John Canaday, for those of you too young to remember, used to be senior art critic on the New York Times, and hence, some felt, the most powerful art critic in the country. I remember a Sunday column of his about a woman in the art department of Appalachian State University who had put together an exhibition so fine that he praised it unstintingly. This was particularly impressive to a New Yorker because at the time the very name of the university conjured up an isolated pocket of insularity where it was hardly expected art would be taught, let alone exhibited—and abstract art at that. Canaday’s Appalachian connection appeared again at College Art, as we saw him on the panel, “Recurring Regionalism: The Southern Rim.” The title came from an earlier conference of the same name.
I think the best thing A.I.R. [Gallery] could do would be to have men. I hope there won’t be any more women’s panels and I hope this is the last one I’m on. You get what you want in this world by surprise, by doing the unexpected. They expect us to continue the way we are…. I don’t think feminism is the real world any more. The point was to get women artists taken seriously. Women still aren’t as equal as men, but I don’t think women’s galleries are helpful any more. I don’t think it helps to be in A.I.R.
This conversation between the Croation-born artist Dora Budor, whose science-fiction-inspired installation Spring was on view in the Swiss Institute’s basement, and Chrissie Iles, a film curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, lasted only forty-five minutes. To some in the audience, it felt like an eternity. While the discussion started out informative—Iles sketched out a history of science fiction from its nineteenth-century origins in literature to its adoption by cinema in the twentieth—it slid steadily into unintelligibility. By the end of the event, Budor and Iles had made hash of potentially exciting topics, among them the relationship of human bodies to technology and the impact of computer-generated imagery (CGI) on perception, with maddeningly convoluted and directionless statements. It wasn’t pretty.
The most talked-about art writing of 1987 College Art Association week was Janet Malcolm’s New Yorker profile of Ingrid Sischy, editor of Artforum. Hilton Kramer, introducing “Has Success Spoiled the American Art World?,” explained how Malcolm found Sischy not “profilable” and so profiled instead a “Cook’s tour of the seamy aspects of the world [Sischy] is obliged to move in.” We, apparently more accustomed than Kramer to the ways and means of artists, thought the scene sounded like just folks and began to wonder anew about Kramer’s sense of the fitness of things. From there he segued into a depiction of the runaway art world of the last five to ten years—the proliferation of art critics, the inflation of indifferent art, and the turning of art into a commodity for the moneyed middle class.
The symposium on “The Relationships between Artists and Museums”—featuring David Bourdon, Richard Hennessy, Diane Kelder, Barbara Rose, and Marcia Tucker—was a formal display of sparring and volleying between five panelists, some of whom raised genuine questions. A few presented themselves as ideologues. Only the final speaker attempted answers.
Based in New York, the six-year-old advocacy group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) has supported a single issue: payment to artists working with nonprofit organizations in visual art. Three months ago W.A.G.E. launched a voluntary certification program for institutions that wish to publicly signal their commitment to compensating artists for their work in exhibitions and for speaking engagements and writing, among other things. The group also debuted a fee calculator that establishes a minimum wage, so to speak, for creative labor, as well as a progressively scaled payment schedule based on an institution’s annual operating expenses.
Future generations researching the good old days at the College Art Association’s Annual Conference may take this panel for a distillation of its moment, as it casually splices ideals, philosophy, jargon, celebrity, and non sequitur with talk of art-as-money. We see also the intense longings, the search for uplift, the demands for salvation that are increasingly deposited in art. The most interesting discussion of the panel addressed whether they belong there.
Concluding the two-day symposium on the work of Jeff Koons was a keynote address by the art historian Thomas Crow of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. By choosing a single decade—Crow’s talk was titled “Jeff Koons in the 1980s: Pop Culture Turns Up Late”—the scholar conveniently avoided discussing the artist’s work since the early 1990s, typically considered the divisive break between those who respect and loathe the artist, in particular when Koons exhibited his Made in Heaven series (1989–91). Indeed, in a review of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, one critic wrote, “Watching Koons between 1985 and 1992 was like being on a roller coaster, beholding the readymade crossed with greed, money, creepy beauty, and the ugliness of our culture.” Even the exhibition’s curator, Scott Rothkopf, skirted the later work in his catalogue essay “No Limits,” which analyzes Koons’s work up to Made in Heaven before defending the artist against the art market for the last half.
“It was a look of horror … or a smile,” said Scott Rothkopf, curator of the exhibition Jeff Koons and moderator of a panel discussion called “The Koons Effect Part 1,” regarding the responses he received when telling others of his research for a retrospective on the artist. Artists were interested in Koons, to his surprise, and he noted that Pierre Huyghe is fascinated by the “story that didn’t get made,” and Andrea Fraser enjoys Koonsian economics. Tino Sehgal finds Rabbit (1986) to be an iconic work, the curator continued, and Kara Walker responds to the advertisements for art magazines from 1988–89. For this panel, Rothkopf invited four American artists to discuss what Koons’s work means to them and how it has affected contemporary art.
Is it possible to be indifferent to Jeff Koons? For many years my attitude toward the artist’s work has been impassive and disinterested. It exists whether I like it or not and has some visual interest, but I’ve never cared enough to form an opinion beyond that. Among the most successful living artists, Koons is comparable to Jay Z or U2: a talented mainstream artist whose early output is considered groundbreaking, but whose later works are noteworthy more for their high production values and their exorbitant, multimillion-dollar price tags than their aesthetic worth. Over the years Koons has managed to stay relevant, with critics and journalists dutifully covering his exhibitions and appearances, just as they would report on Bono’s activism and Hova’s exploits.