In academic art history, the single-author, single-subject monograph—an extended study on an individual artist, a group of artists, or a chronological or geographic range—is typically considered the pinnacle of scholarly achievement. A parallel to it in the hierarchy of subject matter in Western art would be history painting, a large work that addresses a biblical, historical, or mythological subject. To continue the analogy, a coauthored or edited book is comparable to a portrait, and an essay in a book is a genre scene. The article published in a peer-reviewed journal would be the landscape. The lowest form is the book review—the still life of academic writing.
Though the outrageous antics of Jim Jones and Charles Manson reverberate through the American public consciousness, a broad history of less-sensational activities from the 1960s and 1970s probably had a larger if surreptitious impact on US culture. Encounter groups, the human potential movement, large-group awareness training: these cultic approaches to self-actualization came shortly after mind expansion through psychedelic drugs in the sixties and just before business motivational seminars and self-help gurus of the eighties (followed by the deliriums of late-night religious programming and inspirational infomercials). Today, soccer moms practice yoga and mindfulness is all the rage, but once upon a time, New Age ideas were a serious threat to mainstream Judeo-Christian values. The objectors were partly correct, but I digress.
“Language is forced on art,” quipped the artist Rachel Harrison to an audience member during the Q&A session of this event. “We’re just throwing words at art all the time. Is that really best for art? Is that really good for art? Does that make art happy? It might. It employs a lot of people.” Such is Harrison’s self-consciously funny and cynicism-free outlook for giving titles to her works. That outlook is also a good way to understand her art practice over the last twenty years. I lost track of how many times I chuckled to myself during this hour-long talk.
The Serbian sculptor Marko Marković has expressed an interest in museum conservation departments and in the process of finding, restoring, and preparing objects for exhibition. For him, the final display is as much the work of archeologists and conservators as it is the labor of artists, artisans, and curators. In addition, Marković is not a fan of the normal exhibition catalogue for an artist, with an art historian or curator explaining the art. He would rather provide a fictional document for audiences to follow, to create something believable beyond the contemporary artist’s professional requirements to present work in galleries, have a portfolio website, and give talks.
It was Willem de Kooning who once remarked, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.” For artists from Peter Paul Rubens to Jenny Saville, this assertion is incontestable—there is no better way to portray human skin in the medium. De Kooning also said that “beauty becomes petulant to me. I like the grotesque. It’s more joyous.” The visual thrashing ones sees in the Abstract Expressionist’s midcentury paintings of women is not what the New York–based artist Clarity Haynes has in mind for her Breast Portrait Project, an ongoing series of paintings of women’s torsos that take the genres of both portraiture and the female nude in new and unexpected directions. Her view is more sympathetic to the women she paints, though the works still make some viewers uncomfortable, including me.
“You might say that a people or a movement must be constituted musically before it can be constituted politically.” This was one argument among many declared by Michael Denning, a professor of American studies and English at Yale University, during a talk for his new Verso book, Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution. Denning, however, made it clear that the music culture during the brief period of time studied in his book—from the widespread use of electrical recording in 1925 to the early years of the Great Depression—was not revolutionary politically.
A well-attended lecture by Isabelle Graw, a professor of art theory and a founding editor of the journal Texte zur Kunst, was titled “The Economy of Painting: Notes on the Vitality of a Success-Medium and the Value of Liveliness.” Jetlagged from a flight from Germany, Graw framed her talk as an eight-step analysis of the naturalization of painting in the contemporary moment. In the late 1990s, she said, painters “felt pressured to justify themselves,” but this anxiety fell away by the early 2000s, due to social, economic, and historical reasons. In particular, artists had absorbed the critique of painting and therefore renewed the medium.
“Would you say your biggest source of inspiration is other people?” an audience member asked Hank Willis Thomas, who had just finished giving a presentation on his work in the basement auditorium of the Krannert Art Museum. The artist replied with a smile: “I’d say.” Indeed, early on Thomas stated that art is about people and connections, and he even began his talk by quizzing the audience, asking who was a student, a faculty member, a first-time visitor. He also asked who in the room had tattoos—there were several students with visibly more than a few—and playfully harassed a few latecomers. Thomas also joshed a reticent audience member halfway through the lecture: “This talk can’t go if you don’t talk.”
You know how lyrics from pop songs look trite and sometimes embarrassing when written down, but come alive convincingly when performed? It’s the same for artist’s talks. Some excel when presenting in public. If an artist is charismatic, unremarkable work becomes good and good work becomes great. The opposite is also true: interesting work can come across as ordinary. The renowned first-generation Conceptualist Robert Barry is one of those artists whose work—which explores speech, memory, light, time, belief, anticipation, fragility, making connections, and states of flux and change—shines when interpretations are expanded on by others. It’s not that he’s inarticulate. Far from it—the artist speaks clearly, in a straightforward manner. But there was a lack of excitement to his reflections on a six-decade career during a lecture at the Hunter College.