Having plenty of time and all the museum’s funds at my disposal, I put myself on a regime to buy one picture a day.
As I try to catch up to the present with the blogging, the present just keeps overtaking. Anyway, in this post, I’m going to try to bring things closer to the here and now, with more observations about more museums. Last time, I introduced the MET, MOMA and the Brooklyn Museum as my three current favourites. Now I’m going to talk about the New Museum, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Drawing Room and some of the commercial galleries. So, the focus will be very much on contemporary art. In a future post, I’ll tell you about the Frick and the Neue Museums, amazing private collections of more historically significant art that is housed in what were once the private homes of the owners.
But as a starter, I’ll tell you about the Frieze Art Fair, because it is still so fresh in my mind. I’m not a great fan of art fairs, but because this one is so prestigious and so new to New York, and represents 180 galleries from all over the world, and because it is on an island that involves either a ferry or special bus trip, I relent and decide to go. I wish now I had taken a photo of the buses that left from outside the Guggenheim Museum – they were old bright yellow school buses, a little ragged and a little bumpy, but quite fun to ride in. And the route to Randall’s Island, where the fair is held, takes you through east Harlem, an area I have never been to. It has lots of rather plain apartment buildings and feels like a very different world to that of the elegant swishiness of the upper east side.
The bus drops us off at the south end of a hugely long, white, specially built marquee for Frieze designed by SO-IL architects. Despite the sunshine, it’s a cold and blustery day, so I’m happy to go indoors, but as soon as I get in, I am overcome by the quality of the light – it is intensely, glaringly white, so much so that I feel like putting on my sun glasses. I gradually get used to the brightness, but by the end of my visit, I have a headache. The whiteness also adds a certain sterile, clinical quality to the whole experience of viewing too much contemporary art in one go. (Alas, I don’t think my images have successfully captured this!) The marquee is divided into 6 colour coded areas and has built-in cafes and restaurants and a large area completely devoted to art journals. It’s not too crowded – I am here on the last day, a Monday, to avoid the busyness of the weekend – and so I stroll about quite comfortably without having to wait for people to move on to see the art.
There are lots of big name artists here – Damien Hirst, Thomas Ruff, Anish Kapoor etc etc – and also many that are completely unknown to me. Australia is represented by Rosyln Oxley with works by David Noonan, Tracy Moffatt and Dale Frank, amongst others. The stall minders look either serious or bored, or have their heads bent intently over Apple laptops. I meander about, stopping here and there to take a photo, or to take in a particularly interesting art work. I’ll just tell you about two things that are stand outs for me.
The first is at the New York based Marian Goodman stall. She’s featuring Tino Seghal’s Ann Lee, which was originally shown in 2011 at the Manchester International Festival. It’s a series of fascinating but rather disturbing solo performances by girls who take on the persona of a Japanese Manga character, called Ann Lee, who has supposedly come to life. Each girl looks no more than 10 years of age and is dressed in jeans, t-shirt and sneakers and performs on her own in an empty white room. The girl in the performance I watch has long dark hair that has been teased just a little to give it more volume. She gazes at everyone in the room and then starts addressing her audience in a very measured and supremely confident manner, moving her arms and head in a slightly robotic way and singling out members of the audience every now and then to ask them questions. “Would you rather be too busy or not busy enough?” “Do you know Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno?” And right at the end, she looks straight at me and asks, “What is the relation between sign and melancholia?” I say it’s a difficult question and I’m not sure of the answer. Ann Lee then says goodbye and take care, and makes her way out of the room. She is soon followed by another girl who repeats a similar version of the performance. There is no doubt it is a fantastic work, especially in the way it engages the viewer, but I wonder how much the girls understand about what they are saying and doing. Eileen Kinsella, in her blog on the Blouin artinfo website, describes them as precocious, which they certainly seem to be, nevertheless, I have slightly mixed feelings about the ethics underpinning the work.
The second stand out for me is a group of bizarre neo-Pop objects by Tom Friedman that include a giant pizza (which apparently sold for $32,000), an oversized pink marshmallow and a huge slice of bread. They hover somewhere between super-fake and super-real and are simply fantastic.
I eat a delicious vegetarian salad at one of the cafes, and then the glaring brightness of everything inside the marquee just gets too much, my head throbs and I venture outside to see some of the sculptures. It’s so cold and windy, I don’t go any further than Paul McCarthy’s giant Balloon Puppy. What a wimp I am as I head back on the next bus. It’s then, as I read the art fair brochure more closely, that I realize I’m missing out on a talk by Douglas Crimp, the internationally acclaimed art theorist and critic who was managing editor of October magazine and is now a professor at the University of Rochester. I feel rather stupid.
As Douglas Crimp actually worked as a curatorial assistant for the Guggenheim early in his career, I’ll use that as a segway for talking about this iconic museum. The Guggenheim was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. He was actually commissioned in 1943 and over a twelve year period, developed seven designs for the building. Sixteen years later, in 1959, the Guggenheim was finally opened. Sadly, Wright had died a few months earlier.
Gerard and I first visited the museum back in 1992, well before I knew anything much about art. Most of the galleries were closed at the time because it was between shows, so we couldn’t walk up the continuous circular ramp that characterizes the interior. But this time, we get to go all the way to the top.
The current exhibition is called Gutai: splendid playground, and it’s on all 6 floors of the spiraling ramp. It features the work of the post-war Japanese avant-garde movement that was established in 1954 by Yoshihara Jiro. The show actually extends Painting the Void, the exhibition of conceptually driven works we saw at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago a couple of weeks ago that also included post-war Japanese art. (See my posting on Chicago.) But, interesting as some of the works are, I feel a bit flat about the whole experience. I am drawn to a couple of strangely compelling ‘bubble’ paintings that were created by inflating a glue-like substance and hardening it onto the canvas, and I also enjoy giving a dollar to an attendant who gives me a token for an art machine. I put my token in a slot and a little window opens and I’m handed a small art work by an anonymous artist hiding inside the machine. There are, of course, other interesting works, but for the most part, it is the Guggenheim itself that is the most fascinating part of the visit. It’s actually a rather difficult space for hanging work, with it’s curved walls and sloping floor and big round columns, and I feel a little off balance the whole time I’m there. (The more comfortable places for viewing art are the galleries that extend out from the circular ramp.) So, I appreciate the building best as an architectural achievement of its time, rather than as a great gallery space. All the same, there is a striking work by Motonaga Sadamasa installed across the open rotunda. Pools of coloured water, suspended in strips of plastic sheeting, zig-zag all the way up to the domed ceiling. The work looks so contemporary I would never have guessed it was created back in 1956. I have also seen images of a superb work by Ann Hamilton called Human Carriage that used the same space to extraordinary effect back in 2009. Hamilton built a huge mechanical device that sent deconstructed books on a circular journey down and around the rotunda. For me, the Guggenheim seems an ideal space for working site-specifically, for working with and enhancing the museum’s unique architectural features.
In complete contrast to the Guggenheim is the stark, brutalist Whitney Museum of American Art. (No photos allowed in the Whitney, so click on the link to their website.) Whereas the Guggenheim is white and round, the Whitney is black and square. We see a retrospective of the late San Francisco-based artist Jay DeFeo, who worked on one painting, called The Rose, for 8 years! The paint is about 1 foot thick in some areas and the whole work weighs 2,300 pounds! (Oh no, I’ve gone all American using imperial measures!) We also see an exhibition titled I, We, You that surveys works from the 1980s and 90s; a fascinating collection of historical works called American Legends: from Calder to O’Keefe; and Blues for Smoke, a show that brings together visual art, film and literature inspired by blues music. There’s a very nice café downstairs where we eat lunch and gather ourselves before tackling yet more art. I write the names of some artists I’ve seen on my gallery guide – Glen Ligon, Jimmie Durham, Martin Kippenberger, Charles Gaines… Glen Ligon stands out in particular because I’ve seen his text-based work in just about every gallery we have been to in America. Before this, I’d only seen his work in reproduction, which seriously fails to capture the rich, textured surface of the canvas, layered with thick black smudgy words.
The third contemporary gallery I want to tell you about is the New Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s actually the first one Gerard and I visit when we arrive in New York and we come across it totally by accident as we go exploring the city on foot on our second day. It’s just a few blocks east of Greene Street, on Bowery, and has a great little café and an excellent bookshop on the ground floor. We have a coffee while we wait for the docent led tour of the current exhibition, called NYC 1993: experimental jet set, trash and no star (not a title that slips easily off the tongue). Our docent is a lady in her senior years who used to work at MOMA but joined the team at the New Museum fairly recently. There is only one other person in our group – George, a charming young Australian actor – and so we enjoy a very personal tour. We are told about the history of the museum, which was established in 1977 by Marcia Tucker who came from the Whitney where she was frustrated by the lack of exhibition opportunities for emerging contemporary artists. Tucker oversaw the New Museum in a number of temporary locations and then settled in the Astor building on Broadway in Soho for several decades. But eventually, the museum outgrew that space and it was time to move on. The current building, designed by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA, was opened in 2007. It is a striking piece of architecture that resembles a slightly precarious stack of seven different sized boxes, all clad in anodized aluminium mesh which creates a light and airy feeling that continues throughout the interior of the building. The exterior is currently adorned with a giant single stemmed pink rose, the work of German artist Isa Genzsen and part of an ongoing Façade Scupture program.
Our docent then takes us through some of the highlights of the 1993 show. It’s not a year that particularly strikes me as memorable, but as the curators have pointed out, it was a cultural turning point for America, marked by attempts at peace in the Middle East, the AIDS crisis, national debates on health care, gun control, and gay rights. (New Museum, 2013) It’s actually a fascinating show, in particular because it includes some very iconic works that I have never seen in the flesh. I’m very excited to see Janine Antoni’s Lick and Lather, a series of self portraits in the form of classically styled busts, half of them made from chocolate that the artist literally licked into shape, the other half made from soap that was lathered. They are in a room of their own, with their own personal invigilator – it would be very tempting to want to touch the work – or even to bite into it! On the third floor is a beautiful room featuring work by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Two of the walls are papered floor to ceiling with huge images of birds flying in a brooding sky, there is a row of photographic images on a third wall, the floor is carpeted orange, and there is a meditative sound piece by an artist whose name I can’t recall. A string of Gonzalez-Torres’ light bulbs hang from the ceiling and the whole space feels pensive, moody but wonderfully peaceful.
There are works by Nan Goldin, Sarah Lucas, Hanna Wilke, Kiki Smith, John Currin, Andres Serrano, Gillian Wearing and many many others. In a space adjacent to the main building there is a powerful work by Nari Ward called Amazing Grace, (1993). I have a strong feeling I have seen it before, possibly at the Munster Scupture Project or Documenta, but I can’t quite remember where. The artist gathered almost 300 abandoned baby strollers from the streets of Harlem and arranged them, along with lengths of fire hose, in the rough shape of a ship. Mahalia Jackson sings Amazing Grace in the background. It’s an emotive work, referencing the slave trade and the untold stories of the lives of hundreds of African-American children.
Our little group of three also get to be relational and take part in a Rirkrit Tiravanja work set up in the foyer. A woman standing behind an aluminium boat with a load of large soup pots, serves us instant noodles in a polystyrene cup. We sit on little stools nearby to eat our free meal and enjoy a conversation with George from Australia; I guess this is the point of the work – it’s not the soup or the boat that matter here, what is important is the exchange that takes place between the people you meet while sharing the meal.
We return to the New Museum a week later on a Friday night to see performances by 4 artists who have been developing new works as part of a residency program called NEA4. NEA4 refers to 4 artists who were defunded by the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1990s because their work was not considered appropriate for a general American public. Subsequently, funding to all individual artists was stopped and, I am assuming the performances and residencies at the New Museum have supported artists who ordinarily find it hard to access grants to develop their practice.
The performances are by Salley May, Brigham Mosley, Erin Markey and Tobaron Waxman and are held in a small theatre in the basement of the Museum. Salley is tall and lanky and rather wild, dressed in a type of drag outfit that features glitter and security tape. She tries to get us to bid for some art work displayed on the stage, but to no avail. Brigham (a curiously Mormon sounding name) gives a fabulously gay, lightly frenetic but eloquent performance based around his obsession with James Dean (or was it his boyfriend’s obsession?). Erin sings fabulous songs inspired by Skype conversations with her mother, and Taboran unsuccessfully attempts to shave off all his hair and beard. We are sure Taboran’s aim is to be completely bald at the end of his performance, but he uses a little electric trimming device rather than proper hair shaving clippers. It is rather frustrating to watch him once it becomes obvious that the trimmer is just not up to the job. All the hair he does manage to remove is placed in a bowl and burnt while he sings Star Spangled Banner in Hebrew.
I started this post with the Frieze Art Fair, so it seems appropriate to end with some of the commercial galleries. Gerard and I spend an afternoon with Daphane, a New York-based artist who spent a few months in Hobart over a year ago doing design work for the MONA market. Daphane takes us along the High Line, a newish public garden built along an old above ground rail system that runs from Greenwich into the commercial gallery precinct of Chelsea. We stroll along the high line taking in its unique view of the city, and then descend to street level to find several extremely high profile galleries – Hauser & Wirth, who represent Martin Creed, Lousie Bourgeios, and Paul McCarthy; Gagosian, who represent Jeff Koons, Anselm Kiefer and Rachel Whiteread; David Zwirner, with Thomas Ruff, Stan Douglas and Marlene Dumas, and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, who are currently featuring the work of Elizabeth Peyton. These galleries have a characteristic style that tends to towards huge heavy entrance doors, concrete floors, high ceilings, and the maintenance of a rather hushed, rarified atmosphere. Gallery assistants busily type on their laptops, often behind large white reception desk partitions that are so high you can barely see over them. No-one bothers to greet us – I guess they can tell we are not going to buy. The art work in these hallowed commercial spaces is shown totally solo – no labels, no prices and no red dots.
At Gavin Brown’s enterprise, we see the paintings of Elizabeth Peyton, which are quite small, intimate portraits of celebrities and other people she knows. Each painting probably measures no more than 30 or 40 cm square. I am not sure what to think when I see one of these paintings displayed in the centre of a wall that is probably 15 metres wide. In fact, all of the other giant walls but one feature only 2 or 3 little paintings. Whether or not the Peyton portraits are enhanced by so much white space, the great thing about this display strategy is that it makes me feel less scared about the two big white walls back in the studio. You don’t actually need to make something big to get noticed.
At David Zwirner, we see two shows. One features large-scale images by Thomas Ruff, some of which are 3D representations of lunar-like landscapes and require special viewing glasses. They are pretty fantastic, with rocks looming out into the gallery space, or craters descending back into the picture plane. The other show is a survey of the late Gordon Matta-Clark’s work which includes drawings, photographs and video documentation of his various large-scale projects with a big focus on Conical Intersect, 1975, in which he cuts a huge circle into the side of a building. Some of the galleries we go to are between shows, but I will head out again to see them in couple of weeks. By the time I post this, David Zwirner will be featuring Jeff Koons and Richard Serra.
We have lunch with Daphane at Pastis, a beautiful, French-style bistro with tiled walls, wooden trimming and big oxidized mirrors. Daphane also takes us to the Drawing Centre, just a couple of blocks from Greene Street, but it’s closed. I return a few days later to see a survey of the work Italian artist Giosetta Fioroni that includes drawings and works on canvas from the 50s, 60s and 70s and which has a distinctly European pop flavor. I also sign up on-line for a free drawing workshop being held there towards the end of the month, called Draw Now! Scribble: an unconscious return to drawing. No experience necessary. I haven’t drawn for years, not in any serious sense, so I’m looking forward, with slight trepidation, to seeing what will emerge.