rhetoric of Ab-Ex and posits painting as actually fun: an antidote to the angst of the 10th Street crowd and the brinksmanship of minimalism and conceptualism. She is a member of the generation that pulled painting out of the wreckage, but in Lundsager and Quaytman’s work, those battles are distilled into a different kind of mandate: It’s more than just OK to conflate Ab-Ex and Pop, Burchfield and Mitchell, or Johns and Bridget Riley—it’s expected.

Painting now can function, à la Lawson, at the center of the market or within the endgame of postmodernism (or post-postmodernism). Its status, like everything else in the art world, could change at any minute. Except, when a medium’s weathered everything, literally, from ancient volcanic eruptions to the invention of the Internet, I doubt painting needs to be looking over its shoulder.

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Image in the Box

Joseph Cornell (1903-72) regularly traveled from his mother’s house in Queens to dusty Manhattan shops to seek out chipped glassware, yellowed prints, tired toys, and other nostalgic detritus ripe for the metaphysical transformations found in his box assemblages. In his diaries, Cornell spoke of “sparkings,” serendipitous convergences of object, color, light, and maybe an attractive girl glimpsed through a bookstore window—the artist had a bright eye for ballerina-style physiques. Such simple inspirations seemed to orbit in his memory like erratic moons until he fixed them in beautiful juxtapositions that smolder with enigmatic drama. In Constellation Variant (1955-58), a brass ring and a print of a dour child have been suspended next to a toy sun smiling out from clotted whitewash; a broken soap-bubble pipe lies along the bottom of this small box, everything connected by wavering arcs radiating from the sun. These mundane objects journey from a playroom of the mind to the vast attic of the cosmos. Cornell’s best boxes are as limitless as dreams.

The six other artists in this box-motif show are well situated in the penumbra of Cornell’s weird beauty. The magic-realist painter Pierre Roy (1880–1950) depicted such items as wineglasses, fake butterflies, and little stones inside trompe l’oeil wooden frames, which perhaps influenced Cornell’s poignant constructions. Lucas Samaras’s 1965 container of cascading hair and drafting compasses ensnared by webs of fishing line seems a brooding homage to the master. More recently, Ted Victoria has employed lights, motors, and mirrors to project images of paper cups and other banalities onto the surface of his shadow boxes, ragged animations that dovetail with Cornell’s detritus aesthetic.

Although less well known, Cornell’s 2-D collages also bear scrutiny. Penny Arcade (circa 1960) could be read as an elder demonstrating to a young upstart how to achieve grace and impact with minimal fuss: Stenciled blue numbers that might be moonlighting from a Jasper Johns painting hover over the yellowed silhouette and lightly traced outlines of a rocking horse. Just below, a zinc penny on a coarse white ground provides the fulcrum for this small collage’s astonishingly vibrant rhythm.

The assemblages that emerged from the basement on Utopia Parkway recall the moment in Citizen Kane when Mr. Bernstein muses about a young woman he’d glimpsed half a century earlier: “A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.” Cornell is our curator of memories, combining their clarity and slippages into masterpieces of Yankee surrealism.

Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m. Starts: Dec. 3. Continues through Jan. 10, 2008

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Jasper Johns: Smog Alert

Before you see “Jasper Johns: Gray” at the Met, make a detour to the museum’s Egyptian wing and look at the 1,900-year-old mummy painting Portrait of the Boy Eutyches. Note the layered translucency of the encaustic brushstrokes, the transition from white to soft gray behind the youth’s head, and the enigmatic text on his tunic. Nearby lies an intact mummy in striking crisscross wrappings, the portrait panel of the deceased wreathed with golden blobs of the thick, waxy encaustic. Much about these two boys’ society has been lost to the fractures of history and the crowbars of grave robbers, but their astonishingly fresh portraits tug at us over millennia.

Next, take another warmup excursion, to the modern wing, and stand in awe before Jasper Johns’s 1955 White Flag (hand on heart, if so inclined). Marvel at the contrast between gelatinous encaustic and scruffy passages of oil paint, at the amber glow of the yellowed newsprint ground; behold not only a gorgeous painting but also the tomb of abstract expressionism’s macho passions.

American art after Johns was dominated by pop’s brashness, minimalism’s astringency, and conceptualism’s conundrums, all of which radiate from the seminal field of this luscious 10-foot-wide canvas: pop art in the co-opting of the flag (a thing, Johns pointed out, “the mind already knows”), minimalism in the drained color and emphasis on materiality, and conceptualism because ceci n’est pas une flag but a painting of a symbolic abstraction of a nation. For this early triumph and its smaller incarnations—a triple-decker red, white, and blue version feels as dense as plutonium—Johns revived the ancient medium of pigment mixed with melted wax, and he owns it in modern times. Even his close colleague Robert Rauschenberg shied away from encaustic after these astonishing flags (and targets and layered numbers) burst out of nowhere midcentury, earning Johns (b. 1930) numerous accolades, and enmity from a number of hard-core abstractionists. But the critical miasma that has long surrounded the brainier bits of Johns’s oeuvre obscures the many clunkers to be found in this big, color-specific retrospective.

False Start (1959), one of a related pair of paintings that opens the show, features brushy patches of oil mislabeled with stenciled color designations: “RED” on a blue swatch, for example. The wall label discusses “virtuoso” painting, but it’s the idea—color as word, as thought, as firing synapse that may or may not be related to a chromatic event of light and matter—that is scintillating, even as the graceless brushwork falls flat. The canvas can be read as a reaction to (or parody of) abstract expressionism, a movement driven by the emotions that Johns famously avoided. Pollock once asserted, “I am nature”; several years later, Johns stated, “I have attempted to develop my thinking in such a way that the work I have done is not me—not to confuse my feelings with what I produced.” Yet False Start‘s bright contrasts and slathered surfaces invite comparison to those artists who do more with oil paint’s corporeal presence—think of de Kooning’s virtuosity—which Johns here renders prosaic and inert. And even he doesn’t consider himself much of a colorist: “I used gray encaustic to avoid the color situation,” he once related. His close friend John Cage noted that Johns was “the only painter I know who can’t tell one color from another.”

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Which perhaps explains False Start‘s accompanying grisaille twin, titled, with mild irony, Jubilee (also 1959). Here we get more brushy oil patches and stenciled names of colors, but in varying grays, yielding a morose canvas bested by a more interestingly abstract charcoal version executed a year later. Such circularity as creating monochrome versions of more colorful works and doing drawings after his own paintings sets up reverberations throughout Johns’s oeuvre. Motifs resurface endlessly—the American flag appears in this show in different media from different decades. The craggy gray surface of a diminutive 1960 sculp-metal variation, which takes the flag image even further from its source, startles anew when recast in silver in 1987. The gloppy, molten presence of this shiny object is ugly but precious, like the nation itself. Conversely, a muddy acrylic canvas from 1994 is catatonic, an utterly exhausted concept.

Notions such as painting the back of a canvas gray although it will never be seen by anyone but curators and collectors, or hanging an actual (gray) steel hanger from a knob mounted on a gray canvas so that it casts a—wait for it—gray shadow, gets the old gray matter wheezing, but the eyes can feel shortchanged. For all of the hullabaloo about Johns’s endless permutations of the color—mixtures of black and white, of primaries and secondaries—his grays often collapse into desiccated tracts. A painter such as Mondrian found more tactile drama in just the white sections of his small canvases—the quietly livid brushstrokes exquisitely tuned to their own widths, textures, and abutments—than Johns conjures from acres of gray. It’s dispiriting that, when compared with his earlier bolts of insight, Johns’s later tropes—rulers swiping paint in windshield-wiping arcs, stenciled words that bend back upon themselves, letters of painting titles interwoven with those of the artist’s name—feel like grad-school japes. Johns also hides silhouettes of other artists’ profiles or shapes cribbed from classical art in his compositions. Initially, searching out these enigmas can be interesting; over decades, it becomes as rote as following the trail of red herrings in an Agatha Christie novel.

Still, the occasional gem shines through. In 1978’s Celine, Johns leavens two favorite motifs—crosshatch and flagstone patterns—with his oft-used handprints, which are reminiscent of those in Pollock’s effulgent Number 1A, 1948. Here, the upstart resolutely strips his elder’s flash of ornery ego down to a snazzy design element. Snippets of orange and green spike Celine‘s mauve-tinged grays, while literal and painted fractures between its two joined canvases create lovely visual grit—painting for the gut, not just the cerebral cortex. But then we come to Winter (1986), part of Johns’s “Four Seasons” quartet. In this encaustic painting, a silhouetted figure is surrounded by mundane objects, a handprint making a gestural arc, and a cartoon snowman. Illustrational and as blunt as a comic book, it has none of that genre’s brash flair and little of the élan the artist once brought to his signature medium. This is high-end product, its themes ticked off in some mental register like options for the hubcaps and interior of a luxury sedan.

The final gallery surrounds you with hulking canvases from Johns’s “Catenary” series (named for the curve made by a cord hanging from two horizontally aligned points). Drooping arcs of actual string and their painted or deeply scored echoes span these large encaustic fields. Move in close and the variegated grays completely fill your vision, but the sensation is of sclerotic smog rather than the numinous moral, aesthetic, and intellectual provocations of White Flag. These closing curtains, like too much that comes before, feel shriveled and enervated—a mummy’s tomb with the good stuff already looted.

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Heaps and Consequences

Near the bottom of page 42 of a small Jasper Johns sketchbook from 1963–1964, between two similarly dense observations about art, is a kind of Albert Einstein axiom of aesthetics. Johns, then 33, almost a decade away from creating his art-history-altering American flag and at an apex of thinking about art at the time, penned a post-Duchampian E = Mc2 theorem that delineated an artistic universe and that could also could fit on the front of a T-shirt:

Take an object.

Do something to it.

Do something else to it.

Much contemporary art fails because it never goes beyond Johns’s second sentence. Too many artists take an object and merely do something to it. They manipulate a text, photograph, or whatever else and put it on a wall, in a box, or on the floor, and that’s it. They fail to see that the first two operations have created a new thing in itself, something that takes on its own autonomous structure. No further transformation takes place, thought stays outside form, satisfaction stands in for metamorphosis, one-liners flourish.

Johns’s three-step rubric has been reduced to a two-step formula in many ways. On the sculptural side of the tracks there’s what could be called “Installationism.” The twist here is that the artist takes an object and does the same thing to it over and over again. A room might be filled with 155 or 155,000 bottles, bombs, buckets, broomsticks, toothpicks, or whatever. When not scattered willy-nilly in the clusterfuck aesthetic common of late, these objects are often deployed in an orderly geometric configuration. The results are almost always the same: A pleasingly photogenic, essentially empty arrangement.

Occasionally however, accumulation and multiplication—both of which may be hard-wired into us—overcome convention and carry you away. Multiplication connects us to infinity which connects us to our desire for it; repetition is reassuring, terrifying, and mysterious all at once—it is a field of dreams and a comfortable prison, part of the cosmic continuum, something that’s been there since the beginning. Repetition is difference repeated within such narrow strictures that it opens new possibilities. At its best repetition conjures what Baudelaire called the “sacred machinery.” That’s why sometimes when rooms are filled with arrangements of objects, when configurations are fashioned from hundreds, thousands, or even millions of similar things, repetition turns metaphysical, obsession and process become transcendental, and magic happens.

In 2003 Tara Donovan conjured just such a magical moment. At the time she was 33 and three years removed from a so-so appearance in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, in which she created Ripple, a generic-looking square of what looked like 155,000 snippets of electrical wire. Her 2003 breakout was a solo debut at the gigantic-to-the-point-of-scary Ace Gallery. Especially stunning was Haze, a 42-foot-long wall of over two million clear plastic drinking straws stacked like wood nearly to the ceiling. It was a vertical earth work, a numinous portal to another dimension, matter made vapor, and vice versa. To approach it was to be enveloped in a sort of chemical snare, to experience one’s cognitive functions slipping in and out of phase. It was hard to know if this wall was solid, liquid, layered, or fog. Retinas warped, spines tingled, and a career was born.

Donovan, whose work harks back to process-oriented post-minimalists like Sol Le Witt and Agnes Martin and light-and-space phenomenologists like Robert Irwin and James Turrell, has said, “I make a rule and then the rule is repeated.” This credo is taken to insane lengths in her current one-work PaceWildenstein debut. Untitled (Plastic Cups) is a 50-by-60-foot arrangement of over 3 million seven-ounce plastic drinking cups in regular rows of different heights. The overall piece resembles an undulating otherworldly river valley, an ethereal cloudscape, a pixilated city, a celestial honeycomb, or an iridescent ice field.

Although Untitled is not out of this world like Haze, it is serene and majestic. There are ravishing moments where the effect turns tantalizing, but alas the cups remain cups; the overall shape never synchs up with any “sacred machinery”; you never really leave the room or go into the piece. It’s more of an ahhhh than a wow, a sigh not a spark. This may be due to Untitled following the contours of the gallery so exactly and seemingly without question.

Untitled finds Donovan poised between Ripple and Haze, between her weaker Andy Goldsworthy/Bill Viola tendency to make elegant, heartfelt, but nevertheless decorative installations, and her considerable ability to blow you away. (Another artist who makes giant floor pieces involving one material is Jim Lambie, whose tape floors laid out in geometric configurations aren’t as majestic as Donovan’s but are more physically involving and palpable.) Untitled doesn’t signify a downturn in Donovan’s oeuvre. It simply reinforces how hard it is to build something in public without having tinkered and experimented at full scale endlessly in private first. Regardless, even in midstep Donovan is formidable.


jsaltz@villagevoice.com