Archive for May, 2009

Historical Erasure Follow-Up: Holland Cotter

May 31, 2009

In the Saturday NY Times recent Pulitzer Prize winning critic Holland Cotter addresses some of the “history” issues concerning the Met’s Pictures Generation that I brought up in the previous post:

The show is rich and deeply interesting, but as history it has problems.

The most obvious of them is factual. Of the original five “Pictures” artists, only four are acknowledged. No work by Mr. Smith is on view; his name is mentioned only once in the catalog. His portrait has effectively been removed from the hall of fame.

In this the Met has followed Mr. Crimp’s lead. In the October magazine version of his exhibition essay, he dropped the discussion of Mr. Smith and focused instead on Cindy Sherman, an artist who hadn’t been in the show. Such revisionism is, perhaps, a curator’s privilege but not a historian’s. In the interest of accuracy Mr. Smith should have been included in the Met show. As it is, his absence turns historical record into invention and suggests how exclusionary a “generational” history can be.

The show is based on several broader exclusions. One of the notable features of the “Pictures” group was the number of women it included, among them Ericka Beckman, Dara Birnbaum, Barbara Bloom, Sarah Charlesworth, Nancy Dwyer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Laurie Simmons, Ms. Levine and Ms. Sherman.

Yet the Met show makes only cursory mention of the feminist movement and none at all of the presence of the Feminist Art Program at CalArts in the early 1970s, well known for its experiments with nontraditional mediums and for its critique of the representation of women in popular culture and in art.

Kudos to Cotter for bringing this to the fore. I assumed that he won the Pulitzer mostly for his feature-style criticism from China leading up to the Olympics, and this article works in the same vein. Cotter discusses two shows that he has already previously reviewed for the Times, and considers the ways in which exhibitions, rather than serving as objective truths, are involved in their own form of historical production and narrativization. In this sense it foregrounds the curatorial responsibility (and imperative) in establishing a context for making meaning.

The article compares the roles of history making in the Pictures Generation and the New Museum’s Younger than Jesus. Interestingly, the web version of the Cotter’s text is illustrated with Elad Lassry’s photographs, whose films I have written about previously. Although Lassry goes unmentioned in Cotter’s article, and his review of YTJ, it is an appropriate editorial decision as Lassry very deliberately engages the forms of production and aesthetic strategies laid out by Pictures artists, making explicit the connection between the two shows. In particular Lassry has a strong connection, even reconsideration, of Jack Goldstein’s motifs, buttressed by the work of Sarah Charlesworth and Dara Birnbaum and David Salle and James Welling. While I am obviously interested in Lassry’s work, I think it fares poorly in YTJ; a lot of this has to do with context and installation: his photographs are small and intensely formal, and in the slapdash cacophony of the third floor, they are almost easy to miss. The side gallery in which they hang is shared with Matt Keegan’s work, presumably because they both engage the Pictures legacy (Keegan with Barbara Kruger explicitly referenced), but it is to the detriment of Lassry’s presentation. Though I won’t go into it here, I had problems with the installation throughout YTJ.

UPDATE: Several weeks before Cotter or I wrote about this, Regina Hackett, also quoting CultureGrrl, posted about Smith’s exclusion. I had also read the AiA interview she cites, and it was influencing my thoughts, but I couldn’t remember the source of the “qualitative exclusion”. To reiterate, it seems like it would have been a minor thing to include Smith in such a sprawling show, and also satisfied historical accuracy.

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Historical Erasure at the Pictures Generation

May 18, 2009

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current blockbuster, The Pictures Generation 1974-1984 is on the one hand a sprawling historical survey, and yet also a revisionist history. Jerry Saltz describes it as “less a critical survey of a highly influential aesthetic than a feel-good class reunion. Rather than opt for scholarship and tough choices, curator Douglas Eklund cultivated a gang’s-all-here coziness. It’s a huge show, with hundreds of objects, books, posters, films, and videos, and works by 30 artists.”

Philip Smith, All the Answers, 1998

Philip Smith, All the Answers, 1998

Given the breadth of the show and its apparently inclusive approach, it is particularly surprising that Philip Smith was not included, even though he was one of the five artists that Douglas Crimp selected for the original “Pictures” show at Artists Space in 1977. Crimp’s revised essay, published several years later in October, is arguably responsible for the enduring currency of the “Pictures” moniker, and substitutes Cindy Sherman for Smith. It’s a critical decision that the Met has apparently perpetuated; Eklund has explained to CultureGrrl that “I didn’t respond strongly enough to his work to include it.”

Fair enough.

Remembering that chief photography curator Malcolm Daniel explained the Met curator’s mission as “To collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all at the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards,” it is clear that Eklund had the license to exclude Smith on the grounds of quality alone.

What disturbs me more is the way that the Met has entirely erased Smith’s inclusion in the original exhibition. At least one wall label for a work by Tory Brauntuch mentions him as one of the four artists in the Artists’ Space exhibition. The didactic material here needs to be qualified.

Reviewing the show, Martha Schwendener perpetuates the error: “The show at Artists Space featured only four artists. Ironically, neither Cindy Sherman nor Richard Prince, who would become figureheads for Pictures art, were included.”

So what happened to fact-checking? The museum gift shop, at the exit to the exhibition, is discretely selling copies of the catalogue for the Artists Space show (only $30). One need only flip to the title page to see that Crimp’s artists numbered five: Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith. CultureGrrl cornered Crimp at the press preview and asked what he thought of the omission:

Q: What do you make of Philip Smith’s absence from the Met’s show?

A: He was not so much of the group, of the social world, of the people who formulated this. He’s gay and this [the Met’s show] is a very straight configuration of artists. I don’t know what’s happened to him, career-wise. It’s a slightly touchy subject: I think Philip is upset, reasonably.

Schwendener rightly points out that the show “was organized by a photography curator intent on showing how the medium was integrated into “mainstream” contemporary art.” Beyond the social circle aspects of the show that Crimp and Saltz emphasize, I wonder if Eklund’s curatorial omission also has to do with the fact that Smith’s work seems to be grounded in drawing.

Whatever Eklund’s his reasons for excluding Smith, the historical record is being distorted. It might not make good copy for wall labels and audio guides, but this decision making process should be more transparent, or at least represented truthfully in the history of Pictures.

Jack Goldstein: The Jump

May 10, 2009

via Ubu. (and YouTube due to embedding difficulties)

On view in The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through August 2.

Picturing Monument Valley: Cindy Sherman and Martin Kippenberger

May 4, 2009
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #43, 1979

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #43, 1979

Certain discourses in contemporary art frequently arrive at a critique of Fordist production, but the term usually references automotive factories rather than Western films. Currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art are two works by significant contemporary artists, each self-consciously engaging the iconic landscape of Monument Valley, the preferred backdrop to many a John Ford film. In their respective works Untitled Film Still #43 and If You Can’t Handle Freedom, Try Seeing How Far You Can Get With Women, Part I, Cindy Sherman and Martin Kippenberger each make photographic portraits of themselves deliberately engaging the generic conventions associated with the Western landscape in cinematic representation.

Sherman’s 1979 Untitled Film Still #43 is included in the photography exhibition Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West. The image has been used extensively in promotional materials for the exhibition, adorning poster’s on the subway and the homepage of the museum’s website. The corresponding image by Kippenberger (only one of ten photograph’s making up If You Can’t Handle…, and part of the retrospective exhibition Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective) is also likely familiar to many readers, as it enjoyed cover placement for the February issue of Artforum. While Sherman’s #43 was made in 1979, Kippenberger’s piece comes from 1984, and there is a knowingness that suggests that he is directly citing Sherman’s earlier photograph. Discussing If you can’t handle…, George Baker’s review in Artforum points out, “Kippenberger would offer – perhaps in ironic, backhanded solidarity with the “women” of his title, if artists like Cindy Sherman are to be taken among them – an autotypology of male-artist clichés: so many portraits of Kippenberger as tourist, criminal, drunk, well-hung exhibitionist, rock star, cowboy, prankster, bohemian, or inept terrorist.”

Both Sherman and Kippenberger thrive on the generic and the cliché; what better location than Monument Valley: a site that is eternally a picture, ripe with associative possibilities. Against this backdrop it is interesting to consider the similarities and differences in how each artist has staged their photograph. Sherman appears in period dress, barefoot astride a gnarled, ancient desert juniper. Absurdly coifed hair frames her familiar face (Sherman’s photographs are all of her, and yet she is in none of them), chin uptilt, one armed suggestively braced on the bough of the tree between her legs. One wonders whether her coach or home is nearby, explaining her bare feet? But no, Monument Valley is always passed through; it is a site on the way to other places, to other areas of civilization and development. As such it is a battleground and proving place, most generally in which the masculine hero asserts himself. The female role then is one of general passivity, waiting in the shade to be rescued perhaps. And yet Sherman’s photograph implies no such narrative possibilities—we simply glean them from the iconic backdrop. It is a picture out of action, Sherman’s character seeming to exist only for the purpose of being at subject to be looked at, simultaneously available and yet vacant.

Artforum, February 2009: Martin Kippenberger

Artforum, February 2009: Martin Kippenberger

By contrast Kippenberger is framed out in the open, astride a (too-small) stead. He would seem to be placed in the space of action in which the male is tested, and yet we also guess that Kippy is merely at the edge of a parking lot or highway turnout, riding a rented pony intended for the children who spill out of Winnebagos. Saddled in, the artist wears a mohair wool sweater and black slacks along with his incongruous cowboy boots rested in the stirrups. He looks stridently out across one horizon, highlighting his jaw and earnestly attempting to look the part of John Wayne. But the sad-faced horse and eurotrash costume are too much. It is a failed enactment of the cowboy Western. Yet it is helpful to recall the Germanic affinity for Cowboy and Indian narratives, as well as Kippenberger’s own failed attempt to become a movie star, strangely enough in Florence, Italy. Describing the dubious culinary taste implied by “Italian pasta made for a German palate in the City of Angels,” Baker mentions Kippenberger’s habit of calling pasta “noodles.” Appropriately, this photograph might be his Noodle Western. As Baker points out, one of Kippenberger’s primary aesthetic strategies is inversion and negation.

We might then consider Kippenberger to be deliberately inverting Sherman’s photograph, at taking up the guise of the male hero to her female object of desire. But we see it to be a poor masquerade, and Kippy certainly knows it as well. But that wouldn’t stop him from trying.

Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West is on view through June 8.

Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective is up through May 11.