Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Nightmare on 53rd St.

Art as backdrop.....
Today, I decided to pay one more visit to the de Kooning retrospective at the MoMA before it closes for good next week.  Having lived here for over 20 years, I know that the MoMA has become almost impossible to visit except on Tuesdays when it is closed to the public and various art educator events go on.  I have been to crowded museums in many places, but what I witnessed today was unprecedented--artwork being manhandled by adults and children and guards letting it happen.

Apparently the MoMA has no limits on how many people can be jammed into their $25 carnival of Modern Art. Yankee fucking Stadium has a seating capacity. Does the MoMA have a limitless capacity?  Are there no fire marshals?  The world's greatest collection of Modern Art is being presented in the most crass, disgusting anti-art atmosphere I have ever seen. The noise level is unbearable, the screaming children omnipresent and every artwork a mere photo op. The trustees and directors of this museum should be ashamed of themselves.  This museum is a shithole.  Period.  

Problem number one is that they place no limits on the amount of visitors because all they care about is making that $25 dollars, not making sure that the kind of care and time and talent that went into producing many of the works on view deserves some kind of reciprocal respect.  I'm sure Ronald Lauder is never around when the rabble is present.  How much money does the museum have to generate?  Is all the money going to the poorly paid clerks and guards?

Problem number two is that the Museum thinks that its good for business to have every tourist snapping pictures instead of looking at the art.  It's not even that they are taking pictures so much as taking pictures of themselves with the artwork. Every artwork is a photo op. The great Pollock painting above was just a backdrop for a slew of pretty girls to pose and mug and post the pic on Facebook asap.  This is the culture we live in.  Technology giveth but it taketh awayeth a lot.  Pity the poor soul who trekked in from Sydney on his first trip to the United States to view his favorite artist Jackson Pollock.... All photography should be banned at the museum.  Take a picture of yourself outside the museum in front of the MoMA sign.

Worse than anything I have described was the rampant touching of the artwork by museum visitors.  I verbally castigated a guard who was asleep at the wheel as usual as a Judd brass box was finger pawed by several children. That work always looks like its been treated like shit and the Judd Foundation should have it removed from the museum. A Lee Bontecu relief became the source for much amusement and was banged several times by visitors posing in front of it.  The worst treatment of all was reserved for a recent acquisition, a De Wain Valentine 1966 fiberglass/polyester sculpture and gift from Marie Josee and Henry Kravis last year (see photo above).  Unfortunately, the museum doesn't think too much of that gift since it lets passerby after passerby cop a feel.  I saw at least 5 people in 15 minutes touch it as they walked by.  One hapless guard can't see everything.  Eventually this beautiful gleaming example of West Coast Minimalism brought to the New York art world's attention by Tim Nye will look as shabby as the Judd does. 

That's why Donald Judd left for Marfa.  He knew that museum people didn't ultimately care about the preservation of artworks so much as the preservation of their careers.  I will be writing at length about Judd's vision in Marfa in the coming weeks but the man cared more about art than the trustees of the MoMA and the people who run the museum.  I used to lament that Dia:Beacon was 90 minutes from the City, but now I see that as one of its great strengths.  Keep the art as far away from the people as possible.  That's the only way it will physically survive unless a whole new set of policies are put in place.

I was amused by how the the curators decided to mix things up a bit and so I saw LOTS of work by Marcel Broodthaers and Daniel Buren from the newly acquired Daled Collection. This dreary assortment particularly by the supremely overrated French hack Daniel Buren was the one empty gallery in the entire museum.  Yes, it was those tarps of stripes that the Octoberists masturbate to.  Lots of snickers at the sublime Ryman painting Twin 1966, though.   That one had people wondering WTF.  But it's easily one of the 10 best works in the entire museum.  I can also say that I finally saw a Lawrence Weiner work that was great--a drywall cutout and a Robert Barry piece from 1968 that looked a little too much like a Fred Sandback for comfort.  It's too bad that we can't see work here in New York by the only great artist produced by the whole Institutional Critique genre--Michael Asher, instead we get  Broodthaers and Buren who are like double doses of chemotherapy.  

Willem de Kooning at MoMA

I made my second visit to the Willem de Kooning retrospective because the exhibition closes in a few days and I had not yet written about it.   The gushing reviews by critics like Barry Schwabsky in The Nation and Howard Halle in TONY seemed to capture my general feeling. However I don't agree that there wasn't a bad painting in the show.  There were quite a few crummy ones, particularly from the 50s throughout the late 70s.  

The early works are stunning in their utter virtuosity with both drawing and painting.  From the portraits to the pink angels of the early 40s to the black and white paintings to the titanic achievements of Attic and Excavation in 1950 it was a singular march towards greatness.  Then came the Women.  The Women suck.  They are gimmicky and dumb.  It was a bad lapse.  I now have to say once again that Greenberg was correct.  The abstract paintings that immediately followed in '53-'55 (using the same palette as the Women) were very good--Gotham News and Interchange among them.  But then decades of mediocrity follow. The big brash abstract paintings like Merrit Parkway don't hold up. Few of these do except for 1960's Door to the River.  I know this will be heretical to some, but second generation de Kooning acolytes like Michael Goldberg and Al Leslie were arguably making better paintings than Bill at this point.  

The 1960s were not a good decade for de Kooning witness the Sag Harbor stuff.  It's only in the late 70s that his paintings appear to become more focused and not so forced.  And then seemingly out of nowhere in the 1980s we get the astonishing late paintings. These are his greatest works and among the greatest paintings in Modern Art. The effortless flow of line, the white light that animates the entire surface, the lack of clutter and abex bravado (the letting go of a certain weightiness).  These are timeless works.  They are familiar yet look like nothing that had come before.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Helen The Bridge Dead at 83

Few artists in the New York School of the past 70 years have had as privileged a life and background as Helen Frankenthaler, the painter who died yesterday at the age of 83 after a long illness.  She was a glamourous figure in the New York art world and was lovers for some years of Clement Greenberg and then married painter Robert Motherwell years later. She painted some very beautiful paintings.  A few were even great.

But there is a tragic dimension to her that rests on the general consensus that she wasn't a great artist.  Despite getting all the official plaudits and medals this country could bestow on an artist, Frankenthaler never got what she probably most wanted--the recognition of the art world as to her centrality to the evolution of painting after  Abstract Expressionism.

Her main problem was this:  the two most important critical champions of Color Field painting (Greenberg and Freid) rated her below the boys. In Greenberg's canon--after Pollock and Newman came Louis, Noland and then the painter he considered the greatest since Pollock, Jules Olitski.  For Fried, the canon ran from Pollock to Louis, Noland, Stella, Olitski and Caro.   In neither man's writings do we ever get anything about the greatness of Helen Frankenthaler.  She will forever be the bridge-- the bridge from Pollock to the D.C. boys--Louis and Noland. 
And truth be told, she didn't consistently paint anything as good or original as  Louis' Veils or as perfect as Noland's Circles or Chevrons, or as novel as Olitski's controversial spray paintings. 

When the Color Field movement ebbed in the late 60s, abstract painting had entered into the  more reductive anti-color strictures of Ryman, Martin, Baer and Mangold. Louis had died, Noland would eventually become irrelevant and Olitski reinvented himself as the impasto king (eschewing color for surface) and bringing all the other former Color Fielders with him--Poons, Bannard and others.  Helen was left all alone. She never abandoned the basic vocabulary she established with Mountains and Seas 60 years ago.

I'm no believer in the necessity of the romantic idea of the impoverished or tormented artist, but she could have been much better. Louis painted in the tiny living room of his little house.  He had to figure out how to make large works in that space.  With little ventilation, he sucked on the paint vapors for years until they gave him lung cancer and he died.  Helen's studio was bigger than Louis' house.  She could have anything she wanted.  Perhaps her life was too easy and her work became too easy.   

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Texas Trip UPDATE

My recent trip to the Lone Star state over Thanksgiving allowed me to check out Marfa and Houston and lots of art--mostly stuff made here in New York.  Many have been asking me for a full report, but it will take some time.  In the meantime, above are unauthorized photos from the Menil Collection, Barnett Newman's titanic Ulysses, 1952,  and directly above from the Judd Foundation tour some early Judd wall and floor  pieces.

Howard Halle Rips New Museum & Gugg A New One

While catching up on my reading, I noticed Howard Halle's complete evisceration of both big contemporary shows in town--Cattelan at the Guggenheim and Holler at the New Museum in the November 30 issue of TIMEOUT NY.  I bashed the Holler show weeks ago,  but Halle (one of NY's most sober and respected critics) went even further.  The money quote is very clear:  "Why would any self-respecting institution mount either of these shows?"  writes Halle.  
Then he goes for the kill.  And it's an indictment of the entire art world especially the Anglo-American one based in New York City and London: 

However you want to frame it--the bridging of high-cultural and low, the mining of the gap between art and life—the ostensibly democratic conceit underlying much of  the big-name art being produced today has been co-opted by the powerful and ossified through incessant repetition, it's become meaningless.   Little more than  populism for  plutocrats, the notion is treated by the art world as an article of faith to be tithed with bids at the auction  house and admissions at the museum door.  But that is all the idea really is now: a belief.  Aping it doesn't  make an artist interesting or important any more than jumping out of a window makes you able to fly.

Unfortunately, Lisa Phillips has spent the better part of two decades implementing that very program--first at the Whitney and now at the New Museum.