A SAD REFLECTION ON THE ART WORLD
Critics, curators and collectors who have complained recently about how the super-rich are ruining the art market should know better
By Julian Stallabrass
Published online: 05 December 2012
A minor squall has blown up after the American art critic Dave Hickey’s announcement that he has “retired” in disgust from writing criticism. Art is now too popular—“I miss being an elitist and not having to talk to idiots,” Hickey said in a recent interview. Art, he contends, is made for a bunch of extremely rich people for whom the critic acts as “intellectual head waiter”. The Observer newspaper also reported that a number of prominent curators have complained anonymously of having to defend overrated works that happen to be worth a lot of money. One of them even described Tracey Emin’s art as “empty”.
Hickey, we may remember, became well-known as one of the more eloquent champions of “beauty”—that is, of a cheery, market-friendly prettiness in art. Once a dealer, he assured his readers that art buyers following their tastes would produce a various and salutary beauty that could be held up against the dreary run of grim and grimy politicised art found in public spaces and on the biennial scene. It was a version of the Republican “market good, public bad” reflex, applied to contemporary art. Hickey even staged a counter-biennial at Site Santa Fe in 2001, filling it with happy, bright and colourful sculptures and paintings, along with a lot of flowers.
So, coming from him, the complaint that the market has become too unpleasant is odd. It is like Charles Saatchi’s recent assault on dealers and collectors as vulgar and self-regarding. It is, in fact, the effect of failing to recognise your reflection in a mirror, and for an instant seeing yourself as others see you. All this has quite a bit of comedic value, but is there a more serious point here? If critics, collectors and dealers not only fail to recognise themselves but recoil in disgust at their reflection, we may ask: why?
First, there is the matter of art’s coyness about its business side, which Olav Velthius has written about in the pages of The Art Newspaper and elsewhere. There continues to be considerable art-world resistance to the idea that a gallery is just a shop, the art fair just a mall, and the art just another luxury product to set alongside jewellery, antiques, yachts and the rest. In the boom years for contemporary art, huge numbers of new collectors were drawn in, and the art world lost its Euro-American axis. As it became globalised, its distinct minority culture was eroded. In its stead, celebrity, publicity, branding and the glitzy display of riches came to the fore—vulgarity, if you like.
Second, since the super-rich who buy the most expensive contemporary art have been most immune to the financial crisis, and since they also use art as a hedge against the movement of other investments, the top levels of the market have appeared relatively unaffected. The vulgar business of flaunting consumption goes on, while around it everything has changed.
It is not just that something seems wrong with the art world. All now appears in a strange new light: bankers are reviled, the political elite is revealed as corrupt, and capitalism itself has been stripped of its ideological cloak, standing naked as the engine of rampant debt, inequality and environmental devastation. In that new frame, the picture of the elite continuing to spend their fortunes on vacuous geegaws is bound to look less pleasing than it once did.
So Hickey (and Saatchi) may not like the world they helped bring into being, but its direction and impetus lie entirely within the logic of what they represented and defended.
Hickey points to the disappearance of the middle class, who leave behind the super-rich and a courtier class, including those unfortunate enough to write about art. The evaporation of the Euro-American middle class, as its professions are automated or outsourced, is one of the great developments of our age, and it has been greatly accelerated by the financial crisis. It attacks not just art but the roots of liberal democracy as the class that defended the system is disenfranchised by it.
If works of art are vulgar and empty, why should people be any more upset by that than by, say, garish packaging on supermarket shelves? Within the system, the arts are supposed to be the repository of self-expression, set apart from bureaucratised working lives and the standardised fare of mass culture. The durability of this view has less to do with the market than the State, and particularly with those reverence-producing machines known as museums.
With the increasing visibility of its material base (of its being put to use by States, the super-rich and business), art’s ideally free character fades, along with its hold on the imagination. Think of the strange clash of cultures at the recent Damien Hirst blockbuster at Tate Modern: the branded artist set against the branded museum. The staid display techniques sought to impart gravity to what was shown, while Hirst’s glitzy, self-consciously branded work undermined it.
Museums are also responsible for the persistent feeling that works of art have something deep to say about society. If this is so, what does hedge-fund art say about ours? The belief in that link, perhaps, is why we recoil from art’s reflection: we see ourselves, not in a momentary misrecognition this time, but as a cogent, unified image produced by a systematic and consistent causality—money. Do we take a knife to the portrait of our own corruption, as Dorian Gray did? And if we do, what survives?
The super-rich dominate the mainstream image of the art market, just as they do much to control the political agenda. Yet huge and diverse realms lie beyond the culture and the politics of this tiny elite. The years of the art boom were also those of social media, as millions started to show their photographs, videos, writings and art online. Many of them found that it is not so hard to make things that look like contemporary art. Another reflection—complex, contradictory, vulgar and popular, and in some respects less desolating—lies there.
The writer is professor of art history, Courtauld Institute of Art, London
© The Art Newspaper
A SAD REFLECTION ON THE ART WORLD
WE BEGIN WITH EQUALITY: “LINCOLN” AND “DJANGO UNCHAINED”
January 3rd, 2013
Two recent films made by two very different directors have accomplished something a bit rare for a mainstream Hollywood production: They not only bring to the screen glimpses of American history, they are timely commentary on contemporary American existence.
The wizardry of Spielberg and the ridiculously superb performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln” made me leave the theater feeling like I had just spent three hours with Honest Abe, and “Django Unchained” is among Quentin Tarantino’s best—twisting a revisionist Western tale of the same era into a modern-day sociopolitical allegory.
Beyond a window into mid-nineteenth century America, “Lincoln” shows a society at war with itself—particularly over equality and slavery. Whether you hold to the idea of slavery being the primary dispute or just one of many that led up to the Civil War <http://tinyurl.com/bcvhj2n> , the way this film depicts the legislative end of slavery sort of takes your breath away (in the same way the HBO series “John Adams” did with the formation of the Constitution). And of course slavery didn’t then magically dissolve and everyone lived happily ever after. In that way, the film also points to how our country’s modern culture wars have branched out from that historical milestone—to the civil rights movement and beyond issues of race.
I noticed people snickering when lines insulting Democrats went by (such as Secretary of State Seward’s remark of avoiding “the indignity of actually speaking to Democrats”). But I would bet you money that those giggling spectators have little knowledge of how drastically those two parties have changed over 150 years, even as Seward’s comment of Congress being “a gang of talentless hicks and hacks” seems to remain rather true. Those bitter feuds have not died out—they’ve taken on various shapes, bursting out from different corners and pockets of America, funded by quiet interests and inflamed by louder voices that cash in on making things black-and-white, us-versus-them hogwash. Yet any of us who passionately disagree in today’s political circus act could probably agree that “Lincoln” is a great film, and that he was a great president.
Spielberg’s “Lincoln” <http://tinyurl.com/ay3kk5o>
Beyond Lincoln being portrayed as a leader with poise and calm during the bloodiest, costliest (in terms of casualties) war in American history, his desire for eliminating slavery becomes the focus of his presidency only after it becomes clear that the war must be won on something—something significant. That something is really the notion of equality—even more grand and complex than abolishing slavery—and it is addressed in a most profound way by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) when he is forced to claim that the fourteenth amendment by no means endorses the equality of races (or the sexes even), but simply “equality before the law.”
Now before we get into that, let’s jump to “Django Unchained”—arguably at the opposite end of the spectrum from “Lincoln,” but not so far off as to exclude it from the larger conversation about how the Civil War era connects to the modern one.
Tarantino’s “Django” <http://tinyurl.com/aygbyzq>
“Django Unchained” is a Tarantino through and through: If you’ve seen his movies, you know what I mean. He mixes genre, narrative and humor in a very specific blend. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave being transported two years before the Civil War, and is picked up by Shultz (Christoph Waltz)—a well-educated, fast-shooting bounty hunter who needs Django for a job. Becoming a bounty hunter himself, Django crusades to reunite with his lost wife, now owned by a notorious plantation owner at “Candieland,” where he and his Anglo-partner Shultz journey to save her.
Don Johnson plays “Big Daddy,” <http://tinyurl.com/ben3qkz> a charismatic plantation owner whom Django and Shultz visit on a bounty hunt. You might remember him from another Anglo-and-African American duo with a slightly different focus in “Miami Vice.” <http://tinyurl.com/2d3ms>
First and foremost, the film is a Western. Tarantino himself has stated <http://tinyurl.com/cuaehe2> in interviews that this isn’t a revelation about the cruelty of slavery, though it does depict such incidents with gut-wrenching horror. Tarantino knows that addressing the worst episodes of human history comes with controversy, especially by combining it with genre humor and a heroic narrative. He does in some ways what Cattelan does with sculpture <http://tinyurl.com/cc2bffw> . Tarantino knows where cinema has been and from whence it has come. He stirs archetypes and stereotypes like spices in a pot—turning a traditional gunslinger film into a cathartic story that attempts to equalize the cinematic playing field.
I don’t remember too many American Westerns helping me understand the helpless hell that so many African Americans endured in America for well over a century. The American Western narrative that is embedded almost genetically in the heart and soul of mostly American white men emphasizes and champions the idea of the independent, self-guided hero like Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood) riding his horse just beyond the limits of civility and lawlessness. It’s that cowboy justice mentality—one that a lot of white men identify with—that still holds a heavy weight on the heart and mind of our collective macho identity: Anarchy is hell, but governed society ain’t much better. Best to ride alone, armed and with one eye open. Best not get attached to anything, because even though I’ll usually do the right thing, I’m a real nasty son of a bitch.
Clint Eastwood stands in front of an image of his iconic character Josey Wales <http://tinyurl.com/a8jgn7w> as he begins his address to the Republican National Convention in August 2012. Here’s some interesting reading on that.<http://tinyurl.com/a4fps6r>
The Wild Western was born out of the Civil War era—a time when the ideals set forth by the founding fathers broke down into bitter differences about what equality (and a host of other words and sentences written at the end of the 18th century) really meant. So as (spoiler alert!) Django, one of the first true black cowboy-justice heroes, rides away after killing as many ruthless, despicable racist white men as he can (all of whom have been chomping at the bit to punish him in the most self-righteously brutal way, as they do to countless other slaves in the film) one feels a satisfying retribution—a triumphant moment of good over evil as the pure, white-painted plantation home of Calvin Candie (Leo DiCaprio, whose character takes a sordid interest in Mandingo fighting and phrenological superiority of whites) burns to the ground. It symbolizes in a sensational way what “Lincoln” does in an understated way (like when Lincoln subtly utters “slavery is done” near the end of Spielberg’s film). Both gave me goosebumps, and both, like I’ve been saying, point in the direction of the present.
“The White Establishment Is Now The Minority” - Bill O’Reilly <http://tinyurl.com/ay8f5ue>
“The white establishment is now the minority,” said conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly the night President Obama won reelection. True, and perhaps not so inflammatory if taken to mean that the electorate has indeed shifted from mostly white voters to a more, say, equal representation of America’s ethnic and gender diversity. But Mr. O’Reilly continued: “And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things? The demographics are changing,” he said. “It’s not a traditional America anymore.”
Apparently, if his statement is taken literally, white men are the only race/gender that don’t feel they are entitled. Women, Hispanics, and African Americans however, do. Really? After contemplating the details of both “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” (and probably gobs of other historical and fictional content about American history), I’d argue that the ones who have been standing on the platform of entitlement would be none other than the “white establishment.” Those who for decades and centuries chained up and beat slaves, kept women silent from public discourse and participation, bulldozed over native populations, burned the suspicious at the stake and lament up to this very day over “entitlements” that have taken centuries to be granted to those other than white men. Now I don’t for a second hold that all white men are evil (since I am one myself), but I wouldn’t dare insinuate that traditional America is changing because every other demographic than mine feels entitled. That seems like a weak justification (and perhaps a last-ditch cannonball) for what may be the white majority’s denouement.
John Trumbull, Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 (commissioned 1817) <http://tinyurl.com/aozqrkm>
Yes, it may have been the white-established consortium of early Americans that wrote “all men are created equal,” but I don’t think it was the white establishment that further demonstrated this principle by any solely comprehensive means. I’m not sure what O’Reilly has in mind when he refers to “traditional America” other than white establishment rule, and I’m not sure I’d want to live in his particular version. (O’Reilly did write a book called “Killing Lincoln” and another, “Killing Kennedy.” I haven’t read either of them, and though the books seem to act as primer-novels about the assassinations of two presidents instead of say, two presidents’ efforts to further the idea of equality—specifically for African Americans—I think even if I did read them I’d still prefer Tarantino’s take on assassination—”Kill Bill.” Oh no I didn’t!)
Which brings me to the controversial part of this essay (you thought you were already in it?). Equality may have nothing to do with race, gender, class or genealogy. In fact, those are the distinctions that define our God-given differences—and find us wanting more regulations to help level the playing field, so it’s claimed. Another controversial idea then is that very thing: Perhaps we all aren’t created equal. It’s a novel idea—and noble one—that we are. But is it true? This is why Thaddeus Stevens’ address (in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”) is so important. Stevens responds to the House during a debate about the fourteenth amendment. His enemies (one of which is Ohio Representative George Pendleton) think that if Stevens will admit that he believes in the equality of all races, those on the fence about voting for the abolition amendment will surely vote no—fearing that blacks, after being granted freedom, will then be given the right to vote and possibly more, say, “entitlements” that whites enjoy. Instead, Stevens restrains his personal conviction for a more profound argument about equality:
Lincoln - Thaddeus Stevens Speaks To The House <http://tinyurl.com/adlgo4r>
“How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior? Endowed by their maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood? You are more reptile than man, George. So low and flat, that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you. Yet even you, Pendleton, who should have been gibbetted for treason long before today, even worthless unworthy you ought to be treated equally before the law!”
If Spielberg’s “Lincoln” teaches us anything, it’s that our differences run deep, dark and through the heart: particularly the subject of equality and what that term means both ontologically and constitutionally. The term goes beyond race, gender, class, all of it. Stevens’ remarks in the film suggest that perhaps even two men of the same race are not “created equal.” The term “equality” is then one of the most difficult ideals left to us by our founding fathers (not to mention the term “created”). It might be that we do not come from equality. In fact the reason we strive for more equality in our laws is precisely because all of us don’t start with the same socioeconomic identities, advantages or resources.
Ed Kienholz, Five Car Stud (1969-72), recently acquired by Fondazione Prada <http://tinyurl.com/acn22oa>
A year or so ago I was at LACMA, and on special display was an Ed Kienholz installation that had never been seen in America before, called Five Car Stud <http://tinyurl.com/asbag44> . It’s probably the most harrowing and nauseating piece of art I’ve ever experienced. You walk into a large dark room, where a life-size depiction unfolds: Five big automobiles surround a group of people at night, the headlights gleaming to illuminate the scene. The figures, as you begin to notice, are all wearing masks—creepy old man and clown-face latex masks. One of them stands with a shotgun by his truck where inside, a woman sits with her hand in front of her face as if she’s about to vomit. Turning towards the center of the scene, you start to get the picture. Two men hold down a black male, two more stand in the distance. One holds a flashlight, the other yanks on a rope tied to the man’s foot. A fifth man hovers over the victim with a knife, poised to slice off the victim’s testicles in an act of supreme perverse brutality. The victim wears a shirt with the “n” word across the chest. Walking around to each of the cars, a young boy sits alone in one of them, staring at the scene through the windshield. You feel a sense of frozen time, like a photograph, but one that you walk around in as if it were a piece of the Akashic record on pause, a sickening reminder of humanity’s undeniably disgraceful, haunted history. A similar scene occurs in “Django Unchained.” A white ranch hand almost has the chance to squalidly enjoy giving Django his castration-punishment moment.
Where’s the equality here? I’ll tell you. No matter what race, country, family, or era you come from, we are all equally capable of savagery. Those with all colors of skin have committed equally atrocious acts of violence. No one is exempt, not even the so-called “white establishment.” Our human condition is wrought with acts like these toward people of different races, genders—hell, even people of the same. Our propensity for violence and hatred knows no constitutionally drawn lines, it has no sympathy for inequality: It is equally horrific whether it’s one enslaving and killing many, multiple torturing one, or brother against brother. We can thank the notion of superiority, not equality, for most of that.
One of the oldest diagrams from Euclid <http://tinyurl.com/bzfug3m>
There’s a scene in “Lincoln” where he cites a notion of Euclid: “It is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” He asserts the statement is a mathematical certainty, two thousand years before the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence were written. Thus, confronted with both mathematical certainty and the words of his ancestors, Lincoln states “we begin with equality.” However, I don’t think he meant to restate the claim that “all men are created equal.” Instead, I believe he meant that if we are in fact created with, and continue to war over, an infinity of differences, then it must fall to society—and its laws—to strive for equality in the treatment of its citizens.
As Lincoln seemed to realize, even if being equally created remained in dispute, we nonetheless deserve equality before the law, which then stems to equal rights and equal opportunity. Surely we are rational, compassionate and responsible enough for our society to begin with that. Because if we do not, we risk the all-too-familiar behavior of superiority of one race, gender or establishment over another. We are equally capable of savage behavior, yes; but also equally able to recognize, evaluate and dignify character (a notion that wouldn’t get introduced for 100 more years), which transcends skin color, gender/partner preference, religious belief, whatever the inherent differences may be.
Our story of equality, our definition of it, is still working itself out. Even if equality is as self-evident and certain as Lincoln and Euclid claimed, it isn’t certain that human behavior will use the notion for our greater good. Thus we have to be reminded of our collective propensity for violence and discrimination, and learn to evolve into the more perfect union we consistently fall short of. Seeing a film like “Lincoln” helped me revisit why the struggle for equality still matters while capturing a tumultuous and fascinating period of human history. A film like “Django Unchained,” while radically different, plows right over the textbooks to make cinematic history. Both films, even with fictional embellishment, reflect our real relationship with the past—and equally our present.
Glasstire (Texas Visual Art)
FRIDA KAHLO’S CLOSET IS OPENED 58 YEARS AFTER HER DEATH
MET REPORTS ONE MILLIONTH VISITOR TO NEW ISLAMIC GALLERIES
In the 14-and-a-half months since the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its new galleries devoted to the arts of the Islamic world — which it calls the galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia — they have become one of the Met’s most popular attractions. On Friday, officials there reported that attendance at the galleries had topped the one-million mark — meaning an average of about 2,550 people a day, and 14 percent of the total attendance for the museum during the same period._NYTimes
SALTZ: MOMA’S INVENTING ABSTRACTION IS ILLUMINATING—ALTHOUGH IT SHINES THAT LIGHT MIGHTY SELECTIVELY
By Jerry Saltz
Early-twentieth-century abstraction is art’s version of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It’s the idea that changed everything everywhere: quickly, decisively, for good. In “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925,” the Museum of Modern Art’s madly self-aggrandizing survey of abstract art made in Europe, America, and Russia, we see the massive energy release going on in that moment. Organized by Leah Dickerman, the show is jam-packed with over 350 works by 84 painters and sculptors, poets, composers, choreographers, and filmmakers. The sight of so much radical work is riveting.
Yet art of this kind still poses problems for general audiences. They look on it warily. Indeed, even we insiders sometimes don’t get why certain abstraction isn’t just fancy wallpaper or pretty arrangements of shape, line, and color. It can take a lifetime to understand not only why Kazimir Malevich’s white square on a white ground—still fissuring, still emitting aesthetic ideas today—is great art but why it’s a painting at all. That’s the philosophical sundering going on in some of this work, the thrill built into abstraction. Insiders will go gaga here. But I wonder whether larger audiences will grasp the way this kind of art thrust itself to the fore in the West, coaxing artists to give up the incredible realism developed over centuries by the likes of Raphael, Caravaggio, Ingres, and David.
For 400 years, starting in what we now call Italy round 1414, a highly codified form of picture-making took hold in Europe. It was based rigidly on perspective, and all subject matter was soon depicted in the same perspectival space. Surfaces got smoothed out; traces of process all but disappeared. Thus came into being one of the greatest picture-making cultures of all time. By the nineteenth century, decadence was setting in. You could see it, painfully clearly, in the sea of stylistically similar salon paintings: frolicking children, middle-class life, society ladies, romantic views of nature and animals, and lots of voluptuous nude women seemingly worn out from masturbating. Constable, Corot, Courbet, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, Cézanne, and others loosened the pictorial stranglehold. Yet by the early-twentieth century their painterly perestroika was no longer enough. A total break had to happen. Even Cubism, as radical as it was, wasn’t enough to do the trick: As the painter Robert Delaunay put it, “Cézanne broke the fruit dish, and we should not glue it together again, as the Cubists do.”
Which brings us to the first work in “Inventing Abstraction.” This being MoMA, I don’t have to tell you that it’s by the museum’s macho honcho Picasso. It’s Femme à la Mandoline, an intriguing, dusky-colored 1910 work with cubistic compartments, shapes, and slants. Apart from a curve that could be from a mandolin or a hint of hip, there are almost no defining real-world features. This is Picasso coming this close to pure abstraction. Then he blinks. “There is no abstract art,” he stated. “You must always start with something … even if the canvas is green—so what? In that case, the subject matter is greenness!” He’s right, of course. Even so, the rest of the show is dedicated to artists who didn’t blink.
Some sights that follow overwhelm. A wall of nine 1915 Malevich paintings wows with its all-out commitment to form, shape, and color arranged in ways that will never look like intellectual wallpaper. Back up, so you see these punctuated by Brancusi’s rough-hewn Endless Column, and you’ll witness astral geometric visions through some metaphysical Teutonic timberland. The sight of these two artists going for broke is unforgettable. As is the alcove of eleven Mondrians that lets us witness this Dutchman taking Cubism beyond the nth degree, transforming it into one of the most instantaneously recognizable and clear visual styles since the ancient Egyptians’. Starting with a 1912 rendering of bowing trees, Mondrian moves through fields of waterlike marks to crosshatched grids of wavering space, all the way to pure geometry. Absorb yourself in his infinitely rendered edges; see how your inner eye perceives pings of light (visible, but not painted; they’re all in your retina and your mind) where Mondrian’s lines cross. This isn’t just abstraction. This is the movement of visual elements, micron by micron, in ways not seen since Van Eyck.
A large Picabia from 1912 is so deadpan, ironic, and visually aggressive that you see in it future artists like Polke, Kippenberger, and Oehlen. Not far from there, seven different-colored geometric shapes, each on a white ground, by Russian Ivan Kliun radiate calibration and nuanced surface, and point directly to artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, and Robert Mangold. The British painters (Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg, Lawrence Atkinson) all surprised me by looking better than I’ve ever seen them. They’re still self-conscious to the core, contriving every effect, much as recent British artists do. Even the Futurists like Giacomo Balla and Francesco Cangiullo, whose cartoony ideas about movement can be annoying, look good confined to a small space in small numbers. Their posters and diagrams far outshine their paintings.
The show will still leave general audiences in the dark about why abstraction came into being. But careful observation reveals how powerful abstraction can be, how it is still a tool that circumvents language, disrupts identification, dissolves narrative, delays the crystallization of meaning, and becomes a reality unto itself. These days, abstraction is normal, not shocking, the expected thing in schools, galleries, and museums. Too many artists still ape the art in this show, throwing in Abstract Expressionism, post-minimalism, or surrealist twists and tics, adding things their teachers have told them about. Their work is as boring as it is derivative. The exciting news is that artists are doing away with purist cant, getting rid of academic dogma, dumping Clement Greenberg’s rigid nonsense about “flatness.” Artists are polluting and expanding abstraction in fabulously impure ways, bending its armature into whole new configurations. And abstraction, old and new, can still leave us floored. These days, I am stunned by Uri Aran’s sculptures, which conjure the logic of imaginary maps with objects laid out on tabletops, and by the painter Lisa Beck, who hangs pairs of canvases in corners, one with a mirrored surface that reflects the other; somehow the parts meld, become a whole that seems to act as a telescope into unknown dimensions.
At MoMA, it’s great that Dickerman allows masterpieces to share the stage with lesser-known works. She smartly puts stained glass, needlepoint, wood carving, posters, photos, and illustrated books on equal footing with painting and sculpture. For MoMA, which rarely mixes and matches media in its permanent collection, this is a big, praiseworthy step. Yet even with much to love, there’s something demented, even dangerous about this show. Only an institution this besotted with its own bellybutton would title a show “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925.” Abstraction wasn’t invented in the West in those years. Abstraction has been with us since the beginning. Westerners discovered it, or rediscovered it. In many cases, it soon became insular and overpurified. Consciously, conceptually, purposefully, fervently. Abstraction is there in the caves. It’s been practiced ever since, all over the world. All two-dimensional art is abstract, in that it’s a representation of something in the world rather than the thing itself. Neolithic stone sculpture and Chinese scholar rocks are as abstract as Brancusi’s Column and Vladimir Tatlin’s tower monument. Missing at MoMA are visionaries like Adolf Wölfli, whose manic abstraction can make Kandinsky look tame; George Ohr’s biomorphic ceramic configurations; Rudolf Steiner’s cosmic diagrams; and Olga Rozanova, who was making Rothkos and Newmans of her own. What about Antoni Gaudí, who’s about as out-there abstract as it gets, on a giant scale? All would have dovetailed perfectly with the wild-style work here by Nijinsky. The American sculptor John Storrs is MIA. Ditto Hilma af Klint, who was making fantastically abstract paintings as early as 1906. The deeper you dig, the worse it gets. There’s an empty gallery devoted to music by Stravinsky, Debussy, and others: Fine. But there’s no Scott Joplin! No Dixieland, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, or Jelly Roll Morton. All are as original and as “abstract” as these Europeans.
Really, the title of MoMA’s show could be “High Museum Abstraction: History Written by the Winners.” Or “White Abstraction.” On some level, this show is MoMA talking to itself, looking for ways around its ever-present deluded, limited narrative. If it doesn’t open up this story line soon, MoMA will be doomed to examine the imagined logic of its beautiful bellybutton, alone and forever.
New York Magazine
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