Category: Deep Thoughts

A few words about the Dave Hickey talk.

Dave Hickey prepares to present at the Grand Central Market in L.A.
A crowd gathers for Dave Hickey’s talk at the Grand Central Market on Wednesday evening.

Sometimes, an argument needs way more than 140 characters. And in this case, that argument has to do with critic Dave Hickey’s talk in downtown Los Angeles last night. Hickey, the author of essay collections such as Air Guitar, was in town to promote his latest book, Pirates and Farmers, under the auspices of the Museum of Contemporary Art. I was in the audience and Tweeted Hickey’s rant-talk about the state of the art world. Already, there’s been some media kerfuffle about these Tweets, and they’ve been well covered in Modern Art Notes, followed by the L.A. Times. But I want to take the time to make a more nuanced point, one that goes beyond a few isolated Tweets.

Let’s be clear: I was at the talk because I do have some healthy respect for Hickey as a writer. He stays away from the word salad gobbledygook that is my art world nightmare, and for that I am grateful. I’m also a proud owner of Air Guitar. And as someone who regularly writes about travel, I find his essay on Las Vegas to be poetic and insightful — one that addresses, yet goes beyond all the Sin City tropes. That said, last night’s talk was a disappointment.

Now, before I continue, I just want to say that I wasn’t expecting to write about this talk in an official capacity, so I didn’t take notes and I didn’t record it. But I did want to address some of the general ideas. So please bear with…

Hickey said there are no critics.
First he went after the idea that there are no critics who are there to say “no” to artists. Certainly, that declaration avoids any mention of the fact that the  act of criticism is in a crisis at a time when media is atomizing — and it’s a problem that certainly isn’t unique to the art world. What film critic today has the pull of a James Agee or Pauline Kael or even a Siskel and Ebert?

He said there are no critics who can explain difficult art.
This one was especially rich given that L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight was sitting right in the audience. But I also wonder if he perhaps has never heard of writers like Ben Davis and Amy Taubin and Roberta Smith (even if I disagreed with her mightily about that nightmarish Chris Burden show). Hell, turn to blogs like Hyperallergic, where writer Jillian Steinhauer dissected the context of Bjarne Melgaard’s S&M chair just nine days ago, providing some needed insight into a story that was little more than a headline in most feeds. There are lots of writers out there doing their damnedest to explain difficult to art at a time when the media industry is doing as little as possible to support them. I try to be among them. And like many of them, I can’t claim to always succeed, but I sure as shit try. But I guess in Hickey’s eyes, this doesn’t count, because none of these writers are him.

He is no fan of art schools.
Look, I’m no defender of art schools. I think they often churn out tons of boring copy-cat artists bent on hyper-conceptualizing the hyper-conceptual, producing art that has little connection to real life. The Whitney Biennial (which is kind of like a fair of art school artists) often makes me want to claw my eyes out and I think that some artists would be better served working in a Bolivian tin mine than they would in the average MFA program. But Hickey’s criticisms — that most art teachers are “big fucking failures” who want to crush the aspirations of their students — felt like nothing more than totally excellent soundbites that didn’t go beyond Twitter levels of profundity. And all of it seems downright silly given that Mr. Hickey is the proud owner of a Ph.D. and a professor of English. Ultimately, what I’d love to know is why he thinks art school doesn’t work and what the alternative should be.

And there’s the whole bit about identity politics.
This one was confusing because his talk was all over the place and he paused on several occasions to re-organize his thoughts and refer to his notes. But my takeaway on what he said was that identity politics, coupled with art school bureaucratization, had done away with the “art underground,” a term he used to describe the rabble of avant-garde artists who didn’t give a crap what the mainstream thought of their work or ideas. Hickey told the L.A. Times that identity politics

“tribalized and broke up the art underground…it turned it into a tribe of women, a tribe of Black people, a tribe of gay people. It used to be all of us, together, just down in the dirt.”

Um, really? Is this really the underground as it existed? Towards the end of the talk, Hickey was waxing nostalgic about the Max’s Kansas City days, when everyone knew everyone and you could just show up at some random artist’s studio for the hell of it. It’s hard not to be nostalgic for the days when the art world was small. All I’ve ever known is the bloated universe we inhabit now. But I also am wary about being hostage to a false nostalgia. Let’s make no mistake: the Abstract Expressionists drinking it up at the Cedar Tavern, Andy Warhol and the Max’s Kansas City crew, the cool kids at L.A.’s Ferus Gallery were a pretty monolithic crowd: overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. Black artists, Latino artists, women artists were often simply not part of the equation — and, in fact, often built their own institutions apart from the rest of the art world, simply because they had no access to it. (Want examples, see the catalogues from various Pacific Standard Time Shows: Now Dig This!, Asco: Elite of the Obscure, Doin’ it in Public.)

Part of the reason Hickey’s statements in this area really rankled me is because recent years have seen various critics dismiss the idea that identity may be something important in art. (See Ken Johnson in the NYT and Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post.) To see yet another critic do the same was discouraging. Why identity (of the non-white male kind) is not taken seriously by some critics is simply mystifying to me. The effects of prejudice — call it clubbiness if you will — are very real. As Deborah Vankin notes in her piece in the Times, artist Micol Hebron has challenged the poor representation of women in the L.A. commercial gallery scene in her work. Entire biennials go by without the presence of a Latino artist. Important works by Black artists languish in museum collections, rarely put on view.

That said, like some of these critics, I *am* wary of theme shows that trivialize the notion of identity to gain social currency. (See my reference to “Cinco de Mayo” shows in my story about Chicano art in ARTnews.) But that doesn’t mean that the issue of identity should be banished. And it’s certainly no art world-wrecker. The art world is doing that all on its own, largely through money and totally un-transparent backroom dealing. But these issues — money, professionalization, institutionalization and academia, and identity — they’re all tricky, complicated topics that merit some degree of scrupulousness and nuance. Hickey’s talk did everything but. It was a slew of generalities meant to titillate and induce reaction: jokes about a period when Black artists could get accepted to anything and Hannah Wilke’s chest.

I’m no prude. I swear like a sailor and have the sense of humor of a teen boy. But the fact is that from a self-professed explainer of difficult art, I simply expected more.


Calendar. 03.13.13. (Sorta.)

King Kong GIF
I’ve got deadlines coming out of my ears, so listings are rilly thin. (Don’t have time to comb through all the press releases.) But you can entertain yourself by checking out my MOCA-LACMA explainer, as told in animated GIFs.

  • Paris: Chris Ware, at Galerie Martel. Opens Friday.
  • NYC: Alexandra Groczynski, Truisms, at Transfer Gallery. Opens Saturday at 7pm, in East Williamsburg. (It’s the debut show at this new tech-focused space.)
  • NYC: Blocked, a talk about writing by New York Times critic Holland Cotter, at the School of Visual Arts. Thursday at 7pm, at the SVA Theatre on West 23rd Street.

Now Dig This: The Ken Johnson Kerfuffle.

Ghetto Merchant, ca. 1965, by John Riddle. Part of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-80, on view at MoMA PS1, and the subject of one heck of an unsavory review in the New York Times. (Image courtesy of the Hammer Museum and the collection of Claude and Anne Booker.)

Last month, Ken Johnson, an independent writer who serves as an art critic for the New York Times, published a review of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-80, on view at MoMA PS1. The piece was critical of the show on a number of points, most notably that many of the works promoted a racial solidarity that could be alienating to white viewers. There are also some very uncomfortable paragraphs about the ways in which Black artists have employed the medium of assemblage:

“[Marcel] Duchamp’s work is a piece of deracinated, intellectual mischief-making designed to question relations between language and reality. [John] Riddle’s is about a particular population of people digging itself out of a real-world debacle.”

Something that could easily be read as: the sculpture by the white-guy European artist addresses universal themes; the piece by the Black artist, not so much. (If you haven’t read Johnson’s piece, I’d suggest clicking over and giving it a gander before you keep reading.)

That review, in addition to a preview produced by Johnson (about a show of women artists in Philly), has since generated an anonymous online petition/open letter directed at the New York Times. “Using irresponsible generalities, Johnson compares women and African-American artists to white male artists, only to find them lacking,” reads the opener. It goes on to state:

“Rather than engage the historical work in the exhibition, Mr. Johnson states that he prefers the work of mostly contemporary black artists who have been widely validated, without acknowledging the social progress over the last 50 years that might allow for the next generation of artists to ‘complicate how we think about prejudice and stereotyping.’”

It asks that “the Times acknowledge and address this editorial lapse and the broader issues raised by these texts.” As of this writing, the petition has garnered almost 1,000 signatures, including prominent art world figures such as Glenn Ligon and Coco Fusco, who confirmed to Artinfo’s Julia Halperin that they did indeed sign it.

Earlier this month, Johnson’s review also generated a raft of lengthy partially-deleted/disappeared discussions on his Facebook page, which includes posts by Kara Walker, as well as curator Dan Cameron, both of whom challenge his conclusions in very articulate ways. The discussions were in turn heated, articulate, rancorous, illuminating and all kinds of internet crazy pants. (I’ve posted some of the most interesting outtakes after the jump, but if you need some interesting reading the whole mucky schmegagie can be worthwhile.)


Now Dig This! was organized by independent curator and scholar Kellie Jones and originally debuted at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles last year as part of the Pacific Standard Time (PST) series of exhibitions. It was very well-received. In fact, Johnson’s colleague, Roberta Smith, described it as having “a visionary power.” It was the only PST show to travel to New York.

I personally dug Now Dig This! Among all the shows I saw during PST (and I saw a lot of them), this was one of the three that most stuck with me. It was an introduction to artists and works with whom I had only cursory familiarity. It provided an important sense of lineage for the work of contemporary artists such as David Hammons. It revealed a lot about the region that I grew up in and that I thought I knew. And it provided an important social, geographic and political context for a group of artists who, for a variety of reasons related to race and class, did not have the luxury of being included in the Ferus Gallery scene.

Johnson’s review is problematic for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that he appears to be prickly about shows that take as their organizing principle the race or gender of the artist — and he employs the work of white artists as the ultimate gold standard. As with Now Dig This!, he gave a skewering to the LACMA-organized Phantom Sightings, which examined art made in the wake of the Chicano movement, railing ainst the idea of the “identity-based show” as an “evil whose necessity would disappear in a more equitable world.” Likewise, in his review of Seductive Subversion, the exhibition of women pop artists held at the Brooklyn Museum two years ago, he judges the work against the production of male pop artists. (Sample line: “If it does represent the best female artists of the first Pop Art generation — and there is no reason to think otherwise — you’d have to admit that there were no women producing Pop Art as inventively, ambitiously and memorably as their male counterparts. That is not to say, however, that there were no interesting women mining the Pop vein.”) His listing for The Female Gaze, in Philly — the one that also happened to draw the ire of the petition writer — makes a similar comparison between the production of male and female artists.

To be fair, when reviewing individual artists, this doesn’t seem to be an issue. In a review of a show of Kara Walker’s art in 2003, he addresses her aesthetics and her message straight on. In a piece covering an exhibition of sculpture by Anne Truitt, he does much the same. And although it contains a few catty lines, he generally enjoyed an exhibition of feminist video that went on view at the Brooklyn Museum in 2009.

But there nonetheless seem to be some issues at work here. In one of the various Facebook posts that went up during the long discussion of his review, Johnson stated, “Personally, I think race is a fiction that far too many take as real, which, as a consequence, makes it all too real.” It was something that was echoed in his book on art and drug consciousness, in which he discusses pieces that get at the illusory nature of race. (I’d quote from the book, but I’m in the middle of moving and everything’s in storage, so I’m asking y’all to trust me.) And there are some statements he made about Black artists and solidarity at a panel of art writers in New York earlier this month — in which he alludes to his Now Dig This! review — which would seem to imply that he finds shows built around racial solidarity difficult to criticize because they are more about moral righteousness than anything else. (It’s not a direct transcript, so draw your own conclusions on that last one.)

Johnson is right in that race is a fictional concept. There is no biological basis for racial classifications. We all have the same teeth and heart and lungs, even if we come in different shades. But the social and political structures that race generates imbue every aspect of our society, not to mention our history: slavery, indentured servitude, apartheid, Jim Crow, housing covenants. As a result, race shapes experience and world view — and therefore art. To not recognize this is a gross omission. Race can determine a person’s economic status, their social status, even where they live. And in a society that is obsessed with it, it is a perfectly valid lens with which to examine art.

I will admit that there are identity-based and gender shows that are sloppy and uninteresting, exhibitions in which some curator seems to be saying, ‘It’s Hispanic heritage month, let’s put a bunch of Latinos in a room.’ But Now Dig This! and Phantom Sightings were the opposite of that. These rigorous, well thought-out exhibitions tell a story about a place and time. Now Dig This! provided historic and material context for a group of artists whose work doesn’t generally get pride of place in museums. (Jones once told me that many of the pieces in Now Dig This! actually reside in major museum collections — but they never get shown.) Phantom Sightings addressed ways in which Chicano artists employed conceptual language in the wake of 1970s conceptual art and civil rights movements. These exhibitions connected dots that weren’t previously connected and for that reason, they are important. (For what it’s worth, I addressed some of this in a piece about Chicano art that I did for ARTnews, which was, in part, a response to Johnson’s Phantom Sightings review.)

But in his critiques, Johnson is so busy railing against the idea that there are shows built around fictional notions of race or that some piece of art might not be as good as that of some long-dead male artist, that he fails to notice that these groups of artists, in the collective, might have something interesting — even important — to say. And that as a critic, he should be listening to what that might be. At its heart, this is intellectually lazy criticism: seeing what you want to see rather than letting the art speak to you. (For a point of reference: read Christopher Knight’s reviews of the same exhibitions, here and here.)


At the top of this post is an image of a sculpture by John Riddle that was made sometime around 1965. Ghetto Merchant is an assemblage crafted from cash registers that the artist rescued from a burned out store after the Watts Rebellion. In its structure, it is part Ibram Lassaw geometric monster, part musical instrument, part abstracted figure — all of it evidence of the ability of an artist to turn tragedy into something inspired. Until Jones put it on view in Now Dig This!, it sat in the home of a private collector and was rarely, if ever, seen by the public. And there were so many other pieces like this in that show. Melvin Edwards’ torqued industrial wall sculptures left me feeling suffocated. Senga Nengudi’s pantyhose installations grabbed me by the tubes, then twisted and yanked them in aggressive, uncomfortable, hilarious ways. Noah Purifoy transformed the basest junk into something greater than its parts.

It’s too bad Johnson missed this — all because he was so focused on race. That is, any race that isn’t white.

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Haiti Report: Saving a country’s priceless murals.

Cracks in the Wall: Philomé Obim’s Last Supper at the Sainte Trinité Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, display the damage of last year’s devastating quake. (All photos by San Suzie.)

Almost one year ago today, I set foot in Haiti for the first time — six months after a 7.0 earthquake had practically leveled the capital. I was in Port-au-Prince at the request of the Smithsonian, with my colleague Viviana Dominguez, a painting conservator, to examine what remained of a series of mural paintings at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. At that point, I was quite familiar with the televised images of the devastation. I had seen the bodies lifted from the rubble and the shots of the crumpled presidential palace. But nothing quite prepared me for the state of need we saw as we drove out of the airport and into the snarl of traffic.

Everywhere around Port-au-Prince there are reminders of the devastation.

Six months after the earthquake, much of Port-au-Prince remained in ruins. Though the air was thick with the dust of demolition, many collapsed buildings still lay where they fell on January 12. The road from the airport to the cathedral was a sea of tents where people lived without running water and electricity. We saw fax machines and barber chairs set up along the sidewalk, people bathing out of buckets, cooking over charcoal fires and washing clothes in muddy urban rivulets. Because so many roads continued to be blocked by rubble, it took nearly an hour to drive just a few miles.

Sainte Trinité, as it is locally known, had once been a simple but beautiful art deco structure. In the 1950s, the building’s walls were decorated with 14 murals depicting New Testament scenes. Done by a collective of Haitian artists associated with Port-au-Prince’s Centre D’Art, these energetic, color-saturated paintings quickly became something of an international sensation — one of the must-see sites for Haitian painting. For locals, they had a deep spiritual importance because they used Haitian people and settings to illustrate the life of Christ. This went well beyond the skin color of the biblical figures. For example, in Rigaud Benoit’s Nativity, palm trees, a thatched building, baskets of pineapple, and a waterfall that bears a distinct resemblance to a local pilgrimage site frame the baby Jesus. In Wedding at Cana, artist Wilson Bigaud set the miracle of turning water into wine in a Haitian hilltop village, complete with musicians playing conga drums and flutes of local origin. (See a pre-earthquake view of some of the murals here.)

The remains of Sainte-Trinité, Port-au-Prince. At rear, Prefete Duffaut's 'Native Procession' sits behind scaffolding.

When we arrived at Holy Trinity in the summer of 2010, both Benoit’s and Bigaud’s murals had been reduced to fragments the size of my hand. Gone also were paintings of the Annunciation, Temptation of the Lord, and Crucifixion, not to mention the building’s walls, roof, and pillars. Only three murals — Castera Bazile’s Baptism, Prefete Duffaut’s Native Procession and Philomé Obin’s three-walled Last Supper — clung precariously to walls that looked about as stable as the piles of debris that surrounded them. Doused by rain and baked by the sun for six months, the paintings were starting to fade and powder. They had to come down immediately. The question was how to do it without destroying them.

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The Big Salchicha: Our male-dominated art industry.

Wieners, everywhere. (Photo by paladinsf.)

There’s been some online kerfuffling on the interwebz about the stunning lack of ladies present in Modern Art Notes March Madness-style tournament, in which he’s asking readers to vote on the “greatest work of art since World War II.” The list, which was developed by a guest panel of five curators, features a total of 64 works of art. Of these, a sum total of three are crafted by women (Cindy Sherman, Maya Lin and Marina Abramovic). Two are by artists who are non-white (Kerry James Marshall and Lin, who is in for a two-fer). Almost all of the artists represented are from the U.S. or Western Europe. Andy Warhol makes the list five times. Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns are each represented by four works. And Gerhard Richter is in for three.

I’d never be the sort to oppose a good gimmick to goose web traffic, but it did rankle me to see this list. For one, it seems to tell a very narrow of art history.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, provided the labels are cleared up: In which case, we could re-baptize the tournament “The Best Art Work Created by a Dude Living in in London, New York or Berlin Sometime Between 1945 and 1960.” (But I suppose that doesn’t have that same ring to it.) Two, I was disappointed to see that a blogger who has taken arts institutions to task for being less than diverse, would publish a list that appeared to be the exact opposite. Three, I had to wonder if the world really needs that many Jasper Johns flags. I mean, really.

Green has defended his decisions on Twitter, stating that he wasn’t going to tell his invited curators which names to submit and that the list represents the “most-settled” artists in the 1945-60 canon. (Again, here.) To Green’s first point: I’d argue that the story a writer tells is colored by the sources he or she chooses to consult. Perhaps a more diverse group of experts would have yielded a more diverse result. To the second, I’d say: if the time-frame here is “since World War II” as originally stated (instead of 1945-60 as later implied on Twitter), then the canon ain’t even close to being settled.

Now, why could any of this possibly matter? After all, it’s just a silly game. Well, I think it matters a lot. For one, Green’s blog is an important outlet for coverage about arts institutions. This tournament will get linked to, it’ll get Facebook liked and it’ll turn up in Google searches when some student somewhere does a search for “greatest works of art since World War II.” Some little newspaper or arts journal might even run an item about it. In other words, it will become part of the record — a record for a system that already excels at excluding women and minorities from the larger narrative about art. (Something I’ve written about.) Which is why this is all such a bummer: an opportunity to provide a more comprehensive view of art, in a fun and interactive way, ends up being just the same old story.

For more: Brian Dupont has a blog post deconstructing the list. And Two Coats of Paint has a one- and two-part post that features various folks (Dupont, Jennifer Dalton, Michelle Vaughan, Hilary Robinson and many others) making some fantastic suggestions. You’ll find my list after the jump. (Although consider it more of a riff than a definitive list because it’s late and I’m TIRED.)

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A year-in-review (sort of).

Spied on our cross-country sojourn: A pick-up truck, outside of Austin, Texas.

It’s been a weird year. I drove back roads across the U.S. Threw a fish across state lines. Stared at an artist in a museum atrium. Taught art yoga. Spent the summer watching a “reality show” about art. Rowed around Randall’s Island in a handmade boat. And joined a religious procession in the Andes. I’ve covered most of these activities here on the blog (or over at WNYC). But a few things have eluded me — either because I just haven’t had time to get them down in pixels, or because I hadn’t quite sorted out my thoughts.

So, in lieu of a year-end listicle (I produce enough lists throughout the year), a little bit of stream-of-consciousness ruminating instead:

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On real estate.

Open house, L.A. (Photo by C-M.)

In April, Celso and I drove cross-country, from Los Angeles to New York. We did the southern route, using mostly back roads: through the Southwest, into Louisiana and the Florida panhandle, before turning north and hitting the Blue Ridge Parkway into Pennsylvania. We shacked up with friends or stayed at the Motel 6. Along the way, we hung out with reality TV producers, small-town cops, artists, oil men and retired military. The whole trip took three and a half weeks.

Besides the economy, one of the favorite subjects of conversation — regardless of who we were with — was real estate. In each community, whether it was middle-of-nowhere Arizona or metro Atlanta, we’d hear about which homes were selling, and more likely, which ones weren’t. We got the lowdown on floreclosures, on the neighbors who had gotten in over their heads, on districts that were emptying out and others that were filling up. On the Gulf Coast, we talked about what Ivan and Katrina and Rita and those other first-name basis storms had done to the market. (This was pre-BP spill.) In Alabama, we stayed with friends who had been foreclosed.

In so many ways, this obsession of middle class American life imbued much of our trip. In L.A., we visited open houses, in an old African-American enclave from the ’60s that is being transformed by Hollywood types. We went on dozens of personal home tours, respectfully attending to discussions about wall paint and roofing. And in New Mexico, we hiked around a gated subdivision that channeled a rugged, mountain aesthetic. The area was wooded, the houses nestled deep into the forest and the roads were winding. But the rustic look was engineered. The place was governed by a strident homeowners association that, among other things, forbade the installation of above-ground propane tanks for cosmetic reasons. Barbecues as big as a storage shed, however, were a-okay.

Throughout the country, whether in blue states or in red, in burned-out refinery towns or genteel beach communities, the one subject that seemed to bring everyone together was property — it’s acquisition, it’s maintenance and it’s display.

Politics may tear us apart, but real estate brings us together.