April 2005

CRITIQUING THE CRITICS

Critique. To critically examine a thing with respect esp. to its conformity to standards--
of logic, for example (or common sense).


Art's Porous Borders

by Louis Torres

Roberta Smith begins her review of a recent gallery exhibition ("Invading Genres Breach the Art World's Porous Borders," New York Times, March 9, 2005) on this matter-of-fact note:

There's not much doubt that the art world is a lot more porous than it used to be, open to all kinds of visual and not-so-visual activity previously considered beyond its borders.

That is lamentable old news to many of us, but Smith appears untroubled by the artworld's ever-growing porosity. Warming to her metaphor, she continues:

But you really feel the wind blow through the cracks at 'Stranger Town,' a fiercely energetic exhibition of drawings, paintings, video, books, CD's, T-shirts and sculpture by eight artists at Dinter Fine Art, a new gallery in Chelsea.

Video, books, CDs, and T-shirts in a gallery of "Fine Art"? No problem there for Smith--this is just some of the stuff that has blown in through the cracks at Dinter, so it must be art. But where is the "sculpture"? In any case, is any of this "fiercely energetic," as she would have the reader believe? Art of the Baroque era (Bernini's David [more] Caravaggio's Crucifixion of Saint Peter, and Rubens's Village Fête, for example) was surely often that, its energy marked by intense emotion and drama in the service of grand themes. Art history abounds in such work. Most of what fills the walls and floor at Dinter, however, makes the gallery seem more like a children's play room than a space exhibiting art, whether endowed with fierce energy or not.

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When Sculpture Has No "Boundaries"

Critics who write favorably about inscrutable or bizarre work purporting to be art occasionally let down their guard and say things that are so frank or uncharacteristically rational, or both, that I fully expect them to--rather, hope against hope that they will--declare in the very next breath that what is under consideration is not art. Ken Johnson's remarks in a survey review last spring of gallery shows in Manhattan ("Is Sculpture Too Free for Its Own Good?" New York Times, May 7, 2004) is a striking instance of this phenomenon. He begins by observing:

Contemporary sculpture knows no boundaries. There is no material or technology, from dirt to video, that sculpture won't pick up and exploit for its own ends, and there are no formal parameters like, say, the flatness of painting to constrain it.
Certainly there is no primary style right now setting visual or conceptual limits.

When Johnson refers to "contemporary" sculpture, of course, he--like all his peers--does not simply mean sculpture "of the present time," for he certainly does not have in mind classical figurative work being created now. By "contemporary," he means postmodernist, cutting-edge, or experimental (take your pick)--"avant-garde," in a word. By whatever name, it "knows no boundaries" (Artspeak for "can't be defined, and anything goes"). His "contemporary sculpture" can thus be made not only from from such "materials" as dirt and video (TV sets) [more] but also from frozen blood [more ] [more], fingernails [more ], dust, sound, light, and virtually anything that exists.

If what Johnson says has become of sculpture is true (as indeed it is), however, then the sort of stuff he is writing about is not sculpture, not art, at all. He seems to realize this when he reflects:

[I]f sculpture can be anything, then maybe it is not anything in particular.

This is remarkable statement. Such insightful candor is rare among today's critics. And though Johnson briefly undercuts his epistemological epiphany by characterizing as a mere "downside" the possibility that he envisions (as if there could be an up-side to the state of contemporary sculpture he has described), he continues in a vein suggesting he is aware that something is terribly wrong. If sculpture can be anything, he laments, "it loses a sense of tradition, identity, and purpose." And more--"it becomes hard for people [presumably including himself] to care very passionately about it . . . much less evaluate it." And finally--"if you think that artists . . . need limits, you may not like what has become of sculpture."

Sadly, when Johnson turns to commenting on the actual work he viewed in his gallery survey, he reverts to customary form, observing, for example:

Pedestrians passing the spacious glass lobby of Lever House on Park Avenue may notice a striking installation of sculptures inside by Jorge Pardo, one of the pioneers of the design appropriation movement.
Each piece is a squat wooden structure made of interlocking curved pieces of plywood. They look like the exposed skeletons of biomorphic chairs and benches--sculpture by Ikea! In the depression where you might sit, a couple of colored glass lights--most lighted--rest like nested eggs. . . .

Old habits of thought die hard, if at all.

* * *

Art's Fiercest Guardian

In a nearly full-page panegyric to the influential modernist critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) in the New York Sun (February 24, 2005), Lance Esplund proclaims that he was "Art's Fiercest Guardian"--the fiercest guardian of all art, mind you, not just of the abstract variety he championed throughout his long career. As Esplund approvingly notes, Greenberg "did not shy away from comparisons between the avant-garde art of his own time and the art of the past," even going so far as to rate David Smith [more] (a pioneer of welded "sculpture") "'higher than any sculptor since Donatello.'"

Since that early Renaissance master died in 1466, Greenberg's claim implies that he considered Smith greater than even Michelangelo (1475-1564), or (closer to home and our own time) than Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) [Adams Memorial] [more ] [more] and Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) [Sculpture in Situ] [In Flanders Field (Milton Memorial)]--justly considered by many to be America's greatest sculptors. Readers can judge Greenberg's critical acumen further by comparing the work of these artists with these signature pieces by Smith--Cubi XXVII and Sentinel V [more ].

Esplund further claims that, thanks to Greenberg's advocacy, abstract art "was brought out of the studio and into the living rooms and museums of America." But regarding America's living rooms, at least, the evidence suggests otherwise. Sociologist David Halle's Inside Culture (1993), an unprecedented study of the art chosen by ordinary people for their homes, reported that regardless of socio-economic class or race, the majority of people he interviewed did not like abstract painting or sculpture and rarely displayed either in their homes--and that the few who did tended to regard it as merely decorative, without meaning in their lives. (For a fuller account of this study, see What Art Is.)

At a press preview for the Guggenheim Museum's 1996 exhibition Abstraction in the Twentieth Century, the art historian Mark Rosenthal, who curated the show, acknowledged that abstract "art" still met with "a certain amount of skepticism" among the general public. When Michelle Kamhi and I inquired why this was so, Rosenthal replied that we were asking him to be a sociologist and that he, like us, could only guess. He should read Halle. So should Esplund.

* * *

Swooping and Soaring and Striking Every Key

In Daniel Kunitz's estimate, Frank Stella's new "sculptures" (on view at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York City until May 14) are nothing less than "magnificent" (Gallery-Going, New York Sun, April 14, 2005). One naturally expects that Kunitz will next say a word or two about the meaning of the work--something regarding, say, the human values it reflects. Think, for example, what an early sixteenth-century Florentine critic might have written in the local giornale about Michelangelo's David when it was first installed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (where a modern copy now stands): "Una scultura magnifica! Che bel lavoro! . . ." It is not difficult to imagine what he might have gone on to say in support of such praise.

Now consider Kunitz's critical take on Stella's "magnificent new sculptures":

all flow and energy. . . . [they] seem to swoop and soar. . . . Not content simply to explore the torqued planar forms afforded by computers, [Stella] adds, as a sort of counterbalance, a broken hexagon to the wavelike hanging sculpture djaoek (2004) [second row, left].

Even the largest works, which hang from the ceiling, "seem to defy gravity," our critic enthuses. Finally, there is this parting encomium:

Mr. Stella plays weight and weightlessness, energy and stasis as nimbly as a virtuoso pianist. In this masterly performance, his compositions strike every key.

The metaphor makes no sense, in part because, unlike sculptors, pianists are performers who interpret the work of others, and because the physical abstractions cited bear little or no relation to the art of music. Like all the arts (though more directly) music elicits emotions--which, at root, are responses to fundamental human values. Yet all that Kunitz can think to say about Stella's pieces is that they exhibit "flow and energy," "weight and weightlessness," and "energy and stasis," and [that they] seem to "swoop" and "soar," and to "defy gravity." Such abstractions detached from life are of little moment, but one can easily see why Kunitz would be hard pressed to say anything more about Stella's work.

* * *

Felt Reflection

Instructions
View images of the art before reading the critique that follows. Click on "here" in "View entire exhibition here." Do not read the text under the images, but immediately click on the "maximize" box so that just the images appear on the screen. Enlarge each of the six still lifes twice, then the figure paintings. When you have finished, read on below!

Critique
There is much pleasure and instruction to be had from a review by an informed critic. One sees the work in question more clearly, while understanding and perhaps appreciating it more fully. The remarks of Maureen Mullarkey (with whom I often disagree) on recent work by the still life painter William Bailey are a case in point (Gallery-Going, New York Sun, April 14, 2005). Now that you have seen images of his paintings--and have found them to your liking, or not--read how Mullarkey characterizes them:

[Bailey's] patrician still lifes, with their tonal austerity and measured, hieratic perfection, earn every accolade accorded them.
The extended format of "Turning" (2003) [third from left] and "The Polish Officer" (2004) [fourth] is splendid; the . . . familiar objects take up their positions on a freestanding table top that serves as a theater-in-the round for silent, monumental tableaux. The hint of a high window or the corner angle of a wall stretches canvases upward without distracting from stage center.
Every still life on view testifies to intelligence and craft. But [Bailey's] invented studio nudes intrude on his achievement.

Mullarkey admires Bailey's still lifes to such a degree that she finds it an "unhappy task" to comment on the nudes. What troubles her about them is "the absence of any felt reflection." "Empathy is critical for convincing figuration," she explains, but Bailey is "unsympathetic."

These fixed, uninhabited girl-shapes are fitted with superficial anatomical details--even a glimpse of underarm hair in Room in Umbria [the last nude] (2004-05)--but lack weight and life.
Mr. Bailey's knowledge of painting is phrased in the terms and concepts of nature morte; the same formula uttered, like a malediction, over the human figure, renders it inert.

Agree with it or not, Mullarkey's opinion, based on long and careful study (she has reviewed Bailey's paintings of female nudes in the past), is leavened with personal admiration for what she perceives--correctly, in my view--are Bailey's strengths as a still life painter. While his style is not to everyone's taste, and the range of his subject matter is limited, I have always been somewhat drawn to his still lifes. There is indeed a stillness about them, a peculiar aura of silence that invites introspection. Bailey's arrangements and renderings of cup, vase, pitcher, candle-stick holder, funnel, and egg do that for some viewers--which is no small achievement.

. . . . . . . . . .

For comments by Bailey's gallery, and a statement by him, go back to the gallery's website. For more images of his work, see links at a and b [click on "thumbnails" in left sidebar, then on Portrait of S in the third row]. Over the years I have seen only reproductions of this haunting painting of a partially nude female figure--which, unlike the works in the exhibition reviewed by Mullarkey, depicts a distinct individual. Even in small reproduction, the "felt reflection" critical to figure painting is evident.

* * *

The Sex in Abstraction

Sex in abstract painting? It is there, declares James Panero (Gallery Chronicle, The New Criterion, January 2005). He saw it with his own eyes:

Several years ago, at a panel of art academics, I witnessed an eye-opening event. Behind an array of dons were projected the images of two Picasso paintings--one, an abstract arrangement of colored shapes, the other, a figure. After a surfeit of deliberations on the circumstances of production, theories of sexuality, and the artist's 'gaze,' a student from the audience stood to make an observation. This abstract image, he suggested, mirrored key shapes in the figural work; namely, one could see a resemblance between the purple void carved out by the legs of the figure on the one side, and the dominant, diamond-shape field in the abstraction on the other. He was right. An artist we knew so well could still surprise. . . .
. . . Only Picasso could paint a purple diamond in an abstract design and suggest, ever so subtly, that you were looking at a woman's crotch. You might say Picasso put the sex in abstraction and never took it back--even when he should have.

Since Panero never identifies the two paintings he saw on that momentous occasion, he requires, in effect, that the reader accept on faith his tantalizing thesis that the questioner "was right" in claiming that Picasso had subtly suggested a woman's sexual anatomy by the purple diamond in his abstract arrangement of colored shapes.

Did no one in the room challenge the student's fanciful interpretation? Apparently not. The potent mixture of abstract painting, Picasso, sex, and "the artist's 'gaze'" must have been too much to overcome.

Let's see now: Picasso "put the sex in abstraction." He "never took it back." But he "should have." What?

* * *

Titled Untitled

The term untitled, referring to a painting or a sculpture (or a photograph), is much in vogue these days, its chief function being to identify its maker as an avant-garde artist who need not append titles to his work if he doesn't want to. He declares, in effect (to paraphrase the classic "badges" line from Treasure of the Sierra Madre): "Titles? I ain't got no titles. I don't need no titles. I don't have to show you any stinking titles!" Yes, he does--if, that is, he wants his work to be cited, which of course he does. A piece referred to as "Untitled" is, in fact, not untitled. Its title is Untitled. Not surprisingly, there often follows, in parenthesis, a "real title."

John Perreault objects to the practice as well--to a point. Writing in his weblog last year about Untitled [more] [more], a work by the postmodernist Lee Bontecou installed in the lobby of the New York City Opera, he noted that titling pieces Untitled "was and is always her wont" ("The Lee Bontecou Problematic" [search for "Lee Bontecou"], Artopia, September 12, 2004). Here is how he describes Untitled, which he deems a "fine wall piece": "There's no mistaking it: dingy canvas stitched to metal 'ribs,' a gaping hole. The center juts from the wall as if . . . it might eat you. Or is it the fuselage from hell? The artist herself apparently associates her imagery with the Second World War." Setting aside the matter of this particular Untitled, Perreault asks:

Is it a good idea to name all artworks you make "Untitled?" How on earth can you easily refer to specific pieces by Bontecou, since she made more than one "Untitled" in each year, without giving dimensions or citing what institution now owns the piece? Even so, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art owns at least two. We are art critics, not registrars. Titles (other than "Untitled") allow easy retrieval and identification. On the other hand, if you don't want to skew the viewer's interpretation, anything other than "Untitled" or a simple number can be a problem. Even a nonsensical title can yield strange and possibly irrelevant viewpoints.

Perreault's complaint is wanting, however. For one thing, he has a problem only with titling all--not one, some, or most--of someone's works Untitled. In fact, since he is bothered by titles that "skew" a viewer's response--even those that are "nonsensical" can do so, he observes--he actually seems to sympathize with the practice of occasionally titling works Untitled. But is not that title itself "nonsensical"? Furthermore, he only faintly alludes to the underlying problem of how one can assign an appropriately specific title to something that is so abstract as Bontecou's piece. Finally, he ignores the practice of giving descriptive or other titles that do not suggest a point of view and do make sense (as in Female, a contemporary bust by Elizabeth Rogers).

. . . . . . . . . .

For more on the practice of titling works Untitled, see "Artworld Buzz Words" [search for untitled] in What Art Is Online.


Throw the Stuff Out!

Occasionally, even contemporary art critics have good ideas. Here is one from Holland Cotter ("Probing Fringes, Finding Stars," New York Times, April 15, 2005):

Eventually, I guess, our contemporary art museums will have to start throwing stuff out. Art schools keep pumping out artists; artists keep pumping out art. But exhibition and storage space is harder and harder to find. Something's got to give. Those paintings that for some reason made sense in the 1970's; those floor-hogging 1990's installations; those drawings* bought by the peck last year--sooner or later they'll just have to go.

The sooner, the better.


* For an idea of what constitutes drawing in the contemporary artworld, see the following examples, from the Drawing Center in New York City: Giuseppe Penone: The Imprint of Drawing, Helena Almeida: Inhabited Drawings, and Anna Maria Maiolino: A Life Line/Vida Afora.