Olivier Mosset was in town for the opening of his exhibition at Parapet/Real Humans, a project space run by Amy Granat in a storefront in the Fox Park neighborhood of Saint Louis. On view was a framed set of four lithographs of two thick black stripes on a square of white paper. The set, it turns out, was made for a Swiss Institute benefit in 2004. Granat said the work reminded her of September 11—I suppose any two vertical lines will do that. The artist compared them to an optometrist’s vision test. As someone who can’t see six inches past his nose without glasses or contacts (and who never skips his annual eye-doctor visit), that made more sense.
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.
Two years ago I stopped attending panels of art critics discussing the state of the field, mainly because the subjects such events would cover could easily be predicted: (1) money, and how there is little to be made writing about art; (2) a perceived loss of power in the art world, ceded to dealers, curators, and collectors; and (3) the differences between writing for print and online publications. Speakers overwhelmingly wrung their hands over problems that have existed for decades. The numbing repetition—I can’t even.
I first discovered the work of Lee Lozano (1930–1999) in 1997, when reading the reprint of Lucy R. Lippard’s classic chronology of Conceptual art, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. The descriptions of Lozano’s experientially based art from the late 1960s, including Dialogue Piece, General Strike Piece, and Grass Piece, were among the most compelling in the book. Because of the radical nature of these works—making art from talking, from art-world protest, and from the desire to “stay high all day, every day. see what happens”—I thought everyone knew about her. So when Lozano was rediscovered in the early 2000s, having left the art world for good thirty years earlier in her infamous Dropout Piece (1970/72), I was surprised.
The subtitle of this panel, “Is Jerking Off Getting Out of Hand?,” could mean anything from, “Once you’ve seen one jerk-off in an art context, you’ve seen them all, so a painting renaissance is inevitable,” to “Painting itself is the equivalent of jerking off, so why paint?” In either case, if you’ve been waiting tensely for the verdict, the panelists agreed that painting is not now, nor is it likely in the foreseeable future to be dead. In fact, one assumes that the four painters convened exactly in order to reach that conclusion. It did, however, take them three-quarters of the evening to start to explain why.
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.
The journalist and sociologist Sarah Thornton was interviewed about her latest book, 33 Artists in 3 Acts, at the New York Academy of Art, where she was also the school’s commencement speaker for this year’s graduating class of MFA students. The book chronicles the upper crust of the contemporary art world—the kind you read about in the Scene and Herd section of Artforum.com—from 2009 to 2013. Benchmarks in conversations and studio visits with the dozens of artists that Thornton interviewed were Jeff Koons, whom she considers to be conservative, and the high-risk Damien Hirst. Other recurring characters include Maurizio Cattelan, Ai Weiwei, and Andrea Fraser, as well as the artist couple Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons and their daughters, Grace and Lena Dunham.
Joan Semmel began by citing Lucy Lippard: the more explicit the imagery, the less evocative the erotic work. Response from panelists was poor until John Kacere broke the ice with a meandering monologue on the mediocrity of porn: “If you’re very hungry, it doesn’t take much to turn you on.” Panelists were asked if their own work turned them on; Kacere again. “You can’t be horny for a month.” Panelists agreed that, in effect, their work was not really porn or even erotic—it just referred to a “beautiful human experience.”
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.