What’s so wrong with Deitch at MoCA?

Jeffrey Deitch UPDATE: It’s official. Deitch is the new director of MoCA.
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The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), which barely survived closing last year, is rumored to be close to announcing that they will appoint New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch as their new director. (Other hats still in the ring at this final stage of the selection process include Lisa Phillips of the New Museum in New York and Lars Nittve of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.) Word that Mr. Deitch was in the running for the position leaked out late last week, and that initiated a flood of opinions about the appropriateness of hiring a commercial art dealer as the director of a museum. Here’s but a small sample:

Jerry Saltz, New York magazine:

It looks like the sacrosanct wall between museums, galleries, and private collectors in the art world is about to come down. In what is a game-changer and a hail-Mary pass that will likely be fretted about by many, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art appears ready to name New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch its new director, according to multiple art world sources. […] American museums usually pick directors from the curatorial or academic ranks; none have ever been run by a former gallery owner. Scolds will imagine immoral scenarios of a wolf in the fold and tut-tut over the possibility of an uncouth, craven commercial dealer trading museum treasures for market-share, making back room deals, and violating ethics.

Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times reporting:

Jeff Poe of the L.A. gallery Blum & Poe [said] “My immediate response was that there’s no way, it doesn’t make any sense” that a leading dealer like Deitch would give up his business to lead a nonprofit museum, Poe said. “But the more I think about it, it would be really interesting. He would be able to deal with the politics involved in a job like that. I’d welcome him with open arms.” Continue reading

Requiem for a magazine

356_id_june_cover_400I attended a wake for I.D. magazine last night in New York. Not I.D., the fashion magazine. I.D. the design magazine. Now dead.

Like so many of its recently-axed midsize peers, I.D. — International Design — leaves a much larger hole in our cultural landscape than its modest circulation numbers suggest. Say what you will about the promise of online media, there is a kind of energy and legacy that develops around a magazine that remains unique to the form. A great magazine is a network and a through-line: something that, done right, can lend a segment of our culture a sense of coherence, validation, continuity and substance. The event last night, attended by several generations of former editors and contributors, was a clear manifestation of the kind of discourse a magazine can create. It is a decades-long conversation between those who care about something, and one that is unlikely to be satisfyingly supplanted by an online alternative, at least not soon.

Along with these magazines, we usually lose their archives and libraries, their established voices and obsessions, their particular and often quirky ways of going about things. Also gone, or left without a common anchoring point, are the clusters of fans and gawkers who follow the moves of these magazines avidly and who are tied together by their love or hate of what their current stewards decide to do.

For design, the loss of I.D. (disclosure: my wife used to work there, and I had written for them on occasion) means the loss of a platform for serious dialogue about a cultural form that sorely needs it. Design is one of the most exciting corners of our culture right now. But without a thoughtful exchange of ideas, it devolves into mere consumption, trapped in its own glamorous, self-referential ghetto.

I.D. gave expression to the highest ambitions of design. At its best, it reminded us that design is about art, urbanity, civilization, and our shared hopes for a better future. We can all drink to that.

Developing sino-criticism

9780713992540hWhile taking a brief vacation from the cold this past week (in Panama of all places; as an aside, the rapid and apparently unconstrained development of Panama City since 2003 is a phenomenon worth looking at) I finally had the opportunity to plow through Martin Jacques’s When China Rules The World (Penguin 2009), which I found to be an excellent counter-consensus account of how China’s rise will be anything but a process of ‘westernization’.

Not that I have done all that much reading on the topic, but it seems to me that Jacques offers a thoroughgoing introduction to the many promises and problems (for the globe, not just the West) of China’s rise.  But more than this, the importance of Jacques book, for me at least, was to have disabused me of my habit of utter skepticism with which I met nearly all (positive) accounts of anything having to do with ‘Chinese Contemporary Art’.  The ‘emerging market’ chorus and so many artists’ tendency towards the worst ethno-kitsch, combined with the extensive accounts of ‘pay-to-play’ networks of curators, critics, galleries and museums, simply put me off.  My major criticism being that it seemed impossible for anyone ‘in the West’ to get a clear or honest assessment of Chinese art from Chinese critics and curators.  Yes, books by English-language critics (Richard Vine’s fine recent survey among them) have been appearing.  But without access to the thinking that was going on within the networks of Chinese art (and networks purged of monetary grease), I simply felt that its landscape would necessarily remain obscure. My reaction, unenviable and small-minded, was to put my head in the sand and simply hope that this too would pass, chalked up as a mere symptom of globalization.  As I said, small-minded.

The rise of Chinese contemporary art is surely a function, not a symptom, of globalization; and it’s here to stay.  Jacques’s book attuned me to this (and it has perhaps only twenty words on art, contemporary or otherwise).  All of which is to say that, post-Jacques’s book, I was able to read with some optimism this report on the announcement of Wang Chunchen of the Museum of the Central Academy of Fine Arts as the most recent (and only second) winner of the Chinese Contemporary Art Award prize in criticism–and this for a work entitled ‘Art Intervenes in Society – A New Artistic Relationship’.  I have not read Wang’s piece, and would be interested to hear from anyone who has; but it seems to me more generally that this prize in criticism is exactly the kind of thing we need.  The discourse of Chinese contemporary art needs to be shaped from a perspective internal to its own culture.  The CCAA prize promises to do just that.  And now that I’ve got my head out of my as…I mean, out of the sand, I’ll be looking for more such platforms (and their beneficiaries).

Miami debrief

south-beach-miami-beachDepending on which papers and blogs you read, the art fair in Miami either was or was not as subdued as last year, the big fair either was or was not so huge as to be unnavigable, the parties were or were not as hedonistic as in the past, the art market was or was not back with a vengeance–and so on. On the the whole, there were many reasons to be happy and to be entertained. The truth is, Miami’s art fair week is so vast, so complex, so overwhelming and inexhaustible, that everyone’s personal experience will be different. What were your impressions?

What to expect when you’re expecting to go to Miami?

If you’re packing your bags to Miami, let us know what you are expecting? What year will 2009 look like? Will it be like 2008, when the financial crisis cast its pall over the fair? Or will it be more like 2005 and 2006, when exuberance began to overwhelm the art? In recent days, commentaries have issued from both schools of thought.

What is for sure is that after a surprisingly robust auction season, reports of stabilization from galleries, and signals of strength from emerging markets like Abu Dhabi, an ebullient Art Basel Miami Beach would ring out the art-market season on a note of renewal. I for one am looking forward to the reunion aspect of the week, which, regardless of the business being transacted, is unsurpassed. The art world always finds confidence in numbers and tribal proximity. (Disclosure: I’m moderating an Art Basel Conversation, with five museum directors, Friday morning.)

So, what will be the surprises? Where to look for new energy? And what will it all mean? Send your thoughts.

Quest for art’s Idol-Talent-Factor-Runway

c1823697b82db33bb0dcc11edf3397e579847b3aA new four-part reality show, School of Saatchi, begins tonight on BBC television (and will be viewable online). Six artists from an open submission competition are selected, first by a panel of judges – artist Tracey Emin, critic Matthew Collings, collector Frank Cohen and Kate Bush, director of the Barbican Art Gallery – and then vetted by Charles Saatchi. The London-based collector does not himself appear on screen, despite – or perhaps because – he’s trailed as ‘one of the most influential and enigmatic figures in the art world’ (full disclosure: I was asked to appear in some guise in the programme, but declined). Anyway, the show’s tone is Identikit reality TV fare – a set of silly tasks and crashing verdicts that are peppered with a cheeky voiceover and incidental music.

In the same vein is the yet-to-be-aired ArtStar on US network Bravo, produced by that well-known art world luminary, Sarah Jessica Parker. The only other judge revealed so far is Simon de Pury, who’s no stranger to publicity, or indeed to the conflation of art with the world of pop music, seen here belittling his profession to a thumping Euro-house soundtrack and now fresh from his Saturday night auction/performance, in which he sold music-related art to the live accompaniment of techno DJ Matthew Herbert.

But back to the slow creep of art on reality TV, there’s obviously a place for the kind of populist programming that can cut through the crap that the general public usually associates with our intellectually elitist art form. However, there’s also an unhealthy tendency here that assumes you can uncover artistic talent like you can with a singer or rock star – by putting them in front of an audience or a panel of judges and expecting them to perform, explain and show off their work.

Apart from some cash, an exhibition, a studio space and some residual fame, will such talent spotting ever result in serious appreciation for any of the so-called Next Big Things plucked from obscurity? British artist Phil Collins has already explored the phenomenon of the negative impact such makeover/reality/talk shows can have on its participants in a piece for the Turner Prize in 2006 called Shady Lane. Maybe he’ll be counselling fellow artists from now on: Do you feel your life has been ruined by your appearance on television?

Too much of a good thing?

creativityWe’ve heard the business gurus: This is the age of creativity. Only the dreamers survive. The MFA is the new MBA.

But hold on. Stefan Leijnen and Liane Gabora, researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, point out that too much creativity may not be a good thing. Their argument boils down to this: Innovation–creativity–is necessary to introduce new ideas. But for any innovation to take root, it must also be copied. Society depends not just on creators but also on followers. If everyone invented and no one imitated, we wouldn’t advance through innovation.

Come to think of it, this latter scenario bears some resemblance to the current state of play in the art world, where following in earlier innovators’ footsteps is seen as a somewhat passé notion. Instead, it’s all creativity all of the time. The Canadian researchers have drawn up a chart to find a productive mix of innovation and copying. Where would a healthy balance lie for the visual arts?

Writers and thinkers have been raising doubts about excessive uniqueness elsewhere. Art market expert Maurice Rheims wrote, quoting an antiques realer, that for a thing to have value “it must be rare, but not too rare.” Continue reading

An artist speaks out against neo-orientalism

orientalismIn the wake of the October auctions in London, Kamrooz Aram wrote a piece about the appendage of “Arab and Iranian” artists to Sotheby’s sale of Contemporary Art (full disclosure: I assisted Aram in the editing of his piece and ushered it up online).  Aram rightly points out that this was of course not the first time an auction house or other outlets have used ethnicity as a means to promote a broad spectrum of art works which might otherwise bear no connection to one another; nevertheless, it was the first time that one of Aram’s works had been put up in such an auction and, as Aram notes, solely as a speculative move, given that the work had been purchased from his gallery only months earlier.  What is more, the notes that accompanied the piece in the auction catalogue demonstrated the persistence of some orientalist perspectives at work in what we might as well call the ‘positioning’ of Aram’s work for sale.

One of the many implications of Aram’s piece is its challenge to the not altogether unfamiliar use of ‘identity’, both questioned and not, as a tool of the market.  ‘Identity’ has been a major theme not only for contemporary art, but for contemporary literature and, indeed, politics itself; and it seems part and parcel of this thematic’s rise that it is, exactly, marketable.  One of the questions then is this: are we witnessing a neo-orientalism in the marketplace?  One that is interested to–as the Sotheby’s auction notes do–keep in play the divide between a modern west and primitive east?  Or is what Aram identifies as neo-orientalism more like a single facet of what someone like Walter Benn Michaels would call neoliberalism in art in general–an art that is itself more interested in identity (i.e who belongs to this or that group) than in class (i.e. who has the money and who doesn’t)?

Political nostalgia

spero-001Catherine Spaeth on Nancy Spero and political art:

Nancy Spero’s death the Sunday before last invites reflection upon what it means for an artist to be politically engaged at this time. Today the New York artworld appears to be more at home with the post-feminism of Lisa Yuskavage, Marylin Minter and Vanessa Beecroft. It may well be that, above all, it is Nancy Spero’s importance in the history of political engagement and feminism for which she will be remembered.

Her dismembered and spewing “female bombs” were a personal and unflinching personal protest of war. Before self-identified feminism in art, these images laid the ground for that feminism. In 1976, upon seeing her relentlessly descriptive series Torture of Women, Donald Kuspit wrote that Spero was “haunted by the death of women.”

I was too young to have seen Spero in an exhibition context at this time, but by the time I was able to she had become a legend. My strongest experience of her work was at the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Nancy Spero’s piece, Homage to Ana Mendieta, was a simple gesture – the stain of hands smearing blood upon the wall – but huge in largesse. Ana Mendieta “fell out of her window” in 1985 after a fight with her husband the artist Carl Andre. The artworld was divided over the outcome – Andre stood accused, but it could never be proven. Homage to Ana Mendieta was mournful, defiant and accusatory, the Whitney lent its walls to a political statement that would not leave those walls out of the picture. Spero’s homage was a message from and about a political situation, and inside of this situation it was as though other feminist gestures were taken up by these hands as well, appearing small in the force of its message. Continue reading

Saudades of a collection

oiticica_incendio_marcosarcoverde_091017_tl

Only a few hours ago the art world learned of a tragic event: on Friday night nearly 2,000 works by Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica perished in a fire. It is an incalculable loss of the work of someone who is increasingly recognized today as one of the most influential Latin American artists of the XXth Century. Although the actual number may be lower, the initial and estimate of the lost works was a mind-numbing 90% of Oiticica’s entire production.

The collection at that moment was temporarily located in the house of Oiticica’s brother, Cesar Oiticica, because of a dispute between the Oiticica family and the city of Rio regarding unpaid fees for the lending of the works and, ironically, because of an an argument around the safe storage for these pieces. This past April, the Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica opened a large retrospective of his work, which prompted the quarrel that resulted in their temporary relocation on Cesar Oiticica’s house in the Rio neighborhood of Jardim Botanico. Cesar Oiticica claimed that his house was conditioned with adequate alarms and climate control systems— which in any case didn’t help to prevent the fire.

It is true that fires happen everywhere and in the most secure institutions. But after the initial shock and mourning passes, there will be important questions to ask around the circumstances of this loss. Continue reading

Let’s all pretend it’s all going to be OK

FriezeFairSosnowksa.jpgWitnessing the first throngs of yet another busy fair opening, it’s odd to observe what a delicate house of cards this whole art world of ours is, not to mention that I am sat in the ironically flimsy tent of the Frieze Art Fair, this year given an even more precarious feel by a mysterious dent caused by Monika Sosnowska’s crash-landed sculpture which was removed from the roof before the opening (amazingly because the artist felt it looked too dishonest).

Across town, away from the moneyed aisles of the fair (where everyone is kidding everyone else that it’s a good year) is an interesting show called ‘Pop Life: Art in a Material World’ at Tate Modern, which piques the whole fragile institution of the contemporary art market. Its starting point is the vagary of late cash-for-portraits Warhol and his assertion that ‘good business is the best art’. What follows is a torrid wave of money- and publicity-hungry artists leaping from Keith Haring and Martin Kippenberger to Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami et al.

There’s much of the vulgar boom-time art that was discussed a couple of weeks ago here, but also some of the career-making moves of artists (whether knowingly or not) such as David Robbins and Gavin Turk. Continue reading

Does who owns art change it?

imagesA couple of weeks ago Tyler Green posted an interesting interview with New Museum director Lisa Phillips about her institution’s decision to put on shows drawn solely from various high profile collections (Dakis Joannou, New Museum trustee, will be the first beneficiary of the new curatorial program).  I’m happy to debate the merits of such a program (I see the conflicts, but I also see the value too), but what caught my interest was this loaded question of Green’s:

Do you worry that your decision could reinforce the notion that art is a luxury owned by the privileged few rather than a means through which artists engage communities and nations and societies in a broader discourse?

My response in reading this was: “Why can’t it be both?”  That much art–and much of what we recognize as the best and most important art–has always been a luxury good is of course no defense for why it should or will always be so, but it seems to me that the opposition that Green puts into play here is a false one.  I don’t see how a “luxury,” which I take simply to mean a good or service that comes with a high price tag, is inherently incapable of engaging with “communities and nations and societies.”  Who “owns” this luxury, especially if that luxury is work of art, should have little to do with whether the work is engaged in a “broader discourse.”  This leads me to a series of questions: Continue reading

Ruscha to the White House

30720817jpgMove over, healthcare. The news of the day is the installation in the White House of 45 artworks that have been loaned to the Obama family by Washington museums. Ed Ruscha’s “I think I’ll…” painting will now refreshingly grace the private residence. One can imagine the staff meeting where they green-lighted the loan request for a work that openly addresses the theme of indecision—an unusual message for any politician, and quite a leap from the resolute cowboy sculptures that adorned the White House under its previous tenants. Other works to be installed offer a kind of visual Rorschach test of a culturally hyper-sensitive administration’s leanings and talk points. It’s a tasteful and astute mix, including abstract and figurative works, Caucasian and African American artists, living masters and dead ones. The aesthetic sweet spot of the Obama collection is somewhere in the neighborhood of Richard Diebenkorn. What does this all mean? And what should be hanging in the White House at this juncture?

What recession art?

articles_1There was a lively discussion in my class the other day about boom-time art. Some students said fast times produce “vulgar” art; others disagreed. The point was that they found connections between the economic climate and the sort of art being made and sold.

By extension, it’s worth asking if the recession has given rise to any particular kind of art. My informal gallery scan suggests that works on view, on the whole, are getting smaller. Has substance changed, too? Will it? Should it?

There are signs that, beyond what Lindsay Pollock described as “the Darwinian game of gallery musical chairs,” art is being influenced by the downturn. BravinLee gallery in Chelsea is producing limited-edition rugs by various artists, with some of the proceeds going to charity. “Art needs to get out of the white box,” said John Lee in Pollock’s report. “This is born out of the current economic environment in a way.” Another item in my mailbox heralds a group show, opening this week, titled “Art of the Crash” at FusionArts Museum, on the Lower East Side. It’s something to do with sculpture made from the “detritus of Detroit.” Art of the Great Recession? You judge.

Now, with exquisite timing, along comes Morris Dickstein’s book on art in the 1930s, “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,” in which the CUNY professor surveys the artistic response to the calamity to which our times have so often (and so misleadingly) been compared. Continue reading