Friday, December 30, 2011

Try To Remember..........

                                  The Obamas Caucus Night 2008
As the Republican Party decides whether self-immolation is the route to political victory in 2012 with the Iowa Caucuses only days away, I was reminded of what it was like four years ago.  Four years ago on December 31, 2007, the Dem Moines Register published its final poll prior to the Caucus.  Most polls showed a three-way tie between Edwards, Clinton and Obama.  Then came the Register's poll which finally showed a decisive lead for Barack Obama at 32%, with Clinton at 25% and Edwards at 24%. (The results would be 38% for Obama; 30% Edwards, 29% Clinton).

It was at that moment when Obama supporters no longer feared the same fate as Dean in 2004. Of course we still feared it was an outlier  but the Obama movement was real.  A few days later, Iowa helped change the face of American politics with Obama's big win in the caucuses. 

I remember vividly the excitement of that New Year's Eve when the poll was published and discussed by many of us on Daily Kos.  Those of us who endorsed Obama early in 2007 did so for the simple reason that of the main Democratic candidates he was the only one with a clear and forthright record of opposition to the Iraq War.  That was why so many of us gave him money, volunteered in his campaign and manned the Internets for his candidacy.  

Many of us had just as fervently  supported Howard Dean in 2004, but the Iowa campaign had been run in a dismal fashion.  The Democrats settled on Senator Kerry who was for the war before he was against it or something like that.  Bush won in 2004 handing many of us a most bitter defeat.  It was one thing to steal the election in 2000,  but no one even when the Supreme Court was handing him the presidency knew then  just what a miserable failure he would be.  By Novemeber 2004, it was obvious to myself and millions of others the evil of Bush/Cheney.  

That's why Obama's caucus win in 2008 was the most exhilarating evening I've ever felt in politics. I thought that the people finally got it--we needed a decisive break from Bush and his war and the Clinton era that preceded it.   

I was one of the few diehards who did not get misty eyed that November night in 2008, feeling more relief than joy.  The joy had come once on Iowa caucus night.  After that, it was a long hard slog. 
I knew on election night that the task of fundamental change was monumental.  And though the President has outraged many of us Progressives, his inherent decency and the indecency of his opposition unites us.  More importantly, as I have told friends over and over, we cannot judge President Obama by any other standard than the standard of other Presidents.  I cannot judge him by the standard of my own Congressman Rep. Jerrold Nadler. 

By that standard,  that makes him the best president of my lifetime.  Obviously better than all the Republicans and better than Johnson (Vietnam), Carter (Carter), and Clinton (the best Republican President of my lifetime).   Of course, the corporate and military empire of the United States is still one of the main impediments to a re-structuring of domestic and world priorities, but politics is the art of the possible.  Right now, Obama is the most possible progressive tendency in the United States Government.  But there's a part of me deep down thinks Ron Paul's critique of  the alliance between big business, big government and big military would  be the best path--if he weren't such a crank.

So to Iowa Caucus goers, I say vote your hearts!  Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.  That means the most principled non-crazy right-winger who loves fetuses and hates queers more than anyone else.  Yes, vote Santorum!  Early and often!  Let's make 2012 a clear choice. 

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.  

Happy New Year!

      TWENTY-SEVEN  acrylic on canvas  38 x 145.5”   www.maxestenger.com

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.   

Monday, December 26, 2011

Happy Holidays

      Patchin Place, West Village, NYC Christmas Eve, 2012  3:34 PM 
                                                       Photo by Max Estenger

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011


"Christopher Hitchens, finest orator of our time, fellow horseman, valiant fighter against all tyrants including God." Richard Dawkins

Christopher Hitchens finally succumbed to his brutal battle with cancer last night in Houston. The New York Times held the presses to make sure the story ran in today's edition.  They put the obit on the front page which is quite the honor for anyone particularly a writer.  His friends loved him dearly.  Those of us who read him loved him most of the time.  He was a great polemicist and so fun to read.  

His final crusade against God in the past four years was a welcome farewell and did mitigate some of the serious damage to his reputation he made in the early 2000s with his fanatical support for Bush's war in Iraq.  He finally had to leave The Nation where I encountered most of his writing for ideological reasons.   His appearances on the cable t.v. political shows were always must-see tv.   There weren't enough of them but it kept his rarity value up.  

His support for Bush's war and his savaging of its critics will not and should not be forgotten.  It was after all, the biggest issue that occurred  in the United States during his 30 years in America and he got it dead wrong.  It was a combination of hubris, loyalty and bad judgment.   I will be interested to see if his old estranged mentor Alexander Cockburn will have anything to say about Hitchens.  One of my favorite Hitchens moments occurred in 2005 in New York City when he faced British MP George Galloway in a bitter debate over Iraq.  But it was Galloway who got in the most Hitchens-like barb: 
"Mr. Hitchens bravely, fanatically you may say, stood against the idea of President George Bush invading Iraq in 1991. What you are — what you have witnessed since is something unique in natural history: the first ever metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug. And I mention slug purposefully, because the one thing a slug does leave behind it is a trail of slime." http://www.democracynow.org/2005/10/18/the_grapple_in_the_big_apple

In the meantime, God Is Not Great, one of his last books is highly recommended reading this holiday season and re-reading if you have read it already. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Three Weeks Before Iowa

The battle for the Republican nomination has changed dramatically in the past few weeks with Newt Gingrich emerging as  the new front runner.  No one saw this coming.  Now, the Mitt Romney juggernaut has been derailed. 

Two things happened.  The first was the implosion of Rick Perry as a serious candidate.  After that happened in the early fall, the Cain boomlet began.  Both of these developments were good for Romney.  But then, the ladies started coming from out of every Red Roof Inn, and suddenly the Cain placeholder became free.  Unfortunately for the man from Bain Capital, Cain’s supporters decided to go with Gingrich. 

Gingrich had been the one scoring well on Frank Luntz’s Fox focus groups during the early debates when the rest of us were deriding Gingrich’s churlishness and predictable media bashing.  He always made a point of steering the conversation and the debates back towards the Republican cause:  defeating President Obama.  Of course,  while he was turning off the pundits of both right and left, Gingrich was connecting with the Republican base.

If one starts to see the debates and the campaign threw the eyes of a real Republican partisan—then Gingrich makes sense.  It reminded me of 2004 when many of us Democratic liberal partisans were just as opposed and united in our loathing of Bush/Cheney.  We went all out for Howard Dean.  Dean was filling Bryant Park with 10,000 people in the summer of 2003 representing the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. 

The conventional wisdom is that Democrats fall in love,  while Republicans fall in line when nominating a president.  However, I can think of no instance in the last 40 years,  other than McGovern in 1972 and Obama in 2008 where Democrats fell in love.  Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore were all pragmatic choices.  In some cases, the only reasonable choice.  But  love would not describe the feeling of voters for any of those candidates. 

The Republicans definitely fall in line.  Nixon, Ford, Bush I, Dole, McCain all represented falling in line.  They definitely loved Reagan and they loved Bush Jr. too especially in 2004, in that most bitter re-election following the uber-bitter 2000. 

In 2004,  many of us felt that the only way to challenge and defeat Bush was to take him on on the issue of the war.  It was still not seen by most Americans as the catastrophe  it would soon become and Democrats wer scared of their own shadows then and spooked by the entire war on terror meme and so they nominated that grand wooden soldier  John Kerry.  He ran a bad campaign and still almost beat Bush.  Had he picked a better VP that could have delivered a state who knows what would have been.  But the Democrats of 2004 fell in line and the establishment trashed Dean though not with the same fury that we are seeing right now in the Republican primary.

Mitt Romney winning would be falling in line.  McCain was falling in line and the results speak for themselves.  Why not go with the  emotional outlet of a Gingrich nomination and the cathartic release of the obese turkey necked Newt getting in lithe Obama’s face and calling him out for being the limp-wristed America hating,  welfare-loving,  military hating, queer loving  Kenyan  Socialist Muslim that he is.
 
They will lose again—perhaps worse than in 2008—but they will feel much better about themselves.  It’s like that iconic moment in 2008 when an older white woman confronted McCain in a town hall and said that Obama was an Arab terrorist.  McCain stopped her in her tracks and said “No ma’am…no ma’am.  He’s a  decent family man, with whom I happen to have some disagreements.”   In 2012, the base wants no such decency.  No such niceties.  It will scare the beejesus out of the vaunted Bucks County swing voters, but so what?!  The base will feel better and yes, they will probably lose but there’s always a slight chance in this economy that they can win……and then….the most radical administration in American history.  In the meantime, despite the fact that Gingrich looks so good right now, expect the establishment to fight back hard.  Romney is still the favorite.  And expect Ron Paul to have his moment, most likely in Iowa.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Fog of Life

 

The other day, the fog was so thick in the morning that I couldn't see an inch beyond the window panes.  By today, however, I can see for miles.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Painting

OSHA Green &  Orange 1994 raw canvas, stainless steel, poly-vinyl over wood, enamel on stainless steel  60 x 91 x 3” (7 panels)

While putting some work in storage the other day I came upon this painting from the 1990s.  I opened up the box and though it had been in a couple of shows including a solo show at Steffany Martz in 1995, it still looked very fresh. Quite an interesting work for a twenty-something to have made in New York at the height of the Identity Art craze of the 90s, albeit perhaps not the shrewdest move. Someone once said that history is a formalist. I hung it up in my apartment.  www.maxestenger.com

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.

Carl Andre No Longer Making Art

Last week, I finally plunked down the six dollars for the December 5 issue of the New Yorker.  There was no way around the New Yorker's formidable on-line paywall.  I was anxious to read Calvin Tomkin's latest artist profile.  But unlike most of the articles Tomkins has penned over the past 50 years, this was about an artist in his waning days.  

This one wasn't about any ordinary artist.  No, this one was about one of the greatest artists of the past 50 years--certainly in the top 20.  But this is about the only great artist of the past 50 years charged and then acquitted for murder.  This was about 76 year-old Carl Andre. Many have said they were shocked by the feeble looking Andre in overalls looking blankly ahead next to his much younger wife artist Melissa Kretschmer.   The entire article is rather  wistful and melancholic.

The article did announce that Dia:Beacon would be hosting a major Andre retrospective curated by Dia director Phillippe Vergne and Yasmil Raymond in the Spring of 2013.  But the big takeaways were that Andre's mind is slipping and then the most astonishing of all was the revelation that "(Kretschmer) told me that Andre is no longer making art. Two years ago, he was hospitalized after a fall on the street, she said, and he was having short-term memory problems."  The art press has been slow to focus on the fact that it appears as though Carl Andre's career as a maker of new sculpture is over.  But Tomkins never broaches the subject again in the article.  

Yes, the Mendieta controversy is revisited, but no new information comes out.  He may have been acquitted but he became a pariah in the United States art world though Europe and Paula Cooper stuck with him and have allowed his prices to remain very strong.   And though Andre is very reliant on his wife, Tomkins does describe this nugget which will send Andre haters into paroxysms of righteousness:
"Now and then, when she (Kretschmer) offered an opinion, he would correct her irritably." 

For those of us who know Andre only through his work,  the 2013 retrospective is something to look forward to.  Andre's greatness lay in how such a radically simple gesture (his flat carpets of metal) could transform a space so fundamentally.  But more than that  how he could create objects of such elegance and intimacy with the materials of the industrial age.  The article has some very flattering statements about Andre's historical importance provided by both Tomkins and Richard Serra:  "(Andre) was more radical and more influential than anything being done by Judd, Morris, or Flavin."  And Serra says simply, "Carl was an enormous influence on me.  He changed the history of sculpture."

I remember in the early 90s, how odd it was to see Andre's work in Julian Pretto's micro-galleries in the West Village.   But his work seemed even more alluring in these spaces--Andre created small corner works which were made of tin.  They were like Ghiradelli chocolate wafers.  

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.