Episode #098: Artist Jeff Koons discusses themes of money, desire, perfection, and moral responsibility. Filmed in his busy New York studio and surrounded by numerous assistants at work on paintings and sculptures, Koons describes how the practicalities of running a business are often in service to creative ends.
Jeff Koons plucks images and objects from popular culture, framing questions about taste and pleasure. His contextual sleight-of-hand, which transforms banal items into sumptuous icons, takes on a psychological dimension through dramatic shifts in scale, spectacularly engineered surfaces, and subliminal allegories of animals, humans, and anthropomorphized objects. The subject of art history is a constant undercurrent, whether Koons elevates kitsch to the level of Classical art, produces photos in the manner of Baroque paintings, or develops public works that borrow techniques and elements of seventeenth-century French garden design. Organizing his own studio production in a manner that rivals a Renaissance workshop, Koons makes computer-assisted, handcrafted works that communicate through their meticulous attention to detail.
Jeff Koons is the curator of two exhibitions currently on view in New York: the group show Skin Fruit at the New Museum (through June 6th, 2010) and a survey of the work of Ed Paschke (a mentor of Koons) at Gagosian Gallery (980 Madison Avenue, through April 24th, 2010).
I’ve drawn myself into a debate over ethics and morality with my work, How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality (view the high-res version here). I threw a brick through the window of the museum and people want answers. My first problem with this is the assumption that I have them. I don’t. I also don’t envy the New Museum’s position. It is dependent on a few wealthy individuals instead of broad public funding to run its institution. We share the same paradoxical over-dependence on a limited number of wealthy individuals to maintain our independence from political and ideological interference. Assuming public funding, even from the NEA, can bring unwanted political scrutiny of the moral content of the art. This is a paradox the art world faces in its efforts to make art accessible, while remaining free from the kind of traumatic, political interference caused by the politician Jesse Helms, who famously tried to cut funding from photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1980s.
My second problem with the demand for answers is the conflation of ethics and morality. Art critic Jerry Saltz and blogger Tyler Green have engaged in a protracted public feud over the terms. Tyler is an advocate for stronger ethics in the art world, while Jerry seems intent on defending the relative tolerance and heterogeneity of the commercial side no matter how dysfunctional it may appear, even lovingly referring to the art world as “Babylon.” I agree with both of them. I can because they aren’t talking about the same things. Advocating ethical practices and tolerance are two different positions. This difference is key to understanding that freedom of expression is different from maintaining an ethical buffer between the market and the museum. When Jerry accuses Tyler of engaging in a witch hunt, I believe Jerry does so to protect artists and their freedom of expression. However, perhaps this is at the expense of the New Museum’s questionable ethics.
Similarly, when Jerry and the critic John Yau got into a public spat over their definitions of “America,” I believe that neither of them would side with our previous administration, which used moral authority to justify both immoral and unethical behavior. Ben Davis argues, in his “9.5 Theses on Art and Class,” that the art world is not separate from society or its class structure. But I believe that the general character of the art world is far left of center. Artists are an educated class of cultural producers who routinely challenge “moral authority” and share a tolerance for minority perspectives. That this vision is supported by a wealthy elite is also paradoxical, but there aren’t many alternatives at this point in our late-capitalist democracy.
Los Angeles galleries are brimming with minimal, kind-of-conceptual abstraction at the moment — Paul Davis’s successions of hinges and wood and Joe Fyfe’s felt and muslin Motherwell spin-offs at ACME; Matt Connors’s posed expressionism and empty frames at Cherry and Martin; Leonor Antunes‘s hanging brass triangles at Marc Foxx; or Lisa Williamson’s controlled outlines and understated installations at the recently closed David Kordansky exhibition. But of all these, it’s veteran Mel Bochner who makes the keenest impression.
Mel Bochner is obscenely smart. He has the pedigree and, when he wants to, the vocabulary of an academic. He has taught at the New School and Yale, and written about the “oddly circular history” of perspective and linguistics in Wittgenstein. But through forty-five years of making, he’s managed to keep his artwork visually crass, provocatively simplistic, and, as a result, wittily incisive. In his current exhibition at Marc Selywn Fine Art, a series of comfortably large, kinkily colored paintings run through sequences of synonyms. Visually staccato, the paintings look the way that Charles Bukowski soundbytes sound.
Bochner, who has called himself a “belated beatnik,” had his first exhibition back in 1966, at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Then, like now, he was questioning the grammar of art. In a particularly memorable piece, he used word portraits to engage work made by his contemporaries–in Portrait of Eva Hesse, a slew of tactile-sounding verbs circle around the word “wrap,” which anchors the drawing. It’s an abstraction of an abstraction that pulls Hesse’s ideas out of the context of her work and yet it’s surprisingly accessible. Pared down to “wrap,” “limit,” “ensconce,” and “tie-up,” among other words, Hesse (or at least the Hesse represented by these verbs) seems like a spatially-obsessed poet who’s fixated on everything bodily, which is actually fairly accurate.
Since then, Bochner has done a variety of public works, written about Donal Judd and serialization for Artforum and, among other ventures, begun a refreshingly whimsical series of drawing not too ingeniously derived from Roget’s Thesaurus.
It starts like this:
One snowy night last month, as New Yorkers rushed home in advance of a coming blizzard, more than a hundred artists, scholars and curators crowded into the boardroom of the Museum of Modern Art to talk about performance art and how it can be preserved and exhibited.
And somewhere close to the end we find this, in reference to Marina Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim in 2005:
Ms. Abramovic saw that show, she said in a recent interview, as a way “to take charge of the history of performance.” In the 1990s, as younger artists became interested in work of the ’60s and ’70s, she said she noticed that some were restaging historical works themselves, often without consulting or even crediting the originator. “I realized this is happening because performance is nobody’s territory,” she said. “It’s never been mainstream art and there’s no rules.” Finding this unjust, she decided to set them herself, by recreating the works in consultation with the relevant artists and estates. Better she should do it now, she said, because “they will do it anyway when you’re dead behind your back.”
And so Carol Kino reports for the New York Times on March 10 in an article entitled “A Rebel Form Gains Favor. Fights Ensue” on the Museum of Modern Art‘s private “Performance Workshops.” She brings attention to the issues raised by these “Workshops” in the field of the conservation and presentation of performance art and the involvement of museums in this project.
I decided to take those two bits of writing out of the piece to bring attention to a fact that has seemed self-evident to me from the moment I first saw Abramovic’s work, but has become completely evident after a flurry of articles and profiles on her have appeared in many publications lately: Marina Abramovic is a total stone-cold diva. Now don’t get me wrong, this is certainly not meant as a negative value judgment. It’s a fact that makes me love her more, and with the same part of my brain that loves incredible women like Kate Bush, or Tyra Banks. I could see it, from the first interlaced fields of her brushing her hair in 1975′s Art Must Be Beautiful to the time she got in people’s way in 1977′s Imponderabilia, to her most recent alpha female diva moment, The Artist Is Present, in which she stares you down in public.
In short, “doing” Marina Abramovic would be an amazing drag performance. In an alternative universe in my head, this is a very common occurrence. In my head, drag queens LOOOOOOVE “doing” La Marina with almost the same zeal they they usually reserve for “doing” Ana Mendieta or Maya Deren. Jennie Livingston‘s Paris Is Burning has a whole section on Guerrilla Girl Realness with a Twist and Chrissie Iles is a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. But camp fantasies aside, what these extracts from Kino’s piece show is that Abramovic is tough as nails and — for better or for worse — has decided to grab the performance art bull by the horns and try to change its course in her favor. I’m ambivalent about this exertion of will on Abramovic’s part. On the one hand, who else is going to do it? She’s charismatic, people like to see her and listen to her, and she certainly has the street/ivory tower cred to do so. On the other hand, I question her intentions. Is Abramovic pulling a Rhonda Rulebook because she basically doesn’t want people touching her stuff?
I was recently blown away after seeing a few of our Art21 Educators in action and thought it would be a good time to talk about the best kept (or ignored) secret in education: visiting our colleagues to learn new strategies, get new ideas, and gain perspective on what’s working when we teach. You see, 95% of the time, maybe more, teachers are busy teaching, preparing to teach, or performing a variety of tasks related to just being an educator in general. Visiting our colleagues in their classrooms is often not very high on the priority list. Having reflective conversations about these visits can be as rare as a lunar eclipse. But some of our best professional development is taking place in the classrooms right next door to us! Sharing best practices is something that takes organization, time, and effort, but over the past nine years I have learned repeatedly that this is time well spent and absolutely worth the extra effort. It’s worth taking the risk to ask that veteran teacher if we can come in to check out the project everyone is talking about. It’s worth opening ourselves up to feedback when we ask a colleague to visit our classroom. Some of the most meaningful learning experiences in my career have occurred in the classrooms of colleagues, or over coffee and conversation after being mesmerized by a lesson I just saw, especially when it comes to teaching about contemporary art. Let’s face it, reading about good teaching, or just daydreaming about it, is one thing. Seeing good teaching in action is quite another. Sort of like feeding our own fire.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been preparing a presentation about time-based art for the colloquium at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, “Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art,” which I talked about last month with Jeff Martin. I started my research for this talk with my friend Mitchell Hearns Bishop’s article, “Evolving Exemplary Pluralism: Steve McQueen’s Deadpan and Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Anne, Aki, and God–Two Case Studies for Conserving Technology-Based Installation Art.” You can read that article on the American Institute for Conservation’s website.
Even though Mitchell worked for many years in various roles at the Getty and had both Robert Irwin and James Turrell as visiting professors in art school, I’d like to move a little bit away from concepts of contemporary art in my conversation with him. Mitchell is now the curator of historic collections at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden and responsible for the historic buildings, collections, and the cultural landscape. Of course, I recognize that the L.A. Arboretum is an environmental institution, which means that its mission is more closely aligned with ecological issues rather than art history. Or is it? As much as these disciplines are different, there are similarities.
Richard McCoy: How is the Arboretum different than a fine art museum, and how has your approach shifted from that of a conservation professional to one of a curator?
Mitchell Hearns Bishop: While we do have art in the collections, the overall context is environmental so my curatorial approach needs to be aligned with that. My botanist colleagues often refer to me as the “historian,” but for me that’s problematic, as a conventional historical interpretation independent from the environmental context is meaningless.
At the Arboretum, our purpose is to promote learning and provide inspiration and enjoyment, which isn’t really that different than an art museum’s function. Take, for example, the National Gallery in Washington—the classicism and monumentality of the architecture and the quality of the collection are inspirational in a fundamental way. A lovely garden or landscape with charming old buildings provides a similar feeling. While the Arboretum has a traditional educational role, it is in the context of pleasure and inspiration. We want visitors to go away feeling good. The site itself is what I refer to as a “geography of pleasure.” It was a resort, a recreational destination one hundred forty years ago and still is today.
Thanks to Kevin McGarry for his excellent guest blogging and coverage of recent art. Up next is Ivan Lozano. Ivan Lozano is a (mostly) video artist currently working on an MFA in Film/Video/New Media at the School of the Art Institute. In another life, while living in Austin TX, Ivan was the programming director for the Cinematexas International Short Film Festival, an arts writer for various publications, and a co-founder of the artist collective the Austin Video Bee.
Sparkling Nepalese paper, race and civil rights, a northern island, circular botanics, fluorescent lights, a ton of vinyl records, and a few reviews in today’s roundup:
- Season 1 artist John Feodorov is included in the two-person exhibition De-Natured at Valise Gallery, an artist-run collective on the island of Vashon, Washington. Feodorov (based in Seattle) and Lauren Atkinson (of Whidbey Island) were students of Valise member Beverly Naidus over twenty years ago when they were undergraduate art students at California State University Long Beach. Their work in De-Natured addresses “our complex relationship with nature and the conflicting sensations many of us feel in its presence.” Feodorov explains his work: “Several years ago, I visited the Anasazi ruins at Chaco Canyon, near my family’s land in New Mexico. This was during the much-hyped Harmonic Convergence when people were gathering at numerous traditional sacred sites around the world. Along the inside perimeter of one of the large kivas, a throng of tie-dyed spiritual enthusiasts formed a circle while sitting in lotus position. At the axis, they had erected a plastic totem pole, an object possessing no significance to the native peoples of the Southwest. Their act, while well intentioned, seemed more like an act of spiritual desperation than of re-connection. It is this kind of sincere yet misguided event that interests me as an artist.” De-Natured closes March 31.
- On March 16, The Getty Center will screen Legacy: Black and White in America, a documentary that premiered on PBS that explores the legacy of the civil rights movement and looks at the lives of African Americans today through conversations with figures in business, politics, academia, the media, and the arts. Following the screening, cultural commentator Lawrence Weschler will lead a discussion about the legacy of race and civil rights in contemporary art and museum practice. Kerry James Marshall (Season 1), who is featured in the video, will be part of that conversation. The event begins at 6pm. Click here for more information.
- La Saison the F[euml]tes (The Season of Celebrations) — a site-specific installation of flowers, plants and trees by Season 4 artist Pierre Huyghe — opens March 17 at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reine Sofia in the Palacio de Cristal. For this project, Huyghe will place different plants associated with various holiday periods in a circle, each one of them characteristic of a specific time of year. The arrangement is to be read as a clock with the different seasons marked by the diversity of flora — roses, violets, chrysanthemums, palm trees, plum trees, jasmine, bamboo, and firs. La Saison the F[euml]tes closes May 31.
- On March 30, Kiki Smith (Season 2) will speak at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) along with the curators of Philagrafika 2010, an exhibition that celebrates printmaking in contemporary art. Smith’s work is included in the core exhibition of Philagrafika, The Graphic Unconscious, simultaneously on view at PAFA, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design, the Temple Gallery at Tyler School of Art, and The Print Center. Using fragile sheets of Nepalese paper, Kiki Smith installed two walls of PAFA’s gallery with an array of small and large-scale works. Smith will discuss the major themes in this work and her ongoing interest in printmaking techniques and processes. The event begins at 6pm.
- Through May 16, works by Laurie Anderson (Season 1) and Raymond Pettibon (Season 2) are on view in Vinyl at La Maison Rouge in Paris. The exhibition of close to 800 albums, tapes, CDs, specialist magazines, reference books, catalogues and artworks is drawn from the collection of British collector, publisher and curator Guy Schraenen. Vinyl shows LPs from “an acoustic and visual angle” to illustrate how artists from the 1920s through today have experimented with language and sound. Visitors can listen to every record in the collection at a specially-designed deck.
- Martin Puryear Prints, an exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum, surveys a decade of the Season 2 artist’s printmaking. Puryear’s prints are inspired by various interests that are also visible in his well-known sculptures — furniture, basketry and his international travels. Curator of Prints, Kristin Spangenberg, says, “Puryear has created a body of printed works that extract the essence of minimalist abstraction with an appreciation of natural forms and ordinary objects.” The exhibition continues through June 13.
- Colorforms, a long-term exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, explores color and abstract form in artworks from the Hirshhorn’s collection that date from 1949 to the present. Milk Run (1996), a fluorescent-light installation by Season 1 artist James Turrell, is on view alongside works by Paul Sharits, Fred Sandback, Mark Rothko, Anish Kapoor, and Wolfgang Laib through winter 2011.
- The traveling survey exhibition of works by Season 4 artist Jenny Holzer has made its way to the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in the UK. Read recent reviews of the show from Laura Cumming of The Observer; Adrian Searle of The Guardian; and Jonathan Brown of The Independent.
- Read what critics for Bloomberg and the New York Times are saying about The Nose, produced by William Kentridge (Season 5) for the Metropolitan Opera. The performance continues through March 25.
(continued from Part 1)
Down the stairs, Nathalie Djurberg’s sexually violent claymations are followed by Cady Noland’s sculptural image of Lee Harvey Oswald at his death. She has him riddled with holes, one in the place of his mouth and gagged with an American flag textile.
In the corner of floor three is one of the most iconic works in the show, Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s Masters of the Universe (1998–2000). The pre-human couple have been installed on a extension rolling down from the museum’s white walls. It appears as if they’re stepping out of a time vacuum into a context vacuum to survey the room. From their vantagepoint, Pawel Althamer’s Schedule of the Crucifix (2005) is the work that demands the most attention, featuring a live performer posing on a cross ten feet up on the wall. He is stationary in a crown of thorns until his schedule dictates that he descend the ladder, change, and exit the room. Nearby, the figure in Andro Wekua’s Wait to Wait (2006) is seated in a motorized rocking chair upon a brick base and within colored glass. He wears clownish make-up and a dress shirt and, lacking pants, you see that this guy’s genitals have been effaced. Subtly in motion, he still seems disconcertingly real, particularly beside Althamer’s living sculpture.
There are odd consistencies between floors. Just about below the floor of Tauba Auerbach’s dimensionally expansive black and white dots are Nate Lowman’s silkscreen of the same ilk. Wrapped around the far side of the room, like Gober’s bed upstairs, is Maurizio Cattelan’s Now (2004), the wax body of JFK in an open casket—a more disquieting sense of sleep, to say the least.
The artist Matthew Savitsky has based himself in Philadelphia for the past three years after a lengthy tenure in New York. His practice primarily spans sculpture and painting, working with lived materials in response to lived experiences. A meticulous hoarder, he often incorporates personal belongings into his sculptures, installations and tableaux inspired by his own, continual upbringing and relationships to and within communities: Methodist, Pennsylvania Dutch roots; the pristine, coded culture of galleries and collectors; the geographically dispersed Radical Faeries network of intergenerational gay men; decorative trades that monetize craftsmanship to realize clients’ personal visual fantasies, like muralism and interior design. His works convey a kind of autobiographical exhibitionism, formal therapy processing subjective elements of life, ideas and reflections on culture.
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