The Summer Ramp Down
It was so hot last week that my phone sent me a message that it was overheating. I had no idea it was capable of either overheating or alerting me of its feelings, but, whatever its degree of sentience, it was only confirming what most of New York had already arrived at: that it was too hot to do anything that couldn’t be done just as effectively while lying on one’s back. Though I didn’t do it lying down, I did flee the oppressive heat of New York for that of the Philadelphia suburbs to see the Barnes Collection in its original location before it moves downtown next year. The planned relocation comes after a rancorous battle between the executors of the estate and the institutional interests bent on stealing or liberating (depending on who you ask) Dr. Barnes’ collection. This prolonged struggle was detailed recently in a controversial documentary called The Art of the Steal, which provides a dramatic backstory for the impending move. Despite a stacked roster of modern treasures including Cézanne’s “Card Players” and Matisse’s “Joy of Life” the overall experience is a bit more humble and eccentric than one might expect. Gems by often-overlooked artists like Maurice Prendergast and Chaim Soutine climb the walls next to Navajo pottery, African metalwork, and medieval manuscripts. The place feels more a curio shop than a museum, where every other curiosity happens to be a Picasso or a Seurat. It would be pointless to review a collection that verges on transcendence, but suffice it to say that if you haven’t been, you should go in the next year.
From the lofty heights of suburban Philadelphia, summer ramped down, leveling off at the Lower East Side and Lush Life, a multi-venue group show inspired by Richard Price’s novel of the same name. Give curators Franklin Evans and Omar Lopez-Chahoud credit for locating a relatively plausible and compelling alibi for a summer group show—a beast that doesn’t usually bother to offer excuses for shoehorning mismatched artwork into a single conceptual premise. Lush Life, the novel, explores the effects of an ever-evolving Lower East Side cultural landscape against a gripping crime story. Price’s novel would seem a perfect conceit for a sprawling summer show, but in the end, Lush Life, the art show, reacted to the novel too obliquely. With over 60 artists working across nine venues, great moments emerged—a life size bar at Sue Scott Gallery by David Kramer and paintings by Joanne Greenbaum and Dana Frankfort, to name a few. Ultimately though, its most significant contribution to Price’s theme was its proof of, rather than commentary on, the neighborhood’s ongoing gentrification.
When summer finally forced me indoors, I began a regrettable Wednesday evening habit of watching Bravo’s reality show, “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.” I suspect anyone who had the opportunity couldn’t avert their gaze any more than they could avoid watching a large wild animal running loose in rush hour traffic. But even if watching is excusable, broaching the subject is a little like tending to an Ebola outbreak, wanting to mitigate the effects but not at the expense of spreading the contamination.
As a television program, “Work of Art” is formulaic but innocuous. As a means of evaluating artwork, it is preposterous. As everyone knows by now, the show is based on a tired template of turning creative industries into challenge-based talent shows. The postproduction embellishment in “Work of Art” weighs on the show as it does most programs of this type. The camera trains on the eventual finalists from the outset, and presumably in-depth interviews with contestants are parsed into titillating sound bites to dial up the drama. But still, editing room manipulation shouldn’t alarm us as much as the more subtle deceptions of the judges themselves.
The experts on “Work of Art”—China Chow, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, Bill Powers, and Jerry Saltz—succumb to the dynamics of group thought and pass off conformity as a consensus of informed opinion, much like the prison guards in Philip Zimbardo’s experiment at Stanford University. If the judges were aware of this tendency, their decision-making process wouldn’t be any more treacherous than the overt trickery of the producers. But it looked more like self-deception to me, which is often more dangerous than conscious duplicity. For instance, faced with the impossibly vague task of evaluating art meant to capture the visual essence of riding in an Audi 5000, the judges offered opinions with Greenbergian authority. The projects created in response to the Audi challenge were so abstract they rendered a reasonable critique all but impossible. Of course I can’t know for sure if anyone was faking it, but I suspect none of them would have been as enthusiastic or resolute in a magazine article or a studio visit. I can say with more certainty that a final critique shouldn’t yield the same ratio of superior, mediocre, and inferior work as another. But based on what we saw on “Work of Art,” if you started with nine Matisses, the bottom three would be deemed terrible; take nine piles of excrement, and the top three would be astounding. Where’s Stanley Milgram when you need him?
So it turns out the winner was the affable young representational painter, Abdi Farah. His show opened this week at the Brooklyn Museum in a small gallery on the fifth floor. Kind of anti-climactic for all the bluster about the Brooklyn Museum that we heard repeatedly throughout the show. Farah’s show was competent enough; however, with a body of work fixated on faithfully representing his own image, he would benefit from looking inside himself rather than to the computer or the mirror for a way out of his literal world.
It’s funny, but about six years ago, in a Village Voice review, Jerry Saltz called for a moratorium on photo-based painting. He declared it the “Richter Resolution.” Though he called for it to end after 48 months, he seemed to come around faster than I would have thought for an avowed dissenter of this kind of work. Ironically, downstairs from Abdi Farah’s show, an Andy Warhol quote graced the wall:
Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there—I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television.
Ending my summer I’m faced with the existential dilemma about whether the art world is moving implacably toward a deadpan Warholian cynicism, where in the absence of a concrete reality, fiction merges into life to become one, or whether the earnestness and optimism of those early modernists who fill the Barnes Collection will endure. In light of these circumstances, I move that the next edition of “Work of Art” be held in the Barnes Collection to determine if five judges can convince themselves, for the sake of high drama, that all those Mont Sainte-Victoires just don’t work for them.