Critical Essays on Abstract Painting Today

In contemporary art, Abstraction rules the order of the day like at no time before, except when New York’s Abstract expressionist artists exploded onto the international scene and elevated the NYC artworld above that of Paris. One key difference today is that there are artists making money similar to that of professional athletes and entertainers because of the entry of art into the financial art market  as a major new financial instrument. In January 2016 a historical survey exhibition of abstract paintings by 35 artists opens at what will be the world’s largest contemporary art gallery space totaling 100,000 square feet. Former MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, now a partner in the Hauser Wirth and Schimmel art exhibition compound being built in downtown Los Angeles and designed by leading museum architect Anabelle Seldorf (who is also designing the expansion of MCA San Diego). Because HW&S plans for a third of its exhibitions to be historical, non-commercial exhibitions, it will defacto become the third museum of modern and contemporary art in downtown Los Angeles, the other being the new Broad Museum, which opens on September 20, 2015, and of course LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which has two spaces, the MoCA on Grand ave., and the 55,000 sq. ft exhibition space, the MoCA Geffen, in Little Toyko. The latter is to be renovated by Frank Gehry.

Paul Schimmel’s debut exhibition curatorial exhibition at HS&W Los Angeles (which he describes as the first “museum-like gallery) will be “A Revolution Within,”will feature “35 artists from the late 1940s to the present working in abstraction–kind of biomorphic and figurative abstraction.” The gallery promises to have a beautiful restaurant, major art bookstore, artist and curatorial talks, and more.

Vincent Johnson




Cliché and a lack of feeling: Richard Shiff explains why critics have failed painting

Painting lives on, but the critical terms stagnate and slacken, the art historian says

by Richard Shiff  |  5 June 2015
Cliché and a lack of feeling: Richard Shiff explains why critics have failed painting

Eddie Martinez, Time Was (2007). Copyright Eddie Martinez. Courtesy the artist and a private collection
Painting is back in style. At the Kunstmuseum Bonn, the exhibition New York Painting (until 30 August) looks at the work of 11 contemporary artists based in the city, including Eddie Martinez and Antek Walczak, who are part of the medium’s “recent return to cultural acclaim,” in the words of the art historian Richard Shiff. Yet critics, who often insist on comprehensiveness, have failed to take into account the raw power of individual pictures, Shiff argues. In the below essay, which is an adapted version of his catalogue entry for the exhibition, Shiff surveys the terrain of criticism and explains why critics have been remiss.

Jack Whitten, Prime Mover (1974). Courtesy the artist.

Repetition and cliché infect art criticism. The art historian Thierry de Duve noted an irony in 2003: “About once every five years, the death of painting is announced, invariably followed by the news of its resurrection.”

Like history, criticism is subject to optics—that is, perspective. Critics once opposed photography to painting, as if the two media were representative of antithetical psychologies and social orders. This perspective lies within the penumbra of Walter Benjamin, who associated painting with focused concentration and photography and film with disruptive distraction. But photography, film and video are productive technological aids for painters, as are copiers and computers. Few of us today balk at the juxtaposition of hand-drawing and digital printing. Each can be manipulated to resemble the other—or not. It remains an artist’s choice, refined or sometimes reversed in response to immediate sensation. Critics, with their comprehensive concepts, shield themselves from such experiential disorder.

The problem is optical: two parties, critics and artists, look past each other with incompatible expectations. Art critics often typecast painters as committed “modernists” and, what is worse, “formalists.” But even Clement Greenberg, who has been maligned for his rigid evaluative standards, warned of applying conceptual order to aesthetic judgment. Few listened when he said it: “There’s no theory. No morality.” Feeling comes first. When critics argue that any emotional or intellectual position must always derive from an existing cultural construct, they beg the question, and dismiss the feeling of their own experiences.

Elizabeth Cooper. Untitled (2008). Courtesy Galerie Anke Schmidt, Köln/Cologne

Elizabeth Cooper. Untitled (2008). Courtesy Galerie Anke Schmidt, Köln/Cologne

Consider this common, usually unchallenged, notion: photography constitutes “a phenomenon from which painting has been in retreat since the mid-19th century”. This is Douglas Crimp’s phrasing from 1981, put at the service of the argument that painting had died. Yes, photography depersonalizes imagery. But so does much modern painting. To avoid “that hand touch,” as he phrased it, Robert Mangold used sprayers and rollers. Mary Heilmann developed a slapdash technique, “a freeform, unstretched kind of painting work,” as she has said, so that her hand might be anyone’s. David Reed arranged paintings in the manner of film strips, to be animated by an anonymous viewer’s mobility. Jack Whitten combed, raked, or swept his way across paint layers: “The idea was to construct a non-relational painting by extending a single gesture to encompass the entire picture plane,” he once said. “The analogy, symbolically, was to photography.” Thoughts of impersonal, mechanistic photography have motivated many innovative painters. The two media are not at odds unless willfully put there.

A social critique like Crimp’s operates within limited optics. An artist’s need to engage in hand-work raises issues apart from the totemic value of handmade objects as markers of cultural prestige and economic status. The notion that humans have always had the desire to make paintings should not be dismissed as an arbitrary element of modernist mythology, as Crimp’s account insists. Academicised critical formulations—whether they are dialectical, historicist or determinist—have no bearing on the human need for immersion in physical acts of creation.

Ruth Root, Untitled (2014). Photo: Galerie Nikolaus Ruzicska, Salzburg

Clichéd metaphors

Corpse, zombie, vampire, ghost, mourning and cannibalization: these are among the clichéd metaphors attached to painting. In his 1984 article Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the cultural critic Fredric Jameson assessed the society that had nurtured walking-dead media. His analysis derived from the prevailing theoretical discourse—the writings of Benjamin along with other Europeans, such as Henri Lefebvre and Guy Debord—only to re-enter the critical conversation as an authoritative template for North Americans. Those who argued the case for postmodernism in the 1980s, with its strategies of pastiche and appropriation, seemed to act their theory out; they cited Jameson frequently, repeating his array of examples and mimicking his phrasing.

Postmodernism signaled the collapse of the modernist ideology and the dissolution of modernism’s foundations in authenticity, individual subjectivity and emotional expressiveness. Jameson noted “the waning of affect … the imitation of dead styles … the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past.” Such strategies and effects served a consumer’s “appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself”—life removed from living, feeding on the corpse of life. Gone was the integral subject, the authentic experience, the expressive self. Gone was easel painting.

Joe Bradley, Maag Areal (2015). Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise. Photo: Thomas Müller

The emerging consensus already troubled Max Kozloff in 1975: “A whole mode, painting, has been dropped gradually from avant-garde writing.” Arthur Danto added a wrinkle in 1993: “It was … ‘handmade’ art that was dead … the easel picture.” Despite painting’s recent return to critical acclaim—or marketplace enthusiasm—metaphors of its demise persist, as if this art, when revived, were still half-dead, an aura lacking a body. As David Geers wrote in 2012: “[We] re-live a myth of a ‘wild,’ unmediated subjectivity welded inextricably to the primal medium of paint … nostalgic and mystified.”

Today, painting lives on while the critical terms pale. In 2014, Laura Hoptman organised an exhibition of recent painting, The Forever Now, for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her ingenious title generated unwanted echoes of Thomas Lawson’s vilification of Barbara Rose’s analogous exhibition at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, American Painting: The Eighties, staged in 1979: “a corpse made up to look forever young.” At the time, Rose’s artists—among them, Elizabeth Murray, Mark Lancaster and Mark Schlesinger—were condemned wholesale, despite the variety of their methods. They shared only the misadventure of painting. To greet an exhibition like Rose’s or Hoptman’s with bias for or against the medium is to miss all the informative nuances. When critics harp on rising commercial values or restrict their analysis to social critique, they deny life to the medium, so that painting appears vampiric. But such a response derives from critical concepts that are projected onto the art. It ignores the work’s manifest energy.

Ross Iannatti, Hysteresis/Large no. 2 (2014). Courtesy of the artist and Kate Werble Gallery, New York. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein

Generating generalities

The politics of art keeps generating generalities. Within American universities, the case against painting has hinged on the belief that Western culture is morally bankrupt; that it is inherently sexist, racist, colonialist, imperialist and authoritarian. Because Western nations sponsor museums packed with paintings—many of which are commissioned or owned by oligarchs and dictatorial leaders—the medium can appear complicit with corruption and oppression. Yet such induction is faulty: an artist may be complicit, but painting itself exercises no agency.

In 1974, Rose warned against “the skepticism of any criticism based on distinctions of quality.” As she wrote: “weakening public trust in art may as easily pave the way to fascist counterrevolution, for a mass culture in the service of totalitarian ideals.”  When Crimp quoted from Rose’s essay in 1981, he actively excised that sentence. Her overt fear of “fascist counterrevolution” would have muddled his argument, which required opposing his “cultural” and “historical” interest to her “natural” and “mythical” aestheticism.

Antek Walczak, Envy (2013). Courtesy of the artist and Real Fine Arts, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse

Antek Walczak, Envy (2013). Courtesy of the artist and Real Fine Arts, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse

According to Crimp, Rose failed as a critic because she never challenged “the myths of high art” or “the artist as unique creator.” If these “myths” continued to inform Rose’s optics, we merely witness a conflict of systems of belief. Neither Crimp nor Rose is more ideologically progressive (although Crimp  attacked Rose’s values as regressive, implying that history had a trajectory and had left both her and the medium of painting behind).

To call Rose’s belief a myth, as Crimp did, is either trivial or inherently extreme—extreme if it implies that one’s own belief is not also a myth. All beliefs, which instigate aesthetic strategies, amount to myths; if not, they would be facts or laws of nature. But even laws of nature are subject to irregularity and exceptions to their presumed invariability; they are also therefore mythical. The “death of painting,” as a widely held theory that its adherents fail to question, is another myth. We cannot escape our myths simply by accepting alternative beliefs. To suppress general beliefs and principles altogether would be more effective—a state worth seeking, even if impossible to attain.

Artists devoted to painting believe in it, but they also doubt their belief. Their doubt opens painting, as well as its artists, to living.

Richard Shiff is professor and the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas at Austin.


ART NEWS Features Reviews

Structure Rising: David Salle on ‘The Forever Now’ at MoMA

What the flawed survey tells us about painting today

Installation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). JOHN WRONN/©2014 THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” is MoMA’s first survey of recent painting in over 30 years. In the museum’s crowded sixth-floor galleries, curator Laura Hoptman has corralled 17 artists who have come to notice in the last decade or so, and collectively they give off a synaptic charge. There are a fair number of clunkers, but the majority of the painters here display an honestly arrived-at complexity, expressed through a rigorous series of choices made at what feels like a granularly visual level. Their work rewards hard looking.

The good artists in the show are very good indeed. Charline von Heyl, Josh Smith, Richard Aldrich, Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, Nicole Eisenman, Rashid Johnson, Joe Bradley, and Mary Weatherford have all developed tenacious and highly individual styles. Each makes work that engages the viewer on the paintings’ own terms and that shakes free whatever journalistic shorthand might, in passing, get stuck on them. What drives these artists is resolved in works that are self-reliant and unassailable while remaining open and undogmatic—it’s the ebullience of secular art freed of any ideological task.Two words one should probably avoid using in exhibition titles are “forever” and “now,” and Hoptman uses both. “Atemporal” comes from a William Gibson story, and Hoptman worked it into a youthful-sounding phrase, but it’s just distracting, like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think. She wants to make a point about painting in the Internet age, but the conceit is a red herring—the Web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.What does “atemporal” mean, in the context of painting? Judging from Hoptman’s catalogue essay, it’s the confidence, or panache, to take what one likes from the vast storehouse of style, without being overly concerned with the idea of progress or with what something means as a sign. Today, “all eras co-exist at once,” Hoptman writes. She goes on to say that this atemporality is a “wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture.” Big news. The free-agent status accorded the artists in her show is something I take as a good thing—maybe “minding one’s own business” would be a better way of putting it—but her claim for its uniqueness is harder to swallow; it’s more or less what I’ve been advocating for the last 35 years. Not that I take any credit for the idea; within a certain milieu it’s just common knowledge.Josh Smith, Untitled, 2013. JONATHAN MUZIKAR/©2013 JOSH SMITH/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK/GIFT OF DONALD B. MARRON

In her desire to connect everything to a narrative of the digital future, Hoptman misses the salient difference between the best work here and its immediate antecedents: a sense of structure. By structure I don’t mean only relational composition—though that plays a part—but more generally the sense of a painting’s internal rationale, its “inside energy,” as Alex Katz would say, that alignment of intention, talent, and form. Hoptman wants to make a clean break for her crew from the mores of “appropriation,” but again, the emphasis seems misplaced. Appropriation—as a style—had a tendency to stop short, visually speaking. The primary concern was with “presentation” itself, and the work that resulted was often an analog for the screen, or field, something upon which images composed themselves into some public/private drama. Appropriation pointed to something—some psychological or cultural condition outside of the work itself—that was the basis of its claim to criticality and, at its best, excavated something deep in the psyche. But there are other things in life. At present, painting is focused on structure, discovering and molding pictorial form for its own sake.

Atemporality, then, is nothing new. Most if not all art reaches backward to earlier models in some way; every rupture is also a continuity. The “reaching back” might be to unexpected sources, but imprints of earlier achievements are what give art its gristle and grit. What’s different is the mode of seeing. As an example, Weatherford places tubes of colored neon in front of fields of paint-stained canvas. In the old, appropriationist mind-set, one might get hung up on a list of signifiers along the lines of, say, Mario Merz or Gilberto Zorio meets Helen Frankenthaler; this reductiveness was, from the beginning, an unsatisfying way to see. Pleasantly, reassuringly, more like an old friend showing up after a long absence, arte povera echoes through Weatherford’s work, but it doesn’t feel like a self-conscious reference. Her works clear a space where they can be taken on their own terms. They do, as Ben Jonson said in a somewhat different context, “win themselves a kind of grace-like newness.”In a related, refreshing development, Warhol’s gloomy, vampiric fatalism is no longer dragging down the party. Duchamp, too, is absent. What a relief. Nothing against the two masters as far as their own work is concerned, but they have exerted such an outsize gravitational pull on generations of artists that finally being out from under them feels like waking from a lurid dream. There is camp in “The Forever Now,” to be sure, and imagery, and irony, and “presentation,” but they are not the main event.Painting also seems to have shed its preoccupation with photography; here you will find only the faintest nod to “the age of mechanical reproduction.” Even for Laura Owens, who blithely tries on the visual conundrums of the digital world, photography isn’t really part of her DNA. It turns out that much of the art-historical hand-wringing of the last 40 years over Walter Benjamin’s famous prophecy was either misplaced or just plain wrong. Painting is not competing with the Internet, even when making use of its proliferative effects.Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013. JASON MANDELLA/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK/OVITZ FAMILY COLLECTION, LOS ANGELES

Imagery is present to varying degrees in many of these artists’ works. It’s front and center in Eisenman’s paintings, exuberantly evident in Smith’s, lambent in Bradley’s. Drawn forms, some with a goofy, cartoony quality, are often the basis of Sillman’s muscular lyricism. Sillman is a great picture builder; her evocative and gemütlich paintings give the show some real gravitas. Representation even shows up in the trenchant cerebral complexities of von Heyl, but none of these artists is involved with the tradition of realism. They are not translating what can be seen into what can be painted. While everything, even abstraction, is an image in the ontological sense, and there are snatches of imagery in most of these paintings, these artists are simply not imagists; their images are more like the folk melodies in Bartók—present as understructure, there but not there.

The overall tone of “The Forever Now” has a West Coast casual feel about it. Five of the artists in the exhibition—Grotjahn, Weatherford, Owens, Dianna Molzan, and Matt Connors—are based in Southern California, and their work has some of Los Angeles’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward materiality. It’s a feeling I remember from living in L.A. in the ’70s: a slightly secondhand relationship to the New York School pieties. The alternative to sober, grown-up painting was an emphasis on materials, often industrial or non-art materials, and on the idea of process itself. The work embodies a youthful vigor without visible strain—in a word, cool. When combined with an internal structural core, the result has a kind of multiplier effect; it wins you over.(The situation in literature today is not so different; while still avoiding straight realism, the parodists, inventors, miniaturists, and tinkerers are now coming into prominence, taking over from the arid metafictionists. Writers like George Saunders, Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Chris Kraus have clear parallels with painters von Heyl, Weatherford, Bradley, Aldrich, Chris Martin, et al. Painting and advanced writing are now closer in spirit than at any time in living memory.)But I want to return to that quality that sets apart certain painters in this show—that sense of structure. Like diamonds, Grotjahn’s paintings are the result of great pressure brought to bear on a malleable material over a protracted period of time. His work is a good example of the way in which many artists today are using imagery and history—which is to say, the way that artists mainly always have. Grotjahn manages to simultaneously invoke Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism—everyone from Malevich to Victor Brauner—and translate those impulses into an intensely focused, schematic composition that leaves just enough room for his hand to do its stuff.Much has been made of Grotjahn’s Picassoid heads, but the overall looping structure of his paintings produces an effect closer to Joseph Stella’s 1920s paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge. Grotjahn reimagines Stella’s swooping catenaries into arched ribbons of impasto paint. Because the chunks of color are small and contiguous, they tend to blend together in the viewer’s eye, giving the paintings an alternating current of macro and micro focus. His colors are dark red and burgundy, forest green, warm white, cobalt blue—the colors of silk neckties. They are preppy in a nice way, with a whiff of the 1940s. More importantly, Grotjahn’s color intervals are exacting. They put the painting in a major key. Their simple, clear visual forms—arcs, circles, lozenge and ovoid shapes, like segments of an orange—sometimes overlap and cut into one another, creating a space of increasing, sobering complexity. Grotjahn’s paintings do a funny thing: they achieve great scale through the linear arrangement of small areas of paint, and their structural and imagistic concatenations are in good alignment with the color and paint application. The what and the how are in productive sync. These paintings are tight, shipshape, and very satisfying to look at. At 46, Grotjahn is close on to a modernist master.Aldrich has been making interesting and surprising paintings for a while, and one of his works here shows great panache. Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” from 2010, is Aldrich at his least gimmicky and most in tune with the spirit of abstract painting as deconstruction. The painting’s success lies in its loose-limbed sense of structure: a grid- or ladder-like armature along which an array of painted shapes and brush-drawn lines alternate with the interstitial white spaces to form a syncopated rhythm. Its painterly touch calls to mind Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston, and also Robert Rauschenberg’s Winter Pool from 1959—two canvases joined in the middle by a ladder—as well as Rauschenberg’s later Combines. Aldrich’s palette here is sophisticated, just shy of decorator-ish; he takes eight or nine hues and nudges them into perfectly tuned intervals of cream, white, Pompeii red, burnt umber, and a grayed cobalt green—colors that feel at once Mediterranean and Nordic. This particular painting touches on a number of visual cues without leaning too heavily on any of them; the four irregular black rectangles framed by cream-colored bands suggest darkened windows in a cracked plaster wall.Richard Aldrich, Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” 2010. FARZAD OWRANG/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BORTOLAMI GALLERY, NEW YORK/PRIVATE COLLECTION, NEW YORK

That Aldrich’s painting is reminiscent of earlier paintings while maintaining a clear sense of contemporaneity is perhaps what Hoptman means by “atemporal.” But this is what painting is always about, in one way or another. Rauschenberg’s work of the late ’50s and early ’60s was itself a deconstruction and reconstruction of Abstract Expressionism, freed from its self-importance. Aldrich has taken a lot from that period in Rauschenberg’s work, but his tone is lighter; it has Rauschenberg’s insouciance, without the urgent nervousness. The stakes are different. This is now. Though informal, at times almost flippant, Aldrich’s work is sturdier and more tough-minded than it first appears. His painting says, “Lean on me.”

Susan Sontag observed nearly 50 years ago, in her essay “On Style,” that no self-respecting critic would want to be seen separating form from content, and yet most seem drawn to do just that, after first offering a disclaimer to the contrary. Make that double for curators. The real problem with “The Forever Now” is that it’s two shows: there are the painters who make stand-alone paintings—we don’t need no backstory—and those who use a rectangular-ish surface to do something else. The artists in the former group are the raison d’être for the show; their work has formal inventiveness and pictorial intelligence; it lives in the moment. As for the latter, they are artists who make tip-of-the-iceberg art. What’s on the canvas is the evidence, or residue, of what happens offstage. There’s nothing at all wrong with this in principle, of course, but it can result in an arid busyness that masks a core indecisiveness or, worse, emptiness.Here is another way to see this: there are pictures that repay our attention with interest and others that simply use it up. The qualities we admire in people—resourcefulness, intelligence, decisiveness, wit, the ability to bring others into the emotional, substantive self—are often the same ones that we feel in art that holds our attention. Less-than-admirable qualities—waffling, self-aggrandizement, stridency, self-absorption—color our experience of work that, for one reason or another, remains unconvincing. By “unconvincing” I mean the feeling you get when the gap between what a work purports to be and what it actually looks like is too big to be papered over.Such is the case with several of the most celebrated artists included in “The Forever Now.” The problem of grade inflation has been with us since at least the 1920s, when H. L. Mencken, in his American Mercury magazine, coined the term “American boob” to mean our national variant of philistinism. The flip side of “boob-ism,” in Mencken’s formulation, was the wholesale enthusiasm for everything cultural, lest one be thought a philistine. It’s created a hell of confusion ever since.George Balanchine once complained that the praise had been laid on a little thick. “Everyone’s overrated,” said the greatest choreographer in history. “Picasso’s overrated. I’m overrated. Even Jack Benny’s overrated.” He meant that once it’s decided that someone is great, a misty halo of reverence surrounds everything he or she does. The reality is more prosaic: some things, or some parts of things, will be great and others not. It’s annoying to be overpraised; it’s like showing your work to your parents. The lack of criticality is one of the things that give our current art milieu the feeling of the political sphere (I don’t mean political art). Politics, as a job, is the place where the truth can never be told; it would bring the merry-go-round to a halt.I decided a long time ago not to write about things I don’t care for. So much work is deeply and movingly realized, and so many artists of real talent are working today that it’s just not worth the time to take an individual clunker to task. There’s an audience for everything—who cares? Besides, one can always be wrong. However, I’m compelled to make an exception in the case of 27-year-old Oscar Murillo. While it’s not his fault for being shot out of the canon too early, I feel one has to say something lest perception be allowed to irretrievably swamp reality. There have always been artists who were taken up by collectors, curators, or journalists; artists who fit a certain narrative but are of little interest to other artists. So why get worked up over it now? Of course it’s not just him. The problem is really one of what constitutes interpretation; it’s the fault line of a deepening divide between how artists and curators see the world. Though it may seem unfair to single out Murillo, the best way to explain why the distinction matters is to describe his work.Murillo seems to want to say something with his work about palimpsest and memory and being an outsider, but he lacks, to my eye, most of what is needed to make a convincing picture of that type. His grasp of the elements that engage people who paint—like scale, color, surface, image, and line—is journeyman-like at best. His sense of composition is strictly rectilinear; he doesn’t seem to have discovered the diagonal or the arabesque. Worse, he can’t seem to generate any sense of internal pictorial rhythm.Murillo’s paintings lack personality. He uses plenty of dark colors, scraping, rubbing, dripping, graffiti marks, and dirty tarpaulins—run-of-the-mill stuff, signifiers all. The work looks like something made by an art director; it’s meant to look gritty and “real” but comes across as fainthearted. This is painting for people who don’t have much interest in looking, who prefer the backstory to what is in front of their eyes. Murillo is in so far over his head that even a cabal of powerful dealers won’t be able to save him. He must on some level know this, and so he tries to make up for what’s missing by adding on other effects. One piece in “The Forever Now” is a pile of canvases crumpled up on the floor that viewers can move about as they choose. It’s interactive—get it? MoMA visitors with a long memory will recognize this as a variation on early work by Allan Kaprow, the inventor of Happenings, who wished to mimic the “expressionist” impulses in ’50s paintings and channel them into little games that invited viewer participation with the result that what had once been pictorially alive became pure tedium. To quote Fairfield Porter, writing at the time, “[Kaprow] uses art and he makes clichés….If he wants to prove that certain things can’t be done again because they already have been done, he couldn’t be more convincing.” You can kick Murillo’s canvases around from here to Tuesday—there is no way to bring them to life, because they never lived in the first place.The real news from “The Forever Now,” the good news, is that painting didn’t die. The argument that tried to make painting obsolete was always a category mistake; that historically determinist line has itself expired, and painting is doing just fine. Painting may no longer be dominant, but that has had, if anything, a salutary effect: not everyone can paint, or needs to. While art audiences have gone their distracted way, painting, like a truffle growing under cover of leaves, has developed flavors both rich and deep, though perhaps not for everyone. Not having to spend so much energy defending one’s decision to paint has given painters the freedom to think about what painting can be. For those who make paintings, or who find in them a compass point, this is a time of enormous vitality.David Salle is an artist living in Brooklyn and East Hampton.A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 44 under the title “Structure Rising.”

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The Golden Age of Abstraction: Right Now


Riffing on the past as it comments on our own time, contemporary abstraction evokes landscapes, bodies, signs, buildings, and much more

It’s tempting to see the years 1912–25 and 1947–70 as the two golden ages of abstract art, and to feel that the present revival of abstraction is no more than a silver age. But the present is always deceptive: it was not evident to their contemporaries that Malevich, Mondrian, and Pollock were the towering giants they seem to us in retrospect. The fact is, there is a vast amount of good abstract art being made today, and the best of it is every bit as good as the best abstract art of the past. The golden age of abstraction is right now.

Museums and art centers have lately been taking a remarkable interest in abstract art, past and present. Last year, MoMA opened “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925”; the Guggenheim offered “Art of Another Kind,” comparing American and European abstraction of the 1950s; “Destroy the Picture,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, explored the fascination with dirty, distressed materials among artists of the same era; the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal traced the impressive history of Canadian abstraction since 1939; the Hunter College/Times Square Gallery presented “Conceptual Abstraction,” a survey (which I curated with Joachim Pissarro) of 20 abstract painters who came to prominence in New York in the 1980s; and MUDAM (the Musée d’Art Moderne) in Luxembourg gathered 23 contemporary European artists in “Les Détours de l’abstraction.” Already in 2013, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has opened “Painter Painter,” a survey of emerging abstract painters from both the U.S. and Europe, and next month, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago opens “MCA DNA Chicago Conceptual Abstraction,1986–1995,” with works in various mediums.How do we make sense of all this activity in a type of art that was declared dead 40 years ago? I believe the most useful way to understand abstraction is not in terms of its formal evolution (which does not, in any case, fit the linear models beloved of theoreticians) but in terms of thematic content. The formal qualities of an abstract painting or sculpture are significant not in themselves but as part of the work’s expressive message. Artists work by reviving and transforming archetypes from the unconscious of modern culture. Therefore, the most useful questions to ask about contemporary abstract painting or sculpture are: What themes and forms does it retrieve from the tradition of modern art? How have they been changed? And how has the artist used them to express the social, political, and spiritual experience of our own time?We might view abstract art as falling into six basic categories. Three respond to nature: cosmologies, landscapes, and anatomies. And three respond to culture: fabrics, architecture, and signs. These categories are not mutually exclusive. It often happens, for instance, that cosmological images include anatomical imagery or that images inspired by fabric patterns include drawn or written signs.1. Cosmologies

Cosmological imagery in modern art assumes three main forms: orbs, orbits, and constellations. The orbs and orbits in the work of pioneering abstract artists like Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov’ Popova reflected the Russian avant-garde’s obsession with space travel as an allegory of revolution: the cosmonaut left behind the corrupt old world to build a rational utopia in outer space.

Another kind of cosmological imagery emerged in the 1920s: the constellation or star chart, consisting of an array of dots connected by lines. In the late 1940s, Pollock took the fixed constellations and set them into motion, in paintings like Reflection of the Big Dipper (1947). Both static and mobile versions of the motif play important roles in contemporary abstraction.For the Parisian Surrealists, the dot-and-line motif of the star chart was significant as an example of the way that intelligible meaning (the figurative image of Orion or the Great Bear) can emerge from chance events (the random distribution of stars in the night sky). For a contemporary audience, however, the same formal motif is likely to read not as a literal constellation but as the more abstract image of a network.Chris Martin’s cagelike “constellations” evoke the Internet Age, with its promise of total connectedness and its threat of incessant surveillance. The funky, handmade facture of his painting, with papier-mâché spheres emerging at each node, reasserts the value of flawed humanity over the seamless web of technology. Julie Mehretu’s paintings similarly transform the meaning of her sources. Where Pollock’s swirling constellations appeared to their original audience as images of the Jungian unconscious, Mehretu’s grids and streaks, punctuated by shifting crowds and billowing smoke, express the dynamism and turmoil of the global economy.Among contemporary painters, David Row combines orbital imagery with crystalline forms, shifting its meaning from social and utopian to spiritual and transcendent. Other abstract artists using cosmological imagery include Olafur Eliasson, Iole de Freitas, Bill Komoski, Albert Oehlen, Matthew Ritchie, Peter Schuyff, and Christopher Wool.2. Landscapes

A half-century ago, in the February 1961 issue of ARTnews, the iconoclastic art historian Robert Rosenblum coined the term “abstract sublime” to describe the way that the paintings of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman call to mind a sense of the immensity and power of nature comparable to that found in the landscapes of such Romantic painters as J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich. While the sublime may be out of fashion, references to the natural landscape persist in contemporary abstraction.

The huge popularity of Anish Kapoor’s monumental Cloud Gate may be due to the hallucinatory impression it gives of having brought the heavens down to Earth. At the same time, the sculpture’s mirrorlike skin, recalling Brancusi’s polished bronzes, places it in the avant-garde tradition of art that actively interacts with its viewers and its environment. In the setting of downtown Chicago, Kapoor’s silvered sculpture seems to absorb, concentrate, and reemit the essence of a great American metropolis.Of course, abstract art does not need to be monumental to evoke the natural environment. David Reed shades his gestural brushwork with such precision that it suggests roiling clouds over a western landscape. Gerhard Richter’s abstract pictures glow with the same damp, shimmering light as his paintings of the German countryside. His translucent colors and modulated shading look like photographs even in his nonfigurative compositions.At the opposite extreme, Mary Heilmann uses opaque colors and rough brushwork to avoid any hint of illusionism. Nonetheless, the baroque swerves and switchbacks of her stacked bands in a painting like Surfing on Acid (2005) suggest the parallel lines of waves approaching a beach, swelling and breaking as they near the shore. Using the new technology of digital animation, Jennifer Steinkamp transforms trees, vines, and branches into writhing, abstract arabesques. Landscape-related imagery also appears in the abstract work of Tara Donovan, Stephen Ellis, Anoka Faruqee, Jacqueline Humphries, Shirley Kaneda, Wolfgang Laib, Fabian Marcaccio, Joseph Marioni, Odili Donald Odita, Cornelia Parker, Joanna Pousette-Dart, Pat Steir, William Wood, Sanford Wurmfeld, and John Zinsser.3. Anatomies

In Jonathan Lasker’s canvases, thinly painted stage sets and imaginary landscapes are occupied by brooding presences laid in with thick strokes of impasto. These “presences” have typically come to take the form of P-shaped configurations suggesting massive heads that confront one another, like the haunted eyeballs and truncated feet of late Philip Guston.

However, the abstract anatomies of contemporary artists rarely correspond to the image of the human body as a whole. Instead, their work tends to hint at individual body parts, internal organs, or the “abject” substances excreted by the body. The masterwork of sculptor Tim Hawkinson is an enormous installation of floating bladders linked by long intestinal tubes, appropriately titled Uberorgan. Among painters, Sue Williams has created throbbing allover compositions of sexual organs, while Carrie Moyer uses biomorphic curves and blushing colors to intimate arousal in compositions that initially look like abstract landscapes.Leaving the recognizable body further behind, Ingrid Calame depicts a universe of drips, stains, and smears, their pathetic associations offset by bright, incongruous colors. It seems at first glance that Calame’s skeins and pools of color must have been dripped freely onto canvas, Pollock-style. However, the apparent fluidity of her work is the result of a meticulous process of tracing markings found on sidewalks, floors, and streets. These drawings on translucent paper are archived and then arranged in layers to create new compositions.We can also find more or less bodily images in the abstract paintings and sculptures of Ghada Amer, Ross Bleckner, Chakaia Booker, Cecily Brown, Lydia Dona, Christian Eckart, Margaret Evangeline, Ellen Gallagher, Charline von Heyl, Rosy Keyser, Giles Lyon, Thomas Nozkowski, Roxy Paine, Monique Prieto, Martin Puryear, Ursula von Rydingsvard, James Siena, and Mark Dean Veca.4. Fabrics

Turning from natural to man-made models for abstraction, fabric has figured prominently as a source of inspiration. Throughout much of the 20th century, male abstract artists rejected comparisons between their paintings and decorative fabrics. In the 1970s, however, women artists, such as Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff, set out to revindicate decoration and to use it as the point of departure for a new, feminist mode of abstraction. The artists (both male and female) of the Pattern and Decoration movement often incorporated representational and architectural elements into their brilliantly colored compositions.

Of the artists emerging from this movement, Valerie Jaudon has remained one of the most severely abstract. In her recent work, she almost eliminates color, using only black and white, or white paint on bare brown linen. But she combines this austere palette with a sensual profusion of pattern, numbing and teasing the mind like a carved wooden panel from the Alhambra. Her designs suggest the repeat patterns of fabric or wallpaper, without ever quite resolving into regularity.In the 1970s, some American artists, like Kim MacConnel, looked to African fabrics as models of laid-back geometry. Today, it is African artists themselves who are winning recognition as brilliant innovators. Take, for example, the abstract tapestries of El Anatsui, on view in a retrospective that runs through August 4 at the Brooklyn Museum. Anatsui’s tapestries are put together from hundreds or thousands of pieces of metallic scrap—the caps, bands, wrappers, and labels that adorn the bottles and other items you would find in a market or trash heap in western Africa. The shimmering gold and silver of Anatsui’s work offer an image of celebratory splendor. Draped and folded, rather than hung flush against the wall, these tapestries challenge our assumptions about the obligatory flatness of abstraction. Other contemporary abstractionists working with the imagery of fabric and decorative patterning include Linda Besemer, Bernard Frize, Richard Kalina, Ryan McGinness, Beatriz Milhazes, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Philip Taaffe, and Adriana Varejão.5. Architectures

Peter Halley’s paintings, which launched the Neo-Geo movement of the 1980s, focus obsessively on the motif of a rectangular cell, reminiscent of a house, a prison, a computer chip, or a piece of machinery. Resting on a narrow band of earth or flooring, the structure is plugged into its environment by conduits that run through the ground or take to the sky, connecting it into an invisible urban grid. Instead of a place of refuge, the cell becomes a symbol of the postmodern self: isolated, immobilized, and under surveillance. The pure optical quality of 1960s modernism gives way in Halley’s work to a purgatory of Day-Glo colors and motel-room textures: garish, menacing, and weirdly seductive. Another painter, Sarah Morris, uses tilted grids and pulsing colors to suggest the dazed confusion found in the mirrored facades of corporate modernism.

Whereas Halley and Morris propose large allegorical statements about contemporary society, Rachel Harrison speaks to a realm of personal experience. Her sculptures often incorporate beams, lintels, and moldings embedded in cement or pieces of sheetrock fastened into a loose grid, accompanied by toys, framed photographs, and other household furnishings. The works seem like fragments of houses that have been smashed apart by natural disasters or worn down by everyday life. And yet there’s something oddly cheerful about Harrison’s eroded architectures, even when they’re not painted in the primary-school colors she often favors. They have a kind of pluck, as if they’re determined to carry on, no matter what. (In Harrison’s most recent work, architecture has mutated into anatomy, as her stacked forms begin to resemble living creatures.)Architectural structures also play an important role in the abstract work of John Armleder, Frank Badur, Helmut Federle, Liam Gillick, Guillermo Kuitca, Sherrie Levine, David Novros, Doris Salcedo, Andrew Spence, Jessica Stockholder, Sarah Sze, Phoebe Washburn, and Rachel Whiteread.6. Signs

Signs have been an important element of modern art ever since 1911 and 1912, when Picasso and Braque put stenciled letters and scraps of newspaper into their Cubist pictures. But Jasper Johns’s flag, map, and number pictures of the 1950s and early 1960s initiated a revolutionary transformation in the character of sign painting. His stenciled letters and regular grids came to convey meaninglessness instead of meaning. They didn’t express emotion; they repressed it. In one way or another, his work lies behind much of the most important art of 1960s, from the monochromes of Frank Stella and Brice Marden to the Minimal boxes of Robert Morris and Donald Judd.

Fifty years later, Johns continues to exercise a decisive influence on abstraction. Wade Guyton, shown last year at the Whitney, updates Johns’s number paintings, eliminating the artist’s hand by using digital printers instead of stencils. Guyton’s insistent X’s seem less like marks than like cancellations, refusing to signify and then fading into blankness.Mark Bradford’s paintings resemble the giant computer screens that sophisticated police departments use for real-time surveillance of traffic, crime, and accidents, with data overlaid on urban grids. But in contrast to the flickering pixels of the computer screen, Bradford’s images have actual substance. Like Calame, he works with papers and materials gathered from the streets of Los Angeles, shredding and aging them, then layering them into his compositions. Bradford’s powerful combination of imagery and materials captures the experience of living simultaneously in the parallel universes of information and sensation.Other artists using written language or formats recalling maps and diagrams include Ai Weiwei, Mel Bochner, David Diao, Caio Fonseca, Carmela Gross, Gu Wenda, Jenny Holzer, Wosene Worke Kosrof, Glenn Ligon, Tatsuo Miyajima, RETNA, Joan Snyder, Xu Bing, Stephen Westfall, Terry Winters, and Hossein Zendoroudi. Written language, in particular, seems to have an international potency.Ultimately, the evolution of abstract art—like the evolution of modern art more broadly—has been a series of responses to the experience of life in the 20th and 21st centuries. As Halley argues in a brilliant 1991 essay, abstraction before World War II was largely inspired by the utopian belief that rational technocracy (i.e., socialism) would create a better world. The technocratic ideal found its most powerful symbol not in the rosy-cheeked workers of Socialist Realism but in geometric abstraction. After the devastation of World War II and the revelation of the horrors of Stalinist Russia, geometry could no longer function as an image of utopia. Changing polarity, it became instead a symbol of alienation.Much contemporary art—not to mention fiction, film, and television—reflects a Blade Runner vision of a world, in which the individual is rendered powerless by anonymous government agencies, giant corporations, and deafening mass culture. It’s useful to remember that this nightmare vision is itself a romantic stereotype, ignoring the positive aspects of postmodern society. Since 1980, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined dramatically, both as a percentage of world population and in absolute numbers. The principal reason is the globalization of the economy, which has created millions of factory jobs in the former Third World, lifting workers from starvation in the countryside to subsistence in the cities. Some of the most exciting abstract artists today are those, like Anatsui and Mehretu, whose work responds to this transformation, either by reinventing traditional arts for a global art world or by creating visual allegories of social change that carry us beyond the old capitalism-socialism divide. In 2013, as in 1913, abstraction is how we think about the future.Pepe Karmel is associate professor of art history at New York University.

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Abstraction’s Ambiguity is Its Own Reward

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1957, 461/4 × 44˝, oil on canvas. Copyright the Estate of Joan Mitchell and Courtesy Lennon, Weinberg, New York.

What is it about the expressive power of abstract art—especially abstract painting, whose ambiguity of meaning is one of its most definitive characteristics—that remains so alluring? The Museum of Modern Art’s recent Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition offered many vivid reminders of how compellingly mysterious, psychologically intense, emotionally moving, and spiritually transcendent many of the seminal works of American Ab Ex painting still feel, more than a half-century after they were made and first seen.

On a smaller scale, Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.’s recent gallery showing of a group of Joan Mitchell paintings from the 1950s, including some small-format canvases that have only lately come to market for the first time, also served as a reminder of the powerful punch the best abstract painting still packs, as did numerous works in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s recent exhibition, Abstract Expressionism: Reloading the Canon. Together, many of the works in these exhibitions seemed to beg the questions: Despite abstract painting’s inherent ambiguity, can its most capable practitioners manipulate its techniques or language consciously enough to at least control its emotional temperature or, at most, to convey certain subject-specific messages? Do they even want to?

Such questions may simmer in the background of Mitchell’s development as one of Abstract Expressionism’s most original artists. As recounted in Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, a new biography by Patricia Albers (to be published by Alfred A. Knopf on May 5), Mitchell (1925-1992) was born and brought up in Chicago, where her father was a prominent doctor, and her mother a poet and editor of Poetry magazine. She studied at Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and came to New York in 1947, where she became familiar with the paintings of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. A fellowship then allowed her to live in France for a year; afterward, she returned to New York, got involved in the abstract art scene and took part in the historic “Ninth Street Show” (1951), which was organized by Leo Castelli and sponsored by The Club, the artists’ association to which many members of what would later be dubbed “The New York School” belonged.

Mitchell has been labeled a “second-generation” member of that community of artists. To some ears, “second-generation” might connote “second-best,” which would be wrong. Her work, with its broad, muscular brushstrokes, perfectly balanced compositions, even at their most off-kilter, and thickets of dense strokes alternating between darting, grass-like lines and luscious patches of drippy color, contributed in definitive ways to just how expansive and expressive abstract painting could be.

Louise Fishman, “Zero At The Bone,” 2010. Oil on linen. 70 × 60˝. Photo credit: Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

Albers describes Mitchell as an insecure alcoholic who drank to fight off feelings of abandonment by her lovers, parents, or even friends saying goodbye after a party. Thus, it was through a booze-fueled haze that she produced some of abstract painting’s most indelible images. Her “Ladybug” (1957), which is now in MoMA’s collection and was trotted out for its recent exhibition, is one of her signature works, with its tumble of thick or wiry, drippy strokes of orange, blue, turquoise, purple, and other colors surging in a pack emphatically toward the left side of the canvas.

What did Mitchell want to say with her art? Albers suggests an answer, noting that the artist once said that art had “lost some of its ‘spirituality,’” and that she had recognized that, although “spirituality” had come to be “considered a ‘hokey’ word…it was what painting had once been about.” Mitchell made it clear that she did not paint from nature, even though, unlike those soul-scraping Ab Exers who coughed up existential anguish in the form of explosive paint-on-canvas confrontations, in her paintings, she did refer to nature. They were, she said, “about landscape, not about me.”

Mitchell rejected the “action painter” label, with its suggestion of throw-paint-anywhere improvisation. “I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best,” she harrumphed. (Or as Mitchell’s friend and peer, Grace Hartigan, put it plainly: “My God[,] how hard it is to paint.” See The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955, Syracuse University Press, 2009.) Mitchell also said the “freedom” in her art was “quite controlled.” Alluding to the deep understanding she possessed of her materials and techniques, the famously feisty painter seemed to hint that something about the visual language she had created could be finely tuned and played like the instruments that produced the jazz and classical music she loved.

Similarly, the contemporary American artist Karl Klingbiel brings a combination of experimentation and cool control to making his abstract paintings, which constitute his response to the visual barrage of an image-overloaded, media-saturated culture. At his studio in Queens, Klingbiel, 50, makes paintings on top of woodcuts depicting seemingly random lines and shapes. He mounts them on canvases and then mounts each canvas on a birch-veneer panel. He calls his woodcuts “skeletal structures” for his scraped and color-packed oil paintings, but they are not strict compositional guides. Once painted over, they become invisible.

Karl Klingbiel, “Book of Days,” 2010. 41 × 41˝. Oil on paper (woodcut print) mounted on canvas, mounted on board. Photo credit: Karl Klingbiel Studio and Elizabeth Moore Fine Art, New York.

“I distill things,” he says. “My paintings become vessels for what interests me, including literature, poetry and the history of painting, but they also have an outward trajectory, because with them I’m trying to replicate the experiences I’ve had looking at paintings that have had an effect on me.” They might do so by alluding to a classic Renaissance palette or, in scurrying ribbons of electric color that seem to surge up through multiple top layers of luminous oil, by referring to Pop Art.

Klingbiel says: “The visual aspects of the world have a huge impact on me—patterns, relationships, stunning moments.” In his art, he says, he “processes” all of that visual information to offer “something that is raw, unfiltered and unspecified, because I don’t want to give you a thing but rather everything.” His art does that, he believes, in a way that cannot be expressed in words.

The New York-based painter Louise Fishman, 72, who has been called a “third-generation Abstract Expressionist,” also brings a lifetime of looking at and assimilating other art forms to her painting, but her reference points are often almost invisibly subtle. Known for solidly structured compositions marked by bold colors and hardy brushstrokes, Fishman met Mitchell at the older artist’s home in France during the latter part of her life. Fishman counts Mitchell’s work—including its unbridled exploration and command of color—among the major influences on her own. Other artists who have interested her include Gorky, Franz Kline, and Pierre Soulages and Bram van Velde (both were associated with Europe’s post-World War II abstract-art tendency known as “art informel”).

A former high school basketball player who savors the physicality of both sports and of making paintings, Fishman explains that, if she “can get past the rectangle”—a typical painting’s format, which to her suggests the landscape genre—and deftly handle the “weight,” or the perceived visual heft or presence of a work-in-progress, she can better enjoy the creative process that then unfolds. She does not consciously try to control what her paintings might communicate, she says.

“What is it about this kind of art that speaks to so many people?” she asks. “Maybe it’s that there is no language in it.” If one of her paintings suggests a meaning, she adds, perhaps “it’s something that comes and goes, even though it may [seem to] have a formal, concrete presence.” If anything, she muses, her kind of painting “is about a journey [through] the act of making it, which you get to go on if you’re looking” at it, too, “an activity of full gesture, freedom and physicality—the things modern life tends not to have much of.”

A sense of joy about the creative freedom that making abstract art allows and about the uncertainties that come with the territory—how is any artist supposed to make a good abstract work, anyway?—is something the artists Gene Mann and Madeleine Spierer share. Both are based in Geneva, Switzerland. There, a few weeks ago, the French-born Mann, 58, took me to visit the elderly Spierer, who was born in Trieste in 1926. From 1959 through 1977, Spierer was the companion of the Dutch painter Bram van Velde (1895-1981). Mann makes mixed-media abstract paintings and collages on paper, cardboard, and canvas into whose whirlwind compositions she sometimes blends simple, abstracted human figures.

Mann and Spierer have long enjoyed a friendship and an artistic dialogue. Earlier this year, at an alternative-space gallery in Geneva, Spierer presented a sculptural installation whose plant-stem-like parts formed a chest-high line running along all four walls of the room. Made of newspaper, rolled up and glued, then painted black to give the dried, tube-shaped material some rigidity, these straight or curly pieces were also scattered around a column in the gallery, or placed upright, leaning against a window. From a distance, it appeared that they could have been made of metal.

In her modest apartment-studio, Spierer works with crushed egg cartons, newspaper, inks and paints, from which she makes collages, paintings, and objects. Van Velde, who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett, was well known for uttering terse aphorisms about art-making and human foibles. (“I paint the impossibility of painting,” he stated.) Spierer, as well, is usually reticent about describing her art. She did say, though, that in her abstract works, “it’s all there, all the rhythms of life and all of reality, too—trees, water, light, love.” Together, Mann and I examined photos of some of Spierer’s large collages from a few years ago, in which clumps of wadded newspaper formed islands of radiant energy in vast seas of blue, recalling both American color-field painting and the texture-rich tachiste variety of art informel. The older artist sensed that we wanted to see more.

Madeleine Spierer, “Parcours d’un espace (Course of a Space),” 2010. Variable dimensions. Rolled-up newspaper, glue, paint. Photo credit: Andata Ritorno Laboratoire d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, Switzerland

“Come,” she instructed, “I want to show you something.” We followed her as she led us outside, up a hill and over to the nearby studio of a younger painter friend, who had let her use his workspace to create a new composition made up of overlapping, differently colored pieces of paper. Each had been painted with pigments-and-oil mixtures Spierer had prepared herself, then cut and shaped by hand. Titled “Nocturne,” it was an ambitious, mural-size work in a palette of dark blues, reds, and greens whose “weight,” as Fishman would put it, defied the modesty and delicacy of its materials.

In the late afternoon’s fading light, it hummed and hugged the wall, inviting us to dive with our eyes into its dark, all-engulfing sea. It was a perfectly composed abstract work. In an artist’s statement, Spierer once noted that she experiments “again and again with the relationship between line and surface, rhythm and color.” Looking at “Nocturne,” which evoked a sense of longing in the dead of night, I was reminded of how, as they explore and formulate the peculiar language of their art, the most capable abstract artists seem to make their work ever more expressive over time. Instinctively, they seem to understand that the ambiguity that is its essence is also its great poetic strength, a kind of intangible raw material that can be tweaked or prodded, but never fully deciphered or constrained.


Edward M. Gómez EDWARD M. GOMEZ is a New York-based journalist, author, and critic. Publications available at


Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea

Jan Verwoert

Tags: Benjamin Buchloh, Brian O’Doherty, Conceptual art, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois

1. Conceptuality versus medium specificity

What continues to give an edge to any discussion about the current status of painting as a medium is that this particular debate raises the following fundamental question: which forms of artistic production can count as contemporary and which should be rejected as irrelevant? Precisely because the theory of High Modernism pronounced painting to be the ‘Royal Road’ of artistic practice, it seems that ever since that doctrine was challenged it has been the fate of painting as a medium to provide the forum for all arguments about the road that art should follow in the future. Even if some of the original heat has gone out of these arguments in the course of their cyclical resurrection and abandonment since the late 1960s, it still remains a burning issue. An increasing interest in painting has begun to emerge, particularly in recent years. There are today, quite simply, a multitude of interesting positions in painting, each in its own way doubtlessly relevant to our times. Nevertheless, painting still has to fend off the latent reproach of being reactionary, not least because populist apologists for the medium often use reactionary arguments in its support, for example when they celebrate the ‘return of painting’ as a renaissance of authentic artistic skills. Faced with this situation, it seems useful to reconstruct the fundamental questions inherent in the arguments about the validity of painting in particular, and about the definition of contemporary artistic practice in general, in the hope of finding a way out of this notoriously intractable discussion.

One question that inevitably arises when painting is being discussed is why painting should be considered in isolation from other media? Does it make sense to make a single medium the subject of a text or an exhibition? Is this still relevant? Or is it not? A possible first answer is, ‘No it is not. Any consideration of painting in isolation tends to be reactionary, because the dismissal of Modernism’s dogmatic restriction of artistic practice to a particular medium must be understood as the most significant progress in art in recent decades. Today every medium represents only one possibility among many. The only thing that counts is the artist’s conceptual project. The choice of a particular medium only has meaning inasmuch as it relates to a strategic gain within the overall project. If a conceptual statement can be adequately formulated in terms of painting, then artists paint, but if a different medium proves to be more useful, they turn to video or build installations. In this context anybody who looks at the medium alone is missing the most important thing.’

A second possible answer is, ‘Yes it is. It is even necessary to discuss painting qua painting, because that is the only way to investigate its true significance. The enormous potential of what art can do as art only emerges when art deals with the laws, limits and history of a specific medium. The semantic depth of a painterly formulation can only be adequately appreciated if it is understood as the result of a process of dialogue with the medium. Any kind of art or art criticism that excludes all of that must necessarily be superficial. Anyone who reduces art to transferable concepts and readily comprehensible ideas has lost sight of what art is, and what it can achieve by virtue of its nature as a non-verbal language. Any art that defines itself solely in terms of content, and not in terms of its medium-specific form, becomes the kind of issue-related speciality art that critics and curators love, because it always comes with ready-made categories to file it under, such as “identity politics”, “institutional critique”, “critical urbanism” and so on. No valid art or criticism can avoid dialogue with the medium qua medium.’

Both positions seem well founded in principle. So perhaps it is unnecessary to opt for either one or the other, as one may adopt a different perspective from one case to the next. A painter’s paintings may be regarded fruitfully as engaging with the medium of painting in terms specific to that medium, while painting by conceptual artists working with a range of media, for instance, may be more readily understood with reference to the conceptual themes it proposes. From a pragmatic point of view this may be a useful approach. A convincing solution to the fundamental problem it is not. The conflict between a conceptual and a medium-specific understanding of artistic practice only becomes comprehensible in all its intensity and depth of meaning when it is viewed not pragmatically but historically. By proving that art can only exist as a concept and must be evaluated in terms of its conceptual performance alone, Conceptual Art in fact could be understood to have irrevocably severed the connection between art and its medium. Seen in this light the arguments produced by Conceptual Art at the end of the 1960s refute once and for all the ‘High Modernist’ theory (adduced by a critic such as Clement Greenberg) that true art must be conceived and executed in medium-specific terms. If one follows this argument through to its conclusion, then the refutation of the primacy of medium-specificity by Conceptual Art marks a historical caesura with normative effect and consequences that must inevitably be faced. It represents a threshold that no one can step back over.

2. The change to conceptuality as the historical norm

The assertion of the normative validity of the turn towards conceptuality became canonical largely because the school of American art criticism around the journal October made this claim one of the central tenets of its art-historical theories. In her essay ‘A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the age of the post-medium condition’, for instance, Rosalind Krauss characterises the effects of the conceptual turn at the end of the 60s as normative and irrevocable.1 To begin with, Krauss reiterates the argument Joseph Kosuth proposed in 1969 in Art after Philosophy that Conceptual Art dismisses the relevance of medium-specific art practice in favour of a general and fundamental inquiry into the nature of art – in whatever medium. Acknowledging this thesis, she describes Conceptual Art’s strategic coup as a successful refutation of the doctrine proposed by Clement Greenberg, according to which art, by necessity, concentrates on a thorough exploration of the laws of the given medium, in particular painting. According to Krauss, this global privileging of the concept over the medium in effect created entirely new, historically irreversible conditions for the production of art. After Conceptual Art, the practical basis and the historical horizon for the production of all art is set by the ‘post-medium-condition’.

For Krauss, this historical caesura manifests itself in the ‘mixed-media’ installations of Marcel Broodthaers – for example his Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, Section des Figures (1972), a fictitious museum exhibition consisting of an obscure collection of artefacts (stuffed animals, books, prints, etc.), all of which show or represent eagles in one way or another. Broodthaers restricts himself in this work to the conceptual gesture of a spatial mise-en-scène. This gesture not only makes every included object into a readymade, but it also declares each one to be interchangeable. One eagle is worth as much as any other. What medium is used to represent the eagle is likewise a matter of complete indifference. Picture, object and text are all accorded the same status. Krauss interprets their equivalence as a radical withdrawal of all meaning from specific artistic media. Apart from being an attack on the traditional concept of art, the assertion that artwork is interchangeable also counts as a cynical embrace of the fact that artwork can be exchanged like any other commodity. By releasing art from the specificity of the medium, Krauss argues, Broodthaers effectively equated it to its pure exchange value.
In this way, she claims, the art object has been ‘reduced to a system of pure equivalency by the homogenising principle of commodification, the operation of pure exchange value from which nothing can escape’.2 For Krauss the liberation of art from the fetters of medium-specificity therefore leads directly to a new form of dependency, its dependency on the market.

In his essay ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, Benjamin Buchloh offers a variation on this argument.3 He too concedes that Kosuth, through his bold demands for an examination of the general conditions of art, successfully abolished the dogma of the primacy of reflection on the medium in post-war American painting. At the same time, however, Buchloh warns that the freedom Conceptual Art gained through its emancipation from the material art object and its manual production is a deceptive freedom. The suspension of all traditional criteria for judging art, he argues, in the end only strengthens the power of the art institutions. For if an object, or the practice of producing it, no longer qualifies as art on the basis of recognisable material properties, then in the end it is the museums or the market that determine whether it is art or not. Buchloh describes this dubious triumph of Conceptual Art as follows:

In the absence of any specifically visual qualities and due to the manifest
lack of any (artistic) manual competence as a criterion of distinction, all the
traditional criteria of aesthetic judgement – of taste and of connoirsseurship
– have been programmatically voided. The result of this is that the definition
of the aesthetic becomes
on the one hand a matter of linguistic convention and on the other the function
of both a legal contract and an institutional discourse (a discourse of power
rather than taste).

Here Buchloh relativises the emancipatory status of conceptual art by pointing out that it can also be understood as a reflex of the latest metamorphosis in the capitalist conditions of production. Thus whereas pop art and minimal art still celebrate industrial production and mass consumption in their materials and subjects, conceptual art, through its fixation on the immaterial qualities of language and the written word, involuntarily replicates the way in which real work has become immaterial in the service society, and thus erects a monument to the aesthetics of bureaucracy.

These arguments lead up to two substantive conclusions about possible modes of artistic practice after conceptual art. If one follows Krauss, Marcel Broodthaers’s intervention shifts the practice of art onto a new level: while he demonstrates that all media are interchangeable and thus proves that media-immanent work is meaningless, he simultaneously establishes the conceptual gesture as the ultimate possible artistic act which can still create meaning. According to this view, the only art that has any significance at all in the historical framework of the ‘post-medium-condition’ is one that declares its subject to be the system of art, its conditions and its history as a whole. Media-immanent practice is dismissed as irrelevant as the meta-historical conceptual gesture alone can lay claim to artistic relevance. If one considers the contribution of conceptual art to constitute a normative caesura in the history of art, then the conceptual gesture is the only available sphere of activity left open to artists who seek to make work in the full awareness of the current historical condition of art production.

This conclusion is then reinforced by a second: as Krauss, and more particularly Buchloh, argue that the arrival of the ‘post-medium-condition’ in artistic practice coincides with art’s subjugation to the dictate of institutions and laws of the market, it then is not only a historical but a political necessity to adopt a detached, meta-critical position in relation to the system of art. From this point of view, those who continue to work in media-immanent terms, for example in painting, not only condemn their practice to historical insignificance, but also risk direct appropriation by the institutions and the market. The conclusion is then that only a form of art that through conceptual gestures articulates a critical position with regard to the institution of art is capable of resisting the historical devaluation of artistic media and the subjugation of production to the laws of the art-system. In this way, both Krauss and Buchloh posit the significance of institutional critique from a historical point of view as the last form of art still capable of making a difference.

3. From strategic logic to the practical aesthetics of conceptual gestures

The question now is how, in practice, are we to imagine an art of conceptual gestures? Taking the arguments of Krauss and Buchloh literally, the only conclusion that can really be drawn is that with the entry of art into the ‘post-medium condition’ the notion of practice – if one understands it as continuous work on particular subject matter using particular formal media – has lost its meaning as such. The art of the conceptual gesture stages the artistic act as a direct entry in the book of art history. A successful gesture rewrites history. Such a gesture is therefore, by definition, legible and unique. Its meaning must be as transparent as an argument in textual form, so that the general understanding of art and its history is altered by its clarity and persuasiveness. If this gesture has a revolutionary effect, that is, if it constitutes a profound intervention in the history of art, then it acquires the status of a singular event. This definition of the conceptual gesture as a unique historical event with a convincing meaning has serious consequences for the understanding of artistic production: in conceptual terms it limits the significance of an artistic work to the contribution it makes to a new understanding of art. And this contribution tends to be unique. After all, how often can anyone achieve a conceptual gesture of historic dimension?

Modernism still permitted artists to produce revolutions through continuous work in their own medium (that is to say in practice). A radical understanding of historical critical conceptualism, however, requires every producer of art to change history by coming up with a unique idea starting from absolute zero – he/she must do this in a manner that is both clear and lucid. The pressure to succeed, which modernism’s dedication to relentless avant-gardeism had already introduced, is now experienced even more acutely. As a result, we now have the tragic figure of the melancholy conceptualist, alone in an empty room waiting desperately for a revolutionary idea to come to him or her, or worse still, waiting for the next idea to come, trying to reinvent their work after their first success.

The irony here is that the type of art that in recent years has actually succeeded in turning the ideal of a historically influential and universally comprehensible gesture into reality, is in fact the so-called ‘one-liner’ art of the 1990s. The dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde fulfils all the necessary criteria, as does the artist’s self-portrait as a wax figure with the features of Sid Vicious in the pose of Andy Warhol’s Elvis: these represent unique statements demonstrating the new possibilities for interpreting both the concept of sculpture and the art-historical conventions for the representation of vanitas or self-portraiture, respectively. These works were universally understood and widely reported in all the media. So, strictly speaking, the successful conceptual gesture turns out to be nothing more than a well-told wisecrack. By taking the criteria of historical-critical conceptualism at its very word, ‘one-liner’ art demonstrates that the principle of the conceptual gesture scarcely differs from the commercial logic that lies behind the skilful launch of a publicity stunt or the effective placement of a hit single.

One might assume that the effective realisation of the conceptual gesture in the ‘one-liner’ idiom must seal the bankruptcy of the logic of strategic conceptualism. In some respects this conclusion might well be justified, if perhaps just a little premature. For only if one reduces the conceptual gesture to its strategic value alone does it cease to be possible to distinguish its significance from the media logic of the publicity stunt and the hit single. But how else is one to understand the gesture if not strategically? Brian O’Doherty suggests a more flexible definition in Inside the White Cube. He describes the conceptual gesture not only in terms of the logic of strategic intervention in history, but also in terms of an aesthetics of its own:

I suppose the formal content of a gesture lies in its aptness, economy and
grace. It dispatches the bull of history with a single thrust. Yet it needs
that bull, for it shifts perspective suddenly on a body of assumptions and
ideas. It is to that degree didactic, as Barbara Rose says, though the word may
overplay the intent to teach. If it teaches, it is by irony and epigram, by
cunning and shock. A gesture wises you up. It depends for its effect on the
context of ideas it changes and joins. It is not art, perhaps, but artlike and
thus has a meta-life around and about art. Insofar as it is unsuccessful it
remains a frozen curio, if remembered at all. If it is successful it becomes
history and tends to eliminate itself. It resurrects itself when the context
mimics the one that stimulated it, making it ‘relevant’ again. So a gesture has
an odd historical appearance, always fainting and reviving.

O’Doherty here replaces the hard normative criteria of transparency and singularity with the more dynamic parameters of elegance, didacticism, irony and perspectivity. By stressing the particular aesthetic and pedagogic effect of the gesture on its public, he emphasises that the staging of the conceptual gesture constitutes a practice in material terms, which possesses a formal language of its own and achieves particular effects by use of particular means. Such an understanding of the material and medial aspects of the conceptual gesture as a form of artistic practice questions the ideal transparency of the gesture as an inscription in history, just as the concepts of irony and perspectivity relativise the idea of the gesture as a unique event. O’Doherty’s concept of history is not linear and normative but multi-perspectival and relational. The meaning of a gesture cannot therefore be taken directly from the gesture itself, but is dependent upon the historical context that it both actively construes and is retroactively perceived in. The meaning of the gesture (just like that of an ironic remark) is therefore not transparent but latent. The historical context is furthermore not given by history per se, nor has it one single meaning. O’Doherty understands the construction and reconstruction of historical connections as a form of artistic and critical practice in its own right. In this way, O’Doherty avoids the Modernist reduction of the gesture to one single throw of the dice by describing the staging of the conceptual gesture as material practice that opens up history as a dynamic field for action.

4. Painting as situative strategic practice which does not take its own legitimacy for granted

In principle you might say that a postmodern theorisation of the conceptual gesture differs from the modernist definition in that it understands the gesture not as a singular event with normative validity but as a strategic intervention into the history of art with a situational meaning. From the postmodern point of view conceptual gestures reflect the history and conditions of art by producing situations that show art in a light that is constantly new and changing. In practice it is probably easier to meet the challenge of producing surprising reflective situations than to cope with the pressure of producing singular grand events. This is probably why, in the context of the postmodern debate in art in the late 1970s, it again seemed possible to integrate painting situatively and strategically into conceptual practice. A common form of situative integration was the inclusion of painting as one object among many in comprehensive spatial setups (see, for example, Ilya Kabakov and the ‘Sots-Art’ artists). Another way to remodel painting according to a logic of situative strategic choices was to forcibly disseminate the meaning of the individual picture in a luxuriant web of references (for example, in Kippenberger’s paintings, where meaning can only be accessed through a multiplicity of cryptic references to other artworks and social events).

Yve-Alain Bois develops the idea of painting as conceptual practice along similar lines in his book Painting as Model.6 Referring to the theses Hubert Damisch proposes in his book Fenêtre jaune cadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Bois describes the ‘strategic model’ in painting as the well-considered location of a work within a network of references: ‘Like chess pieces, like phonemes in language, a work has significance, as Lévi-Strauss shows, first by what it is not and what it opposes, that is, in each case according to its position, its value, within a field…’7 Bois then underlines the situative significance of such a strategic intervention in the field of art by distinguishing it sharply from the normative understanding of the historical validity of the work of art.

The strategic reading is strictly anti-historicist: it does not believe in the
exhaustion of things, in the linear genealogy offered to us by art criticism,
always ready, unconsciously or not, to follow the demands
of the market in search of new products, but neither does it believe in the
order of a homogeneous time without breaks, such as art history likes to

Bois, however, goes a decisive step further in his defence of painting as conceptual practice. Referring to Damisch he argues that the medium of painting is by nature conceptual, and its conceptuality is produced not only by way of positioning a work within a particular set of external references. For Bois painting is essentially conceptual when it self-referentially and self-critically addresses its material qualities as well as the symbolic grammar of its own formal language. In relation to this immanent criticality, the strategic instalment of painting in a network of external references has the status of a meta-critical gesture. This means that this gesture essentially derives its critical force from the structural self-inquiry of a medium-specific art practice it simply takes it to another level. This conceptuality, however, only exists as a potential. Consequently, Bois differentiates between a progressive type of painting, one that recognises and develops this conceptual potential, and a more conventional painting that relies uncritically on a traditional understanding of the medium. In Bois’s view, in order for the conceptual potential to be activated, a painting must produce its own justification by means of continuous formal self-scrutiny and the creation of contextual relations.
In support of this he quotes the following from Damisch:

It is not enough, in order for there to be painting, that the painter take up
his brushes again,’ Damish tells us: it is still necessary that it be worth the
effort, it is still necessary that [the painter] succeed in demonstrating to us
that painting is something we positively cannot do without, that it is
indispensable to us, and that it would be madness – worse still, a historical
error – to let it lie fallow today.

In that he pleads for the possibility of justifying the medium of painting by developing its immanent conceptual potential, Bois mediates between a conceptual and a medium-specific perspective. He tries to break down the conflict between the normative account of the conceptual turn and a medium-specific perspective on art practice. Various general conclusions relating to a resolution of this conflict could be derived from Bois’s line of argument.

The medium-specific approach to painting is still possible in artistic practice and in critique. All it has lost is its status as self-evident. Since painting is realised today within the horizon of conceptual practice, it must be grounded in a context that is no longer its own. That means, on the one hand, that an appeal to the specifics of the medium as its sole justification is no longer possible. Painting can no longer just be painting. Today it is also necessarily a form of conceptual art, and as such it must be judged in relation to conceptual practices in other media, and in turn it must hold its own in this comparison. (Every group exhibition where different media are presented demonstrates this at a quite banal level.) But this also means that painting as practice can take strength precisely from the fact that by way of an immanent dialogue with its own history and conditions as a medium it arrives at a (situative strategic) self-justification within a more widely-spread conceptual horizon. In principle these conclusions correspond exactly to the thesis formulated by Thomas Lawson in his essay ‘Last Exit Painting’, in which the crisis in painting is understood as a positive opportunity, and the loss of its self-evident justification as a productive possibility that could provide painting with a conceptual basis again.10

5. Open Questions

The definition of situative strategic painting as an immanent conceptual practice has proven to be a practiceable one. It supplies the arguments for the necessary critique of retrograde approaches that repudiate the challenge of conceptual self-justification. It also allows for painting to be discussed as a relevant medium again, and thereby liberates it from the curse of a premature rejection at the hands of a normative understanding of history. Nevertheless, the ‘strategic model’ remains limited. To begin with, it can only describe the meaning of a painting in metaphors that are drawn from the conceptual field of argumentation; the main concepts that Bois finds for the meaning of painting are position’, ‘verification’ and ‘demonstration’. From this perspective, the agency of the artist would be limited to the declaration of his or her own position over and over again. ‘Here I stand, where do you stand?’ would be the invariable formula for any exchange that painting could provoke. This model is depressingly static. The description of positions in a field of opposites says nothing about the possibility of transforming that field, or any potential process of change that a work sets in motion.

Furthermore, a model that concentrates on interpreting a work only in terms of the strategic position it claims, effectively reduces the discussion of art in a no-less dismal fashion to the matter of its legitimation.11 No doubt, the question of whether a position is legitimate and how it legitimises itself is necessary if a critique is to investigate a work’s conceptual core and symbolic political standpoint. For the critique to have a conceptual edge it needs to discuss the legitimation of a work as a position. Yet, at the same time, every discussion of legitimacy is always based on the more than questionable assumption that something like legitimate art might actually exist. The experience of criticism, on the contrary, is precisely that all art can be adjudged legitimate from some viewpoints, and equally illegitimate when viewed from others. So in this sense the strategic model might be said to confuse the judgement of the completed work with the initial motivation of its production. For it does not follow from the fact that art will be scrutinised for its legitimacy that it was actually made with the intention of being legitimate, or that it can even be legitimate per se. Against this objection one of course could hold that a crucial point in the conceptualisation of art was precisely that the criticism of art was no longer considered to be a process that happened after the event, but an inner dynamic inherent in its production. Conceptual art is by definition art-critical art and the cogency of its critical position must therefore also be amenable to interrogation. Nevertheless, whether the critical potential of a work can be equated with the legitimacy of its strategic position is another question again, and one that still has to be discussed.

A further obvious limitation of the ‘strategic model’ is that, given the conceptual apparatus at its disposal, it does not provide any useful steps toward grasping the immanent qualities of a painting, even if it happens to actually recognise their existence in principle. All it can do is state that, for particular conceptual reasons, a painting is what it is. Any statement about what experience a painting communicates qua painting can scarcely be formulated with concepts like position, verification and demonstration. In fact it is questionable whether this quality of experience can be comprehended in conceptual categories at all, or whether the moment when the ‘strategic model’ reaches its limits really is the time when the art of describing aesthetic experiences comes into its own once again.

The final question that remains open is how painting, understood in terms of immanent conceptual practice, relates to the market and art institutions. A cynical position would be that as long as there are enough canvases to sell, and as long as the buyers perceive the conceptualisation of painting as just another refinement added to the commodity (one that does not trouble their bucolic conception of art), the market cares not a bit about the way painting has been subtly complicated by means of conceptual self-criticism. The counter-objection would be that, as Buchloh and Krauss point out, the abandonment of painting in favour of a purely conceptual process is no guarantee that such a practice will not also be appropriated – there are plenty of institutions specialising in the administration of conceptual types of work, and because of the absence of any material resistance, conceptual practices are even more likely to become trapped in institutional dependency. The choice of medium per se therefore says little about the critical potential that a work might develop in cases of doubt. With this contentious point we now arrive at a stalemate. It can only be resolved by a double appeal to criticism: painting’s present commercial boom certainly requires an acute conceptual critique of contemporary positions. At the same time the boom in interdisciplinary and project-based approaches at international biennales raises the question of how resistant ephemeral forms of practice are to the administrative logic of the global exhibition industry, and whether a renewed examination of the intractable materiality of certain media-specific approaches might not actually be what is needed at this precise moment.

Translated by Hugh Rorrison

— Jan Verwoert

  1. Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames Hudson, 1999
  2. Thomas Lawson, ‘Last Exit Painting’, Artforum, October 1981, pp.40-47
  3. The transfer of the strategic model from the American school into German art criticism in this sense has produced a neurotic fixation on the examination of the legitimacy of art in discussions in the journal Texte zur Kunst, and a corresponding paranoid fear of illegitimacy among German artists.
  4. Ibid., p.15
  5. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (eds.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999
  6. Ibid., p.519
  7. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, San Francisco: Lapis Press, 1986, p.70
  8. Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990
  9. Ibid., p.254. See also Hubert Damisch, Fenêtre jaunecadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984
  10. Y.-A. Bois, op. cit., p.256
  11. Ibid., p.255


R.H. Quaytman: Archive to Ark, the Subjects of Painting

Sarah Ganz Blythe


R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, silkscreen ink and gesso on panel, 62.9 x 101.6cm. All images courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Onward! enough speculation

keep on copying

the page must be filled.

Everything is equal, the good and the evil,

the fruitful and the typical,

they all become an exaltation of the


There is nothing but facts — and phenomena

Final Bliss

— Gustave Flaubert via Hanne Darboven via Douglas Crimp (via R.H. Quaytman)1

‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’, R.H. Quaytman asks.2 To address this question, she devises an ‘artist’s art history’ that follows a learning-by-doing model through which she inserts herself into the material presence of this history.

Her work in response to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) is a case in point. Klee first exhibited the transfer drawing with watercolour — a wide-eyed angel hovering with wings outstretched, gaping mouth, locks of hair and feathers fluttering — in 1920 at Galerie Goltz in Munich. It inspired Gershom Scholem to pen a poem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’ (1921), to Walter Benjamin, who had purchased the drawing from the show.3 In Benjamin’s hands, Klee’s angel became the ‘angel of history’ whose ‘face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees only single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. […] What we call progress is this storm.’4 Shortly after writing this in 1940 as part of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Benjamin is believed to have left the drawing in the care of Georges Bataille, who then passed it on to Theodor W. Adorno, who gave it to Scholem, who donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Quaytman knew this life history when she visited the drawing there in 2014. She was struck by the figure’s ambiguity — angel or animal, male or female, self-portrait or alter ego? For one work in the series O Tópico, Chapter 27 (2014), she meticulously copied the image onto a wood panel, replicating Klee’s transfer technique, hoping to learn more through the making of the thing.5 In Quaytman’s rendering, a molten polyurethane splatter now comes between the angel and the past he suspiciously contemplates from a modest hole. A wide border of a geometric pattern derived from a Brazilian basket weave cleanly frames the black cloud; it is at once evocative of medieval icons and Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions. Besides the afterglow of fluorescent paint applied to the top edge of the panel, there is no heavenly benevolence or ethereal escape here. It it is not the past that Quaytman’s angel surveys, but us, the viewers.

R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, urethane foam, silkscreen ink and gesso on two panels, 31.4 x 31.4cm and 82.6 x 82.6cm, detail

Such conscious positioning of viewership lies at the core of Quaytman’s work: ‘My pictures often reflect the space in front of the picture and the space the viewer is in, historically, optically or architecturally.’6 She achieves this through a working method that takes the conceptual form of an inconclusive book, in which each new exhibition of predominantly photography-based silkscreened images equates to a chapter that is developed in response to the location where they will be shown. ‘The ambition of this ongoing serialised system’, Quaytman writes, ‘is to develop a living, usable painting model, that corresponds with how — not only what — we see.’7 For example, the use of Klee’s Angelus Novus points towards her forthcoming body of work, Chapter 28, which will be presented in June of this year at the Israel Museum, while the border of the Atantowoto basket-weave pattern refers to Brazil, the eventual site of O Tópico, Chapter 27. The latter will be Quaytman’s first permanent installation, housed in a garden pavilion at the Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, near Belo Horizonte. The building will take the form of the golden spiral, with interior walls positioned according to the Fibonacci sequence. The spiral’s curve is also registered in the gesso of several panels of the series, which themselves are proportioned according to the eight component parts of the golden ratio, a format the artist has adhered to since her first chapter, in 2001, and which she intends to pursue for the remainder of her career. While this conceptual framework connects the logic of the panels to that of the framing exhibition space, the panels’ surfaces register their surroundings via images of historical artworks, artists or events associated with the gallery, institution or location of display. The result of archival and field research, Quaytman’s ‘subjects’, as the Portuguese title O Tópico (‘The Topic’) suggests, are specific and wide-ranging, among them: a seed the artist found on the ground while visiting Brazil; a teenager posing in front of an old VW Bug, referring to an artwork by the Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes; and the artist Dawn Kasper, shown working on a drawing that says ‘chaos is a …’. The panels bring external referents into the gallery ‘in the hope that’, as Quaytman says, ‘…attention, whether from a gaze or a glance, can be contained, reflected and distracted’.8

In this sense, painting is made to work against some of its most traditional formulations. Rather than offering a window-like view onto other worlds, the panels press into the gallery space and are formulated so that each is to be read in relation to its neighbour or another piece in the chapter. Occasional plinths protruding from the panels of Quaytman’s paintings, or, elsewhere, shelves accommodating a selection of them, disrupt the suspension of disbelief that representational images can produce while affirming the paintings’ status as objects that will be stored away. Rather than invoking a hermetic processional encounter, in which visitors would stop reverentially in front of each work, Quaytman’s paintings are positioned ‘as objects that you passed by — as things that you saw not just head-on and isolated, but from the side, with your peripheral vision, and in the context of other paintings’.9 Working against what she has called the ‘aloneness and self-sufficiency’ of paintings that ‘behave like film in dark rooms’, the flatness achieved through silkscreen on gesso allows the panels to ‘reverberate with other paintings around’.10 A large vocabulary of artistic languages and references shapes this effect: abstraction and figuration, silkscreened photographs on gesso and polyurethane splats, absorbing Op art patterns and glimmering diamond-dust lines, hand-ground pigments and encaustic paint, printed text and striped lines that reference the panels’ plywood edges while evoking Barnett Newman’s zips.11 Quaytman speaks of creating sustained attention through a visual syntax that inculcates first, second, even third readings in which the paintings open up many possible meanings, much like words in a poem.12 For example, a sequence of silkscreened allusions to the paintings’ place of exhibition may be interrupted by an Op art pattern that also indexes the site, while a ‘caption’ in the form of an arrow suggests punctuation. This variety is held together by a grammar in the form of rules that govern Quaytman’s practice. Not unlike Richard Serra’s text piece Verb List (1967—68), which offers a series of focused ‘actions’ that generate new forms, Quaytman’s strict adherence to format (chapters), size (golden ratio) and support (gessoed plywood with bevelled edges) provides the structure through which materials and subjects may vary while remaining interconnected. Rather than closing down meaning and invention through an imposing single vision, the open structure of associative relations invoked by the panels allows distinct media, materials and subjects to remain themselves while also animating one another. Much like Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the polyphonic novel, in which many voices, styles and references coexist within the author’s construction, Quaytman’s system permits a plurality of independent voices that are each allowed their own space within the gallery context.13 In one work from O Tópico, Chapter 27, for example, a gestural blue-brown pool in waxy encaustic lies against the geometrical rigour of the golden spiral in egg-yolk yellow. Mondrian lozenges hung within viewing distance quietly reiterate a segment of the spiral’s arc while perpendicular trompe l’oeil stripes evoke the plywood stripes that hover above the basket-weave pattern. Distinct pieces, like words, exist in and of themselves while also animating one another in contribution to their group as a whole.

But, what might this whole or subject be? Perhaps it is painting itself, summoned and pointed to without solely using the medium of painting. Quaytman writes: ‘Despite my frequent use of photography, the digital and printmaking techniques, I use the name “painting” to describe what I do.’14 She seems to ask: can a painting be a painting while being something else? And, as if to test out her logic, she plays a game of substituting ‘painting’ as a noun for other words in a sentence. This grammar exercise plays out amid her notes that accompany each of the 61 plates in the artist’s book , Chapter 24 (2012): ‘Declension: the variants of the form of the noun, pronoun or adjective by which grammatical case, number and gender are identified.’15 Painting, like a part of speech, can be placed in different contexts and made to act as the subject, predicate, verb or noun and then asked if it still retains its status as painting. ‘Paintings, like words, lose their origin and become, over time, emblems.’16 Quaytman formally accomplishes this exercise by employing non-painting methods (photography, silkscreen, sculpture), but also through the use of historical paintings themselves. They make their appearance in almost every sequence, called up for their association with the exhibition’s context or to signal the next stop in Quaytman’s itinerary. Her litany of iconic paintings by largely male modernist masters includes, in addition to the aforementioned examples: El Lissitzky’s Prouns, Edward Hopper’s A Woman in the Sun (1961), Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concepts), Piero Manzoni’s Achromes and Sigmar Polke’s artificial resin paintings. She also draws on the photographs of such artists as Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and Andrea Fraser. This ‘artist’s art history’ manifests itself through a range of replicative methods including the traditional academic mode of hand copying (such as the Klee) and the relatively recent technique of silkscreening (typically to reproduce paintings or photographs of other artists). Consistently, historical references are deliberately disrupted through shifts in colour, stark overlayed lines, shallow plinths, additional panels or the application of bulbous polyurethane splotches. This at once calls up the figures of painting’s past and interrupts, distorts and critically works against its utopic impulses and celebrated heroes.

Quaytman’s tactical approach is both inventive and resourceful. It balances the sheer desire to participate in painting while soberly mitigating the pitfalls of involvement.17 This is accomplished, in part, by fashioning painting’s narrative as the artist so chooses — calling up certain masters, alluding to particular radical moments. Quaytman takes what has come before as an opportunity to absorb and construct: ‘My rules were also made as a protest in a sense, but as a protest in favour of a medium — specifically painting. Maybe it was more of an accommodation than a protest. The rules come out of accommodating contextual facts that seem so unavoidable or endemic that they are not even seen anymore.’18 So, like the angel of history, Quaytman persistently assesses history and finds herself at once fascinated and unmoored by it. But rather than gingerly backing away from the accumulation of ruins, she acts as an anthropologist, collecting and marking pieces of that history. As she describes, this approach started in 2001: ‘The start of the new millennium, combined with the historical circumstances of 9/11 … induced a sharp sense of flowing time and the instinct to mark it.’19 Such marking literally manifests itself in O Tópico, Chapter 27 when her fingerprint overlays a pictogram of the Roman Empire taken from Emma Willard’s Universal History: In Perspective (1845). A source used in previous chapters, Willard’s textbook relates to other pedagogical references, including knitting patterns and instructions for making knots. Throughout, Quaytman’s acts of transformation are in the spirit of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur, who intervenes and relocates signs and sources into new positions or contexts, disrupting their original context or narrative to constitute a new discourse.20 The once-removed (silkscreened photographs of paintings) or even twice-removed (silkscreened X-rays of paintings) presence of historical materials testifies to her ambivalence about the meaning of the past, while also offering an actionable, often critical way to insert herself into a number of structures that surround it: the patriarchal nature of painting’s past, the history of place, the systems of the art world.

Lest her purposes be misinterpreted, or not interpreted at all, this process of bricolage is always undertaken with logic and explanation. Perhaps as a function of her years spent occupying many positions — curator, writer, editor, gallery owner, artist’s assistant — or in resistance to notions of the impulsive, expressive creator, Quaytman consistently explains her purpose using the art world’s most viable formats: books akin to catalogues raisonnés (Allegorical Decoys, 2008; Spine, 2011; , 2012); statements issued with each chapter; and display instructions concerning how purchased works should be hung. Knowledge gained from lived experience has allowed her to smartly play with but also work against the pitfalls of the art world to assure that hers is not the forgotten, unstorable or unwritten-about work. She manages the ‘circulation of the painting as it either folds into the archive of the book/studio or embarks into the world — archive to ark’.21 Indeed, Quaytman adopts the gallery as ark, all-containing and protective, as an inevitable construct. Unlike the negotiations between self and history apparent in her version of an ‘artist’s art history’, the gallery remains unscathed, an aesthetic container of silent dominance much like what Brian O’Doherty described in the 1970s.22 However, Quaytman’s system is devised to accommodate the reality that this well-ordered ark is but a temporary haven — its contents will soon be archive bound.

This focus on the past is tempered by Quaytman’s interrogation of the manufactured narrative of art history: again, ‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’23 Without answering this in the affirmative or negative, the question itself opens up a line of enquiry about painting’s efficacy then and now. Did early-twentieth-century avant-garde practices actually have the revolutionary impact we now pine for? Did its novel formulations incite revolutionary experiences we can no longer access? If so, can rehearsing its forms and stories ever provide such revolutionary experiences again?24 For Quaytman, the subject of painting is the devoted commitment to continuously working through these questions, at once to ‘maintain and simultaneously disrupt painting’s absolute presence’.25 As such, it is necessary to remain at a proper distance from which to observe, analyse and speculate, as the logic, material form and compositions of her paintings gesture back to history and location, left and right to elsewhere in the chapter or the next, and directly in front to us. Her work suggests, like the Angelus Novus, that our present is an ambiguous state of affairs, caught between the storm ‘called progress’ blowing from Paradise and a fascination with ‘the wreckage of the past’.26 In this suspended limbo, these pictures want something of us, as W.J.T. Mitchell would suggest.27 They compel us to ask: Should we perpetuate the angel’s fixation on the past, or turn around? How might the past be our constant companion along the way to Paradise? What might the subjects of painting be tomorrow?

  1. R.H. Quaytman,,Chapter 24, Mönchengladbach: Museum Abteiberg, 2012.
  2. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, October, vol.143, Winter 2013, p.49.
  3. See Gershom Gerhard Scholem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’, The Fullness of Time (ed. and intro. by Steven M. Wasserstrom, trans. Richard Sieburth), Jerusalem: Ibis Editions, 2003.
  4. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p.249.
  5. I saw portions of O Tópico, Chapter 27 laid out in Quaytman’s studio in September 2014, and in November visited its full installation at Gladstone Gallery in New York, which was organised as a prelude for its ultimate destination in Inhotim, Brazil in a pavilion designed by Solveig Fernlund.
  6. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011, p.247.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., text printed on the cover.
  9. Steel Stillman, ‘In the Studio: R.H. Quaytman,’ Art in America, June/July 2010, p.88.
  10. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with David Joselit, ‘I Modi’, Mousse, issue 29, June—August 2011, p.136.
  11. ‘The diamond-dust paintings attract focus, as opposed to repelling it the way the Op patterns tend to do. They pull you in while the others push you out.’ R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., p.157.
  12. Conversation with the artist, 21 September 2014.
  13. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  14. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  15. R.H. Quaytman,, Chapter 24, op. cit.
  16. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  17. Quaytman has said she lives by the Constructivist sculptor Katarzyna Kobro’s statement: ‘I like to have fun by correcting what was not finished in any former artistic movement.’ Quoted in R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.50.
  18. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with D. Joselit, ‘I Modi’, op. cit., p.131.
  19. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  20. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (trans. George Weidenfeld and Nicolson), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  21. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  22. See Brian O’Doherty, ‘The Gallery as Gesture’, in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, pp.87—107.
  23. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  24. See Saint-Simon’s definition of the avant-garde in Claude Henri de Saint-Simon and Léon Halévy’s L’Artiste, le Savant, et l’Industriel: Dialogue (1825), reprinted in translation in Art in Theory, 1815—1900 (ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood with Jason Gaiger), Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, pp.40—41.
  25. R.H. Quaytman, Allegorical Decoys, Ghent: MER. Paper Kunsthalle, 2008.
  26. W. Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, op. cit.
  27. W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.



Painting in the Gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

In the mid-1970s, Gerhard Richter began making large, colorful, tactile abstract paintings whose sketchy, rough, and blurry effects make us aware of the tools and techniques used and the complicated pictorial thinking involved.1 Sometimes paint is applied with brushes, but more often it is smeared, dabbed, rubbed, blotted, streaked, and dripped with house painting brushes, palette knives, squeegees, and pieces of wood or glass. The emphatic paint textures created may be sensuous or plain, coarse or smooth, even or inconsistent. The shapes created are irregular, vague, incomplete, overlapped, and compressed. These paintings have been described as “gestural” or “painterly,” although Richter refers to them as his “Abstracts,” and they now constitute the largest and most consistent portion of his enormous, erratic oeuvre. They have made him one of the leading abstract painters of the last 40 years and have been the subject of much discussion, yet a cogent, plausible understanding of them is still needed. How should we interpret, respond to, and contextualize them art historically?

These works have been associated with Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Neo-Expressionism, but are not easily situated in any of these. They are most frequently interpreted as examples of the problems and complexities of postmodern painting. Scholars have concluded that Richter’s work demonstrates that painting since the 1960s has become meaningless and irrelevant and that expression and content are no longer possible, intended, or desired. They claim that he is causing this deconstruction of painting, that his work is as much a part of the process as it is indicative of it. The problem with these interpretations is that they are counter intuitive to the creative impulse and replace it with postmodern theoretical discourse. How is it possible for an artist to devote his life to such a nihilistic project as destroying the importance, appeal, and efficacy of his own creations? These interpretations linger even though Richter has refuted them in numerous statements and interviews over the years. Scholars often mistakenly take Richter’s comments about his technical process and visual thinking as explanations of meaning and purpose.

These interpretations relate Richter’s abstract paintings to Conceptual Art since they claim his works explore ideas about contemporary painting and are not important as individual images. The supposed historical self-awareness and reflexive ontology of Richter’s paintings are basic to postmodernism and related to Conceptual Art. Although they do not seem as expressive, emotive, spiritual, or philosophical as the mid-century abstract painting to which they are visually most similar, they are not as detached, aloof, and impenetrable as usually thought. Realizing this requires looking at them without imposing theoretical agendas on intuitive responses or substituting them for artistic purpose. We must remember that artworks that are connected stylistically sometimes convey or elicit very different ideas, responses, and feelings. The connection of Richter’s abstractions to Neo-Expressionism seems logical at first because this movement originated in Germany around the time Richter began making these works. However, if Richter is questioning and undermining expression and meaning, how is he part of a movement that supposedly revitalized painting and its expressive capabilities?  Moreover, Neo-Expressionism is such a broad and varied movement that it seems almost a moot point to debate Richter’s place in it.

Richter’s abstract paintings have definite stylistic affinities to Abstract Expressionism in their painterliness, residual evidence of technical processes, bold and powerful effects of color and light, and large scale. Yet they are obviously different in their aesthetic, emotive, and expressive effects. What explains their ambivalent similarity to Abstract Expressionism? They are better understood if their relationship to Pop Art is reconsidered. Pop Art is the mitigating bridge to earlier abstraction that helps explain this complex relationship. This is not surprising since Richter’s career blossomed in the early 1960s, shortly after he moved to West Germany and immersed himself in modernist painting and abandoned the Socialist Realism he studied in his youth. This was just when Pop Art was rapidly gaining attention and acclaim and Abstract Expressionism was falling into historical context. In the 1960s Richter was very interested in Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. His abstract paintings evolved as he absorbed, reinterpreted, and synthesized various aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. The connection between Richter and Pop Art is rooted in his blurry paintings based on photographs of his youth, family, Germany during and after World War II, current events, and political issues, such as “Uncle Rudi” (1965), “Eight Student Nurses” (1966), and “October 18, 1977” (1988). Since these emulate but distort mass media imagery, they have been associated with Pop Art, and Richter became a major proponent of the style in Europe. Over the years, critics have related everything Richter has done to Pop Art in one way or another. Richter’s drastic shifting among different painting styles has further complicated how his work has been interpreted. He demonstrates how stylistic development has become so complex, unpredictable, and erratic since the 1960s. In spite of widely accepted postmodernist theories which suggest otherwise, we still expect an artist to develop in a rather linear, orderly, logical way and are surprised when he does not.

Lichtenstein’s paintings of brushstrokes, such as “Little Big Painting” and “Big Painting No. 6” (both 1965),2 make us acutely aware that a painting consists of brushstrokes and marks of paint deliberately created. Done in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, they seem to be satirical criticisms or expressions of doubt about the philosophical and spiritual capabilities of painting, especially abstraction, and attempt to demystify its aesthetic and expressive possibilities. Lichtenstein’s diagrammatic isolation of a few brushstrokes in the manner of comic book illustration parallels Richter’s fascination with paint marks and brushstrokes, which often led him to a curious arbitrariness and ambivalence in his disconnected, barely modeled paint application. Whereas “Red-Blue-Yellow[Catalogue Raisonné 330] (1972) is a jumble of squiggly brushstrokes, “Abstract Painting” [CR 398–1] (1976) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 432–8] (1978) feature distinct brushstrokes described emphatically while evading emotion. In the earlier painting the scattered gray and white paint lines are most noticeable, while in the later painting the most conspicuous brushstrokes are the intersecting broad areas of blue and yellow. Many of Richter’s early abstract paintings were based on photographic close-ups of paint surfaces.In “July” [CR 526] (1983), narrow strokes of green, broad patches of lightly shaded gray, red, yellow, and scribbles of orange create a composition with sharply discordant colors and textures and unevenly dispersed shapes. Richter has discussed his pursuit of “rightness” in pictorial composition, color, and technique, but this idea about painting seems anachronistic today.  “July” offers an elusive resolution of purely abstract elements rooted in Pop Art’s vivid, gaudy colors.

In “Abstract Painting” [CR 551–6] (1984), swirling streaks of gray and green and broad, thick, slightly modulated brushstrokes of dark green and brown allude to the evocative possibilities of painterly abstraction, but never achieve the potent feeling or genuine sensitivity of Abstract Expressionism because Richter’s technique is not as fluid and elegant. This composition is rather similar to Gottlieb’s Bursts (1957 – 74), except the irregular, brushy forms across the bottom of Gottlieb’s paintings are more nuanced and indicative of the artist’s presence and feeling. Richter is receptive to Lichtenstein’s skepticism about the mystique of painting but does not completely agree with it. The complex relationship between Richter and Abstract Expressionism is apparent if Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 587–5] (1985) is compared to de Kooning’s large abstractions of the late 1950s, such as “Palisade” (1957). In de Kooning’s painting, violently brushed areas of blue, brown, and tan streak, twist, and crash into one another, while Richter’s painting features a large red blotch, spiky black lines, and broadly scraped marks of green. Both have lots of blue and brown, but Richter’s are so smoothly rendered as to suggest a landscape background, while de Kooning fluidly integrates these colors spatially with more spontaneous, liberated rendering and traditional blending of different colors and tones. De Kooning achieves a cohesion of forms, textures, and colors that Richter fails to achieve and probably never attempted. In the de Kooning we sense genuine self-revelation and feeling. This is much less apparent in the Richter, and Pop Art’s filtration of earlier abstraction is the reason.

From 1969 to 1972, Lichtenstein did numerous paintings about mirrors and their reflections that used the Ben-Day dot system and various illustration techniques to explore these complex visual phenomena. These paintings may be mildly satirical comments on Greenbergian modernism’s ideas on the absence of space when total flatness is achieved. This series led to the merging of the mirror surface with the painting surface in works like “Mirror # 3 (Six Panels)” (1971),3 which are purely abstract in their own right. Richter has often explored the picture surface in similar ways. “Abstract Painting” [CR 554–2] (1984) has broad areas of blue, gray, and yellow-green that are smoothly rendered in most areas, except their intersecting, overlapping contours make it seem as if they squirm against one another as they confront or cling to the picture plane. The long, bent marks of green and orange on the left are similar in pictorial effect to the short parallel lines commonly used in illustrations to indicate reflections in mirrors and other shiny surfaces. “Abstract Painting” [CR 630–4] (1987) has rectangular areas of evenly-textured blue and yellow-green applied with a paint roller that engage the picture plane and attempt to merge with it. In the late 1980s and after, with the enormous “January” [CR 699] (1989) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 840–5] (1997), Richter’s fusion of painting and picture plane is virtually complete. Both Lichtenstein and Richter flaunt the mass printing methods that they have employed or imitated. Richter uses squeegees, sponges, wood, and plastic strips to scrape, flatten, abrade, and congeal paint in an even, consistent way over the entire canvas. The use of various implements creates systematic, mechanical effects of textures and colors that mitigate the expressive connection usually expected between a painter and his media.

Warhol demonstrated for Richter some of the most salient aspects of Pop Art, like serial repetition, even dispersal of compositional elements, the blunt presentation of the subject, and the quasi-expressive distortion possible with vivid, garish colors and other visual effects derived from advertising, packaging, and mass printing. Richter absorbed these innovations into a more expressive, abstract mode. He has said he was particularly fascinated with Warhol’s ability to obscure and dissolve images and that he was moved emotionally by his Death and Disasters series. This series consisted of paintings in which Warhol silkscreeened photographs of electric chairs, automobile accidents, suicides, murders, and similarly disturbing subjects onto canvases and probed their meanings by repeating the same photographs, adding vivid colors, blurring, fading, and shifting the photographs while printing them, and altering their scale. Serial repetition and the strict emulation of commercial imagery are first apparent in Richter’s abstractions in his color chart paintings of the late-1960s, in which many small rectangles of single hues are evenly dispersed on the canvas. These were based on color charts produced by paint manufacturers. Although their subject is typical of Pop Art, their flatness, composition uniformity, and large size are just as characteristic of Color Field painting. They are a virtually perfect merger of these separate but concurrent movements.

Warhol’s influence on Richter’s abstract paintings is most apparent in his work of the past 25 years. “Abstract Painting” [CR 758–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 759–1] (both 1992) are two examples of how serial repetition across the composition is the primary visual effect. In the first, silvery gray vertical streaks cling to the picture plane as paler tones between them suggest depth. In the second, a sketchy grid of purple-gray blotches and streaks has the look and feel of an early Warhol silkscreen painting. “Abstract Painting” [CR 795] (1993) is a good example of Richter’s success in combining serial repetition with deliberate fading and blurring. Vertical strips of green, red, blue, and orange rendered as fuzzy, hazy forms create horizontal vibrations on the canvas. This suggests that the painting presents a frame from a film of totally abstract images or a ruined and stained film, forever changing yet never really doing so. Warhol used repetition, fading, and blurring for emotional resonance very effectively in “Marilyn Diptych” (1962),4 creating an elegiac mood appropriate for the untimely death of the actress. Richter often uses blurring and fading in his paintings based on photographs, where their emotional impact is similar. In the past 25 years, he has often used the same pictorial devices in his abstractions to evoke similar emotions.

“Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] (1992) is particularly interesting because it is an expressive abstract image based heavily on what Richter learned from Warhol. It features a grid-like array of white square areas tainted with blue and yellow. Oil paint has been textured methodically but creatively with large brushes and squeegees on the smooth metallic surface to create long, thin lines that make the shapes appear to shimmer and vibrate horizontally. Small areas of bright red are dispersed across the composition; some are rectangular blotches of thick, smooth paint and others are drips and streaks of fluid paint. This manipulation of red conveys a sense of shock, danger, and violence similar to Warhol’s Death and Disasters. A good comparison with Richter’s painting may be made with Warhol’s “Red Disaster,”5 in which a photograph of an electric chair is drenched in red ink and repeatedly printed as blurry in a grid-like arrangement on the canvas. Richter has admitted to his concerns about social malaise, psychological alienation, death, loss, and self-doubt, which he observed during his childhood in post-World War II Germany as the damage done by the war to many Germans became apparent. Warhol’s “Statue of Liberty” (1962),6 is intriguingly similar to Richter’s painting in its emotively suggestive impact. This painting repeats a photograph of the American monument as blurred, hazy, and tilted with empty space on the left while large areas of blue and gray and smaller areas of bright red stain the printed and altered photographs. Warhol has shocked the viewer with the unsettled, endangered, and violated presentation of this American icon. However, his blunt repetition and lack of personal touch ultimately render his meaning uncertain, and our initial emotional response is quickly halted. Warhol said that emotional responses to these provocative and disturbing photographs were neutralized by their abundant reproduction in the news media, that this desensitized viewers to the horrors shown. Richter’s abstract paintings often do very much the same thing.

The vivid, garish, and clashing colors in many of Richter’s abstract paintings were probably inspired by those Pop artists who exaggerated the simplified, bold, and eye-catching qualities of magazine illustrations, posters, signs, and billboards. Rosenquist’s billboard paintings demonstrate how the intense, vibrant, and sensuous qualities of his subjects are made acutely obvious, gaudy, overwhelming, and chaotic through abrupt and improbable juxtapositions of forms, the extreme distortion and intensification of shapes, colors, and textures, and compositions where crowding, overlapping, and bizarre scale play with our recognition and interpretation of the familiar. Richter has known Rosenquist since at least 1970, when they met in Cologne, and he saw his work there and in New York City that year. Some of Rosenquist’s billboard paintings of the 1970s and 1980s are quite similar to Richter’s abstractions from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s. Since the 1970s, Rosenquist has explored an increasingly wider range of subjects, including the cosmic, supernatural, and imaginary, and his style has often become more abstract, with lurid, dazzling, and startling colors as well as extreme, surprising textures that often clash visually.

Richter’s “Clouds” [CR 514–1] (1982) is a large horizontal canvas with broad brushstrokes of dark green across the top, smoother, wider areas of blue across the bottom, and dabs and streaks of orange textured with squeegees and trowels on the right. The most jarring aspect of this painting is that the blue which we would assume is the sky is illogically located in the bottom of the composition, as if the world is upside-down. Such bizarre transformations and dislocations are common in Rosenquist’s paintings and have become more extreme over the years. They are apparent in “Star Thief” (1980), in which a sliced view of a woman’s face, bacon, and various metallic forms float in outer space, and “The Bird of Paradise Approaches the Hot Water Planet” (1989), in which a colorful bird-insect creature passes through layers of thick clouds with the radiant yellow light of a sun filling the space behind it. Richter’s “Pavillion” [CR 489–1] (1982) consists of firmly isolated areas of disparate colors and textures with irregular, barely described contours, including smooth areas of blue and green, mottled lava-like orange, and wavy strokes of gray. This painting seems to contain abstract equivalents to the atomic blasts, clouds, astronauts, and canned spaghetti in Rosenquist’s “F-111” (1964 – 65). Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] (1986) is a tour de force of vivid, explosive colors and extremely rich, sensuous textures, which vary from flowing, lava-like orange on the right to darker tan on the left, plus dry streaks of green and indigo scattered across the composition but mostly gathered in the left and center. A precisely rendered, dark triangular form that resembles a designer’s ruled square juts into the foreground through an opening in these clumps and masses of paint. It is similar to many of Rosenquist’s later paintings in its vivid, lush, and unrealistic textures and colors.

Although Richter’s abstract paintings were affected greatly by the aesthetics of Pop Art, they have no connection to most of the subjects that Pop Art usually explored. Despite being visually related to Abstract Expressionism, they are not particularly spiritual, philosophical, introspective, cathartic, or existential. The best explanation of what they mean actually comes from Richter, but it has long been buried under verbose theory. He has said that these abstract paintings are visualizations of imaginary places and experiences, of what has been conceived and invented by the artistic imagination. This is similar to the changing themes in Rosenquist’s works in the 1970s and 1980s, to his bizarre, fantastic, and dreamlike subjects, although Rosenquist’s paintings have always remained representational. Richter’s pursuit of pictorial “rightness” in his abstract paintings, of organizing and balancing the components of a composition for visual, emotive, and expressive impact, is also essential to their meaning. This is as traditional as it is timeless, but some of his works are clearly more effective than others in this respect. “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] seem to have this elusive pictorial “rightness,” when colors, textures, shapes, and forms come together in an image that is whole, appealing, and captivating.


  1. To see the Richter paintings discussed in this essay, consult
  2. See, respectively,,
  3. See
  4. See
  5. See
  6. For the works by James Rosenquist, see


Herbert R. Hartel, Jr.HERBERT R. HARTEL, JR. received his doctorate in modern, contemporary and American art from the CUNY Graduate Center and his B.A. in studio art and art history from Queens College. He has taught at Hofstra University, Baruch College, John Jay College, and Parsons School of Design. He has published articles in Source: Notes in the History of Art, Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, and New York History, and numerous reviews in The Art Book and Cassone: The Online Magazine of Art. He is particularly interested in 20th century American art, abstraction, and symbolism


The Triumph of Painting



Painting in the Age of the Image

We live in the age of the image. But don’t ask me to define the word: its very elusiveness is of the essence. We talk about image when we want to indicate an appearance that seems somehow detachable from its material support. This is most obvious when we speak of a photographic image: it’s the same image whether it’s presented as a small snapshot or blown up as a big cibachrome, glowing on the monitor of my computer or mechanically reproduced in the pages of a magazine.

It has often been said that the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century changed the nature of painting by withdrawing from it the task of representation that had so long been at its core, thereby enabling the emergence, in the early twentieth century, of a fully abstract art. The initial plausibility of this story, however, should not disguise its falseness. Any mediocre painter of the nineteenth century could depict a person, object or landscape with greater accuracy and vividness than a photograph. (If nothing else, the painter could show the colour of things, hardly a negligible dimension of visual experience.) The real attraction of the photograph – beyond simple economics since a photographic portrait cost a lot less than one in oils – lay not in its capacity for iconic representation but rather in what has been called its indexical quality, that is, the apparent causal connection between an object and its image. The image comes from what it shows, a sort of relic.

Far from irrational, there may be an important truth lurking in this notion of the image as a detachable constituent of the reality it pictures. In any case, it finds an echo not only in the transformation of art since the advent of photography but even in philosophy. In the late eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant taught that we can know, not things in themselves, but rather phenomena, appearances. The ‘thing in itself’ is something whose existence can only be intellectually deduced. The perceiving mind, in this view, is something like an idea of a portrait painter. The subject of the portrait, the sitter, is over there; the painter with his brushes, palette and easel is over here. There is no direct contact between the two of them. Instead, the painter constructs a set of appearances on the canvas that somehow corresponds to the features of the sitter. At the end of the nineteenth century, after the invention of the camera, a different idea of perception became plausible. Henri Bergson declared that we are acquainted with the world not through mere appearances that are somehow different in kind from things in themselves, but through what he called, precisely, ‘images’, which are part and parcel of the real. The mind, for Bergson, is less like a painter than it is like a camera, its sampled images not fundamentally other but simply quantitatively more limited than the ‘aggregate of “images”’ that is reality. Our perceptual apparatus is, one might say, touched by the thing it perceives as the photographic plate or film is touched by the light that comes from the object.

Abstract painting developed under the spell of a philosophy not unlike Kant’s: that the ultimate reality was not the one indicated by the senses, but something intellectually deducible. This was the era of Malevich and Mondrian, and for a long time it seemed misguided to think of modern or contemporary painting primarily in terms of the images it might bear. The most famous and most concise formulation of this view was, of course, Clement Greenberg’s: ‘Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a Modernist picture as a picture first.’ (Subsequently, one began to signal adherence to this dictum simply by adjuring the word ‘picture’, preferring ‘painting’, a usage still in force today.) To look at a painting for its image could only be to lose sight of the painting’s material, physical existence, leading to the absurdities eloquently denounced by Yve-Alain Bois in his well-known essay ‘Painting as Model’, where he lashes into critics who ‘would make Malevich’s Black Square a solar eclipse, Rothko’s late work stylized versions of the Pietà and Deposition, or Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie an interpretation of the New York subway map’. In this view, to think of painting in relation to image was to see it as a form of representation, however veiled, whereas the great abstractionists had shown that painting could have quite other functions.

Of course, images never left painting, not even in the work of sometime abstractionists like Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. In the early eighties, image-based painting took the art world by storm. Yet the renown of the Neo-Expressionists (as that generation of painters was called whether the term suited them or not) was much resented and short-lived. Their work has never had the disinterested critical assessment that, perhaps, may now be possible. It was really a decade later that a new generation of painters began to emerge, more slowly and steadily than the Neo-Expressionists, and gathering real force only late in the nineties – painters like Peter Doig, Cecily Brown, Thomas Scheibitz, or many others whose fascination with images was clearly central to their work. They were clearly up to something other than a simple reversion to the dogmas of the pre-modernist academies. In fact, many of them may have been as much influenced by the work of non-painters like Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley or Jeff Koons as by anything in the history of painting, both Old Master and modern, which they explore freely. Their sometimes earnest, sometimes slackerish technique – at times academic, at others approaching the simplicity of the Sunday painter or the extreme stylisation of the decorator – often seems to recklessly evoke everything that had been off-limits to serious painting. In some of this work one can see parallels in the once despised late work of artists like de Chirico and Picabia.

A criticism too enamoured of the tradition of abstraction, by now threatening to become academic in turn, is ill-equipped to deal with these new manifestations of the image in painting. But so would be a criticism based on the criteria of the Old Masters. The image as we encounter it in contemporary painting is something quite distinct from depiction or representation in European painting before Modernism. Think of all the training in perspective, the investigations of anatomy – the painter was working, in a systematic, indeed almost scientific way to reconstruct pictorially the real world before his eyes, and therefore had to understand not simply its surface but its structure. Contemporary painters, needless to say, do nothing of the sort. Bergsonians without knowing it, they work from a reality that is always already image. The Impressionists were already pointing in this direction when they changed the focus from the self-subsistent object to the shimmering play of its appearances. A more urgent precedent for contemporary painting, however, is the Pop Art of the sixties: Roy Lichtenstein taking comic strips as his models, James Rosenquist mimicking billboards, or Andy Warhol with his grainy news photos. Painters who cultivated the look of the snapshot, like Gerhard Richter or Malcolm Morley, were pursuing similar ends. But notice the difference between the image-consciousness of the painters who have emerged in recent years and that of these elders: taking photographs, comics or billboards as one’s material – simply because they are clearly limited categories of image material – still seems to imply that there could be a realm beyond the image that the artist might otherwise have elected to access: it implies a quasi-polemical choice of the image-realm over some other reality. That’s a polemic today’s painters no longer seem to feel called upon to make. Instead, they find everything to be a matter of images.

Painters like Doig, Marlene Dumas or Luc Tuymans – to name three of the most influential artists at work today – make work that is entirely permeated by a photographic reality, that is, a reality composed of detachable appearances; yet in contrast to Richter or Morley, they feel no need to represent the ‘look’ of the photograph. The painting remains painterly. To say that contemporary painters treat reality as an aggregate of images, in Bergson’s phrase, is not to say that they paint it with neutrality, or with pure aesthetic distance, or without commitment. On the contrary, their engagement with the image is precisely that, a form of engagement, and inevitably conveys an emotional stance, whether it be the piss-taking disdain typical of Tuymans’ saturnine gloom, the airy bemusement that emanates from Sophie von Hellerman’s paintings, Ian Monroe’s sense of claustrophobia, or Cecily Brown’s frenetic urgency. The effects are often uncomfortable. wangechi mutu’s images are images of the body, but always awkward and resistant, while Dexter Dalwood’s are spaces, plausible enough to draw one in but too disjointed to actually inhabit. Much of this work has a syncretic quality that could not have existed without the example of modernist collage, but by folding its disjunctive effect back into paint — an actual heterogeneity of materials is exceptional here, and when it occurs, as in the work of Michael Raedecker or David Thorpe, it represents not the shock of an irruption of the real into art, as it did in different ways for Cubism, Dada and Constructivism, but something more like an incursion of the homely distraction of crafts and hobbies into the artistic field.

This fascination with craft has the same source as the more widespread attraction to painterliness, among today’s younger painters, as opposed to the seamless surface of photorealism: not an overturning of hierarchies between high and low cultures, but a more fundamental concern with a physical involvement in the image. For although it was photography that taught us the modern idea of the image, it is painting that allows us to internalise it. It’s a question of touching and being touched. The photograph may have been touched by the light of its object, but the sense of contact is entirely subsumed in the seamlessness of the photograph’s surface. Painters like Dumas and Tuymans, and so many others who freely interpret photographic imagery, are attempting neither to disguise its photographic basis in order to retain an aesthetic effect, nor to reproduce the appearance of the photograph in order to neutralise it. Their strategy is not essentially different from that of colleagues who may not directly use photographs in the work process but who nevertheless treat the world they paint as wholly image. The surface of painting, then, is for current painting something that partakes neither of the homogeneity of the photographic emulsion nor the heterogeneity of collage. It is a place where both differences and similarities are consumed. In a way, Schutz’s painting Face Eater (2004), can be taken as a paradigmatic painting of the moment. With its evident allusions to Picasso and Bacon, it clearly signals its art-historical allegiances, but the painting wears its citations lightly – the paintings of the two modern masters, and notably those of Bacon which are themselves based on photographic vision, are simply part of Schutz’s image-world. It is hilarious and terrifying at once. A head tries to swallow itself and in the process it does not disappear, but the senses become confused: the mouth sees by consuming the organs of vision, the eyes feast on their own imminent consumption. Is this an emblem of the artist’s solipsism? Not necessarily. The painting declares itself to be – borrowing a resonant phrase from the literary theorist Stanley Fish – a self-consuming artefact, but does consumption really take place? Not really. Instead, we are shown a commotion of the senses that seems as pleasurably seductive as it may be neurotic. To look at it is practically to feel one’s own teeth start reaching up to bite the upper lip. It’s an image about interiorising as image even oneself. And in that image, touching reality.


The Triumph of Painting

The Mnemonic Function of the Painted Image

Alison M. Gingeras

‘Not being remembered at all: this has, in the end, been the fate of the subjects of most photographs.’ Geoffrey Batchen

The desire to ensnare and preserve memory is a fundamental human pursuit. Photography, with its capacity to indexically depict the world, long seemed to surpass painting as the optimal tool for capturing the fleeting instant. Yet amid the overabundance of photographically generated images in the world today, photography has slowly revealed its limits. The advent of photography has taught us that memory is not precise; it is nebulous, malleable, ever-changing. The sharpness and precision of camera-made images conflicts with the way the human brain remembers. As photo historian Geoffrey Batchen provocatively argues the ‘straight’ photograph has always been an insufficient vehicle for memory. Over the course of the medium’s popularization, people have found ways to transform photographs into objects by adorning them with paint, elaborately framing them, incorporating them into jewellery or devotional objects. The aim of making these hybrid photo-objects is to ‘enhance their memory capacities’ through sensorial manipulation. These embellishments ‘counteract the fact of death’, and aid the photograph in its struggle against being forgotten by the living.

Certain contemporary painters have long since understood the mnemonic insufficiency of the photograph and have capitalized on their own medium’s strength in this domain. The painted image, with its material sensuality, tactility, and atmospheric possibilities, corresponds more closely to the imprecision of the human brain’s mnemonic functions. Memory is often triggered by the banal, by otherwise vacant or impressionistic details that prompt the senses through association. Painted images – precisely because they lack the pictorial authority and truth-telling capacity of photography – can more easily trigger a free play of association or become a catalyst for a web of connections that relate to the viewer’s own memory bank. Inverting the photograph’s claim to instantaneity, the painstaking, artisanal nature of a painting’s own making metaphorically relates to the mental intensity and time required by the act of reminiscence. As curator Russell Ferguson has surmised, ‘with photography in command of specificity, advanced painting seeks ambiguity.’

Artists such as Wilhelm Sasnal and Kai Althoff have seized upon the mnemonic potential of painting to weave together hybrid tableaux, conflating personal stories and collective events. Living and working in Poland, Sasnal culls his subjects from several recurrent categories: architectural structures, organic/plant forms, portraiture (most frequently he paints his wife Anka), film stills (often appropriated from Polish cinema), album and book covers. Rarely painting from life, the camera’s lens is what consistently mediates Sasnal’s source imagery. Sasnal’s stylistic range is as varied as are his sources for inspiration; in any single exhibition, his work can run the gamut of pop, photorealism, informal minimalism and gestural abstraction, among others. He uses these different painterly techniques and styles to transform and elevate his photographic source images into cryptic signs, powerful emblems and poetic pictures. Mixing the historical and personal with the random and trivial, Sasnal creates a pictorial rebus that is simultaneously accessible to the viewer and yet remains deeply subjective. Each picture is like a jump cut, taking the viewer back and forth in time and space, from near present to distant past, bird’s eye view to microscopic close-ups that dissipate into abstraction. This telescoping in-and-out resembles the way the human mind retains and transforms memories, converting them into a string of ever-mutating images.

Like Sasnal, the Cologne-based artist Kai Althoff’s work is driven by an inextricable mélange of intimate fictions and allusions to Germany’s highly charged history. Althoff channels his obsession with adolescence, homoeroticism and utopian communities into an astounding formally and materially varied oeuvre. His best-known series entitled Impulse (2001) is drenched in narratives and imagery taken from Germany’s collective memory. German folklore, Prussian military regalia, as well as Catholic mysticism have directly inspired his iconography. His compositions are mostly populated by a series of androgynous characters in period settings and dress – often illustrating the artist’s own alter egos. The figures and scenes that are depicted in Impulse are rendered with great dexterity; not only do their costumes and uniforms evoke the First World War, but they strategically recall the style and draftsmanship of such early twentieth century German artists as George Grosz and Kathe Kollwitz. These stylistic borrowings are as much a self-conscious acknowledgement of art historical antecedents as they are part of Althoff’s mnemonic alchemy.

Three young German artists – Franz Ackermann, Thomas Scheibitz and Dirk Skreber – combine the languages of figuration and abstraction in their painting to explore a different aspect of public memory. Less narrative and personal than Althoff or Sasnal, these three artists have each developed a unique conceptual procedure (as well as signature style) that allows them to investigate universal experience and collective consciousness. An inveterate voyager, Ackermann records his journeys around the globe in the form of dense, pop-flavoured canvases that often incorporate sculptural elements or photographic collage. Entitling these works ‘Mental Maps’ or ‘Evasions’, Ackermann translates his physical and mental experiences into a painted atlas of a world that is both real and imagined. While his renderings contain numerous recognizable fragments – such as architectural motifs, sprawling urban plans, silhouetted skyscrapers and dynamic transportation networks – his picture planes equally contain passages of exuberant abstraction. Ackermann’s shrilly-fluorescent palette and undulating forms echo the fleeting impressions of the tourist/traveller who is incapable of verbalizing their experiences when they return home. Ackermann treats the canvas as a privileged site to exorcise his memories, though his cartographic recollections are open-ended enough to allow the viewer to project their own urban reminiscences. In essence, on each viewing one recomposes Ackermann cartographies according to his or her own experience.

By merely travelling around the corner to the newsagent’s shop, Thomas Scheibitz has amassed a vast archive of human experience. His countless clippings of found images appropriated from the deluge of mass media publications serve as the basis of his canvases. Scheibitz takes the most banal of singular objects – a suburban house, a flower, a man’s face – and formally manipulates them into semi-abstract compositions. Using a sickly, glacial palette of purples, pinks, blues, yellows and greens, Scheibitz subjects remain somewhat recognizable, though the abstraction process produces an alienating effect. Instead of romanticizing the mnemonic potential of ordinary consumer products, Scheibitz uses painting to distil them into cold, cerebral objects of contemplation. Scheibitz has often compared his practice with scientific research in the area of ‘public memory’. Having read about a series of experiments in which brain specialists recorded the patterns in neural activity of human subjects when hearing certain commonplace words, Scheibitz sees his choice of prosaic imagery as a similar exercise in stimulating our universal consciousness.

Dirk Skreber similarly fuels his painterly practice with collective experience, though his interest veers towards a more visceral terrain. With the saturation of twenty-four hour news channels and the endless stream of infotainment available on the Internet, the spectacle of disaster – whether natural or man-made – has become one of the most banal forms of experience in contemporary life. Painting on a monumental scale and using aerial compositional techniques that mimic the P.O.V. of surveillance cameras, Skreber portrays gruesome car crashes, floods of biblical proportion and impending train wrecks with a cold-blooded fascination. Yet unlike Warhol, Skreber’s preoccupation with death and disaster does not seem to be lifted from a mass media source. Instead, Skreber’s lushly painted images of catastrophe seem to be distilled from our collective nightmares. These disembodied images are like phantom memories, not based in actual events but part of the universal experience of contemporary life.

Albert Oehlen, who occupies the dual role of ‘senior’ artist and agent provocateur in this loose agglomeration, uses his vast knowledge of painting’s history to debase his own medium. As one of the 80’s proponents of ‘bad painting’ (alongside Martin Kippenberger), Oehlen deliberately pillages from a repertoire of established genres, techniques and idioms to demonstrate the failures of both abstraction and figuration. As Diedrich Diederichsen has written of Oehlen, ‘If [he] was to rise above the contemporary criticism of painting’s viability as a practice, he would have to work in the embattled medium: to create the object criticized. He wanted to do three things: to demystify the painting process, presenting it as a series of tricks and ruses; not only to present this critique but almost to ‘say’ it, since he believes that painting functions like, and indeed is, a language; and to create objects that were clearly paintings yet that could speak without illusion, and without constant mystification.’ In order to achieve these ambitious goals, Oehlen uses the memory of his own medium against itself, to deflate painting’s own mythology in order to rebuild it anew.

Once threatened by the advent of photomechanical devices, painting has struggled against slipping into irrelevancy, in the same way that human beings grapple with the possibility of being forgotten. Yet since the contemporary viewer has become so saturated with camera-made images, hyperrealistic forms such as photography and film have become banal and ineffective. Painting has regained a privileged status. The medium’s tactility, uniqueness, mythology and inherent ambiguities has allowed painting to become an open-ended vehicle for both artist and viewer to evoke personal recollections, to embody collective experience and reflect upon its own history in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Geoffrey Batchen, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2004, pp. 96 – 97.

Russell Ferguson, The Undiscovered Country, Los Angeles, The Armand Hammer Museum of Art, 2004, p. 18.

Diederich Diederichsen, ‘The Rules of the Game: An interview with Albert Oehlen’, Artforum, November 1994.


Peggy Guggenheim Dossier








Women in the arts: Peggy Guggenheim

Art-collecting trailblazer

Women in the arts: Peggy Guggenheim

American art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim played a major role in promoting influential modernist art in the first half of the twentieth century

Born in 1898, Jewish American Marguerite ‘Peggy’ Guggenheim hailed from a wealthy New York mining family of Swiss origin on her father’s side, while her mother came from a prominent banking family. Tragically, her father, Benjamin, was one of the ill-fated passengers who died on the Titanic in 1912.

In her early twenties, Guggenheim began working at a book shop, the Sunwise Turn, where she was swiftly embraced by a wide circle of intellectual and artistic types. It was in these circles that she met her first husband, Laurence Vail, a writer and Dada sculpter whom she married in 1922 and had two children with. From 1921, Guggenheim lived in Paris, mixing with bohemians, avant-garde artists and American expats. Among these acquaintances were artists Constantin Brancusi and Marcel Duchamp and poet and journalist Djuna Barnes, who would become her lifelong friends.

Women in the arts: Peggy Guggenheim

Said to have a voracious sexual appetite (particularly for artists), Guggenheim left her husband Vail in 1928 for an English intellectual John Holms, who died tragically young in 1934 and is said to have been the love of her life. In January 1938, she opened an art gallery in London – Guggenheim Jeune – and began a career that would nurture some of the most prominent post-WWII artists of the time. Case in point: her first art show featured prolific French playwright, artist and director Jean Cocteau, while her second featured Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky.

In 1939, tiring of her gallery, she began purchasing contemporary masterpieces by artists like Francis Picabia, Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí and Piet Mondrian. Seemingly oblivious to the war around her, Guggenheim continued acquiring works until she was forced to flee Nazi-occupied France in 1941. After returning to New York with soon-to-be second husband Max Ernst (a German artist), Guggenheim began scouting for a site for her modern art museum, while continuing to collect Cubist, abstract and Surrealist art. By the time Art of This Century opened in 1942, Guggenheim’s collection and exhibition rooms were viewed as the most extraordinary and forward-thinking in New York.

Women in the arts: Peggy Guggenheim

Women in the arts: Peggy Guggenheim

Guggenheim went on to champion American Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. In 1947, Peggy returned to Europe and in 1948 her by-now impressive modern art collection was exhibited at the Venice Biennale. She soon bought and moved into Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal in Venice, the space that now houses the famous Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Opening her house during summer to the public from 1951, Guggenheim continued to exhibit her works in Europe and New York until her death, aged 81, in 1979. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is considered one of the most important museums in Italy for its collection of European and American art from the first half of the twentieth century.


The New York Times
March 1, 1987


When Peggy Guggenheim started her gallery, ”Art of This Century,” in the wartime year of 1942, no one was standing on line to buy avant-garde art. But that didn’t faze this flamboyant apostle of the new, who at the gallery’s opening wore one earring by Calder and one by Tanguy to demonstrate her equal regard for abstraction and Surrealism.

In the dramatically innovative arena on West 57th Street, created by the architect Frederic Kiesler, she counterpointed the work of such European stars as Arp, di Chirico, Giacometti and Picasso with that of then unknown American talents: Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. She was the first and prime patron of the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement, and her gallery thus played a key role in New York’s displacement of Paris as the capital of modern art. During its five-year run on 57th Street, ”Art of This Century” mounted more than 50 exhibitions. Among them was a show devoted to collage, for which Peggy invited Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and William Baziotes to submit work. Neither Pollock nor Motherwell had made collages before; Motherwell today credits the ”identity” he found in the collage medium to her initiative. Two exhibitions were devoted entirely to women artists (among them the ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee, who contributed a self-portrait); one show explored the relationship between insane and Surrealist art, and no less than four solo shows were devoted to the gallery’s rising star, Jackson Pollock. He had been working at the Guggenheim Museum as a carpenter, and came to Peggy’s attention through Howard Putzel, one of her close advisers, and the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta. In her autobiography, ”Out of This Century,” she wrote that Pollock ”immediately became the central point” of her gallery. And until she returned to Europe in 1947, settling in Venice, she devoted herself to promoting the work of the artist who, in her eyes, was ”to become, strangely enough, the greatest painter since Picasso.”

Now, 40 years after the closing of ”Art of This Century” in 1947, the Guggenheim Museum – founded by Peggy’s uncle Solomon – is paying tribute to her ”profound influence on the art world of her time.” On Friday it will open ”Peggy Guggenheim’s Other Legacy,” (through May 3) a show of some 60 works of painting and sculpture originally exhibited at ”Art of This Century,” or given by her to institutions across the country in an effort to spread the gospel of modernism. (The ”other legacy” in the show’s title refers to these works, as distinct from Peggy’s own collection of modern paintings ensconced in her Venetian palazzo and given to the Guggenheim Museum. at her death in 1979.) It’s not easy to realize today the impact of the gallery – and Peggy’s donations – on the public acceptance of modern art in this country. At a time when – despite the inroads made by the Museum of Modern Art – the avant garde was still considered suspect by most right-thinking people, even in Manhattan, ”Art of This Century” was a vigorous outpost for the new and controversial. Harboring a rich mix of refugee artists from Europe and ambitious local vanguardsmen, its ”erratic setting” – recalls Fred Licht, adjunct curator of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and co-organizer of the exhibition with Melvin P. Lader – provided ”a recklessly liberal point of encounter and discussion. One never knew which artist would be arguing loudly with what other artist or critic.” The idea was conveyed, he adds, ”that contemporary and indeed all art was not simply to be enjoyed, respected, admired and studied. It could and should give rise to further adventures, to polemics, to the expression of still more, still newer ideas.”

Not content with showing new work in New York, Peggy tried to extend the gallery’s sphere of influence from 57th Street to the rest of the country. Among other works, she gave away some 20 Pollocks, which she later regretted. One of her more difficult bestowals was that of a 1943 Pollock mural 23 feet long and 6 feet wide, painted for the entrance hall of her apartment. ”It consisted of a continuous band of abstract figures in a rhythmic dance painted in blue and white and yellow,” she writes, ”and over this black paint was splashed in drip fashion.” When she decided to donate it as a ”seed gift” to the University of Iowa in 1948, university officials jibbed at the shipping and insurance costs of $100, and wondered whether they could find a suitable place for it. Finally they concluded it would be ”useful for teaching purposes.” Yet a decade later, in 1961, they politely refused Peggy’s bid to exchange the mural for a Braque still life.

Other gifts went to such places as the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Seattle Art Museum. When the Seattle museum’s curator, Edward B. Thomas, visited Peggy at her palazzo in 1954, she took to him immediately. Turning away from a pompous visitor who was considering a work for purchase, Peggy said to Thomas in a stage whisper, ”Stick around, honey, and I’ll give you one.” When the visitor left, she offered the curator his pick of five Jackson Pollocks. Later Thomas noted that this gift and others from Peggy helped ”underline the need to expand the museum’s modern holdings,” and that their quality and the prestige of the giver provided ”an excellent inducement to other collectors to become involved in the museum.”

When she unveiled ”Art of This Century” here in 1942, Peggy was in effect a wartime refugee from Europe, where she had cavorted wildly for more than 20 years. As the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim, the copper-mining heir – he died in the Titanic disaster of 1912 – she had grown up in considerable luxury on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But, rebelling against the longueurs of life amid New York’s Jewish upper crust she fled to Europe in 1921, a well-heeled Bohemian ripe for love and adventure. She fell in with such glamorous expatriates as Djuna Barnes and Man Ray – who took a famous photograph of her – and married a tempestuous young painter, Laurence Vail, by whom she had two children.

Several liaisons later, in the late 1930’s, Peggy was in London, free for the moment of husbands and lovers, and rather bored. Neither ”creative” nor terribly intellectual herself, but surrounded by people who were, she took up a friend’s suggestion that she open a gallery of modern art. She was undaunted by her minimal knowledge of the subject, since she had as a mentor no less than the artist Marcel Duchamp, whom she had met in Paris. Though the London gallery – called Guggenheim Jeune – only lasted for a brief time, it mounted some vivid shows, among them the first presentations in England of Kandinsky and the Surrealist Yves Tanguy. It put on sculpture and collage exhibitions that included the work of Pevsner, Moore, Picasso, Schwitters and Miro. And it also paid attention to young, unknown English artists such as the abstractionist John Tunnard.

Duchamp, as Peggy noted, not only taught her the difference between Surrealism, Cubism and abstract art, but introduced her to artists and more or less took charge of the show’s arrangements and installations. And willy-nilly, Guggenheim Jeune spurred her into collecting. ”Gradually I bought one work of art from every show I gave, so as not to disappoint the artists if I were unsuccessful in selling anything,” she wrote. ”In those days, as I had no idea how to sell and had never bought pictures, this seemed to be the best solution and the least I could do to please the artists.”

Concerned over the gallery’s money losses, Peggy opted out, after a year and a half, to involve herself in a far more ambitious project – a museum of modern art. She asked Herbert Read (later Sir Herbert), then editor of what Peggy saw as the ”stuffy” but highly respected Burlington Magazine and the leading authority in England on modern art, to become its director. ”He treated me the way Disraeli treated Queen Victoria,” Peggy reported. Together, the two drew up an ideal list of artists whose works they would try to borrow for an opening show. The project came to a halt with England’s entry into World War II. But Peggy kept Sir Herbert’s list (later revised by herself, Duchamp and Nellie van Doesburg, widow of the Dutch abstractionist Theo). With the money she’d set aside to establish the museum, she embarked on an art-shopping spree in Paris. ”My motto was, ‘Buy a picture a day,’ and I lived up to it,” she wrote.

The splendid collection that Peggy thus acquired, despite the onset of the war (”The day Hitler walked into Norway, I walked into Leger’s studio and bought a wonderful 1919 painting from him for $1,000,” she has noted) is today on view, under the auspices of the Guggenheim Museum, at Peggy’s Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, in Venice. But back in 1940, as the Nazis marched toward France, Peggy realized that her acquisitions would be regarded as ”degenerate” art. She shipped them off to a friend’s barn near Vichy; then three days before the occupation of Paris, she left with her children and some friends for a house near Annecy. The pictures were forwarded to her, and stored for a year in the museum at Grenoble by its reluctant director. Finally, in the spring of 1941, packed as ”household goods,” they were shipped to New York. Their owner arrived shortly after, on a Pan American clipper with an entourage of 10 fellow refugees, including the painter Max Ernst, with whom she was shortly to share a brief and tumultuous marriage.

With Ernst, his son Jimmy, and her daughter Pegeen, she traveled all over the country trying to find a proper place for the Peggy Guggenheim museum. Disappointed, the party came back to New York, where in 1942 she commissioned Kiesler to design ”Art of This Century,” a combination ”museum” and commercial gallery which would display her collection as well as temporary shows of European and American art. The results were suitably spectacular. A gallery for Surrealism had flashy lighting and concave walls with wooden arms projecting from them on which to hang pictures. In the Cubist gallery, there was cooler illumination and a system of ropes and wedges to support the pictures and sculptures. Displayed in this manner, the works from Peggy’s own collection served as a background for the new American art she sought out and promoted. ”The only trouble,” Peggy complained, ”was that the decor rivaled the pictures. Kiesler told me I would not be known for my collection in the future, but for his installation.”

She saw the gallery, she wrote in its first press release, as ”a center where artists will be welcome and where they can feel that they are cooperating in establishing a research laboratory for new ideas.” And as New York became the temporary home for such creative refugees as Breton, Tanguy, Mondrian, Duchamp, Lipchitz, Ernst, Chagall, Matta, Archipenko, Masson and others, ”Art of This Century” became a magnet for the avant garde. The presence of the European elders, Peggy noted, greatly stimulated the young American talents who came to the gallery. Some of the first works by ”unknowns” were represented at the collage show in 1943, and Motherwell and William Baziotes had their first sales, to the Baltimore collector Sadie May.

At the first of three annual spring salons, judged by among others, Duchamp, Mondrian and Peggy, Pollock scored with the jury, and became the first and only artist to whom Peggy offered a contract. The penniless young artist got $150 a month, plus a settlement at the year’s end determined by the sale of his paintings. His monthly stipend was later raised to $300, and soon Peggy had so many Pollocks she didn’t know what to do with them. Not forseeing the enormous sums his work would eventually bring, she gave many of them away. ”Now it all makes me laugh,” she wrote in her autobiography. ”I had no idea what Pollock paintings would be worth. I never sold one for more than $1,000. When I left America in 1947, not one gallery would take over my contract. And so now Lee (Pollock’s widow) is a millionaire, and I think what a fool I was.” In the 1960’s, she sued Mrs. Pollock for $122,000, on the grounds that the artist had defaulted on his promise to give her all works produced during the contract period. But the suit was finally dropped.

Preferring life in Europe, where she had lived for two decades before the war, Peggy closed the gallery in 1947 and settled in Venice. To house herself and her collection, she bought the unfinished Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, built by the Veniers, a patrician Venetian family whose lineage included two doges and who, legend had it, kept lions in the garden. Eventually, she soured on the art scene, its frequenters and its products, writing shortly before her death in 1979, ”I do not like art today. I think it has gone to hell, as a result of the financial attitude. People blame me for what is painted today because I had encouraged and helped the new movement to be born. I am not responsible. In the early 1940’s there was a pure pioneering spirit in America. A new art had to be born – Abstract Expressionism. I fostered it. I do not regret it. It produced Pollock, or rather, Pollock produced it. This alone justifies my efforts.”

Although she was a pioneer, her efforts did not go unheralded at the time. Reviewing Peggy’s closing show in 1947, the burgeoning critic Clement Greenberg wrote: ”In the three or four years of her career as a New York gallery director, she gave first showings to more serious new artists than anyone else in the country. I am convinced that Peggy Guggenheim’s place in the history of American art will grow larger as time passes and as the artists she encouraged mature.” He was not wrong.




The priceless Peggy Guggenheim

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

In just eight years, Peggy Guggenheim changed the face of 20th-century art – and her life, both public and intimate, was as radical as her collection. John Walsh salutes a true original

It was said that she had a thousand lovers in her life, and that she received her most thorough grounding in modern art when she spent a night and a day in bed with Samuel Beckett, interrupted only by her demands that he go out and find some champagne. People murmured that Peggy Guggenheim went to bed with so many men (and occasionally women) because it boosted her self-esteem and made her less conscious of her huge, potato-shaped nose. She loved art and sex in about equal measure, but she was also turned on by fame. Asked why she loved Max Ernst, the great Surrealist painter whom she married in 1941, she replied: “Because he’s so beautiful and because he’s so famous.”

In the high-rolling, modern-Medici world of 20th-century art patronage and art collecting, Peggy Guggenheim was unique. She collected art like nobody else, picking up items that didn’t sell, and works for which there was, as yet, no market, just because she loved them. She bought art, not as an investment, but because she saw something that her own eyes told her was great. She discovered Jackson Pollock when he was a humble carpenter in Solomon Guggenheim’s museum, and gave him his first exhibition in 1950 at the Museo Correr in Venice. But her years spent in actual acquisition were, in fact, few: about 1938 to 1940 in England and France; and 1941-46 in America.

“Eight years collecting in a lifetime of 80 years,” wrote her biographer, Anton Gill, “is not much, especially when one looks at the career of Edward James, or Walter Arensberg or the Cone sisters or Katherine Dreier … Had her private life been less colourful, would what she did for art seem less interesting?” Seldom has a figure in the art world appeared so schizoid about her commitment to the actual work. When her autobiography Memoirs of an Art Lover was published, critics noted with disapproval that, in its 200 pages, art doesn’t get a mention until page 110.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of Solomon R Guggenheim’s fabled New York art gallery, and this autumn marks the 80th anniversary of the very first museum to bear the Guggenheim name. Solomon, Peggy’s philanthropist uncle, rented a large automobile showroom on New York’s Park Avenue and called it the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Within a few years, he was looking for a more permanent venue for his collection of modern art, and signed up Frank Lloyd Wright to design a “temple of spirit”. The result, a fantastic, spiral-curved building now called the Samuel R Guggenheim Museum, New York, opened to gawping tourists on 21 October 1959, the first permanent museum to be built (rather than converted from a private house) in the United States. Since then, sister museums have been built in Bilbao, Berlin and Las Vegas. But it’s the smallest of them, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, that continues to capture the imagination of art lovers. And 40 years after the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni was opened to the public, on the death of its owner, as the Venice Guggenheim, she remains both an enigmatic and a melancholy figure.

Peggy Guggenheim was the original poor little rich girl, born in 1898 to fabulous wealth in New York City. Her father Benjamin was one of seven brothers of Swiss-German provenance who, along with their father Meyer Guggenheim, made a fortune from smelting metals, especially silver, copper and lead. Peggy’s mother Florette Seligman, came from wealthy banking stock.

Peggy’s education in modern art began in New York in 1920. She was 22, and had inherited from her dead father (who went down with the Titanic in 1912) enough money to supply her, via a trust fund, with an income of $22,500 a year. Anxious to find a job that took her outside her immediate circle of rich friends, she found a job at an avant-garde bookshop, The Sunwise Turn on 44th Street. She swung the job via a family connection, a cousin called Harold Loeb, a fair-to-good painter, writer, man of action and womaniser who was in Paris with the “lost generation” of American émigrés about whom Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises. Through Loeb, Peggy met several members of the generation, including Scott Fitzgerald – and was introduced to Alfred Steiglitz, the photographic pioneer and impresario of the avant-garde.

His gallery on Fifth Avenue was where she encountered the work of Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse: it was their first exposure to the American public. There Peggy also had her first sighting of the work of Steiglitz’s future wife, Georgia O’Keeffe – and met Laurence Vail, a writer who was part of the new boho swing of Greenwich Village.

In the 1920s, Peggy went travelling in Europe, discovered Paris and stayed there, on and off, for 22 years. From the start, her predominant interests were art and sex. “I soon knew where every painting in Europe could be found,” she wrote in her autobiography, “and I managed to get there, even if I had to spend hours going to a little country town to see only one.” She also took to acquiring lovers at a ferocious rate. In her autobiography she explains that, when she was young, her many boyfriends were too respectable to have sex with her; but she had discovered (at 23) photographs of frescoes from Pompeii: “They depicted people making love in various positions, and of course I was very curious and wanted to try them all out myself.” Laurence Vail was startled by her forwardness. He visited her at home in Paris, when her mother was out, made a sexual pass and was taken aback by how readily she said “Yes”. He backtracked, saying that, since her mother might come home at any moment, it might be better if Peggy came to his hotel sometime. She fetched her hat and said: “How about right now?” They married two years later and had two children, Sindbad and Pegeen.

In Paris they immersed themselves in arty circles, befriending Djuna Barnes, the lesbian author of Nightwood, published by TS Eliot at Faber & Faber, Constantin Brancusi, the sculptor whose work she collected, and Marcel Duchamp, the great Surrealist. But the marriage broke up in 1928 when she met an English intellectual called John Holms, a one-time war hero turned writer, who suffered from severe creative blockage and published only one story in his career. Theirs was a tempestuous and short-lived marriage: their home in Bloomsbury was often riven with furious rows, drunken harangues and accusation of infidelity, during which, Peggy writes in her autobiography, “he made me stand for ages naked in front of the open window (in December) and threw whiskey into my eyes”. (She was remarkably unlucky with her lovers. Laurence Vail was similarly theatrical. “When our fights worked up to a grand finale,” she reported, “he would rub jam into my hair.”)

Peggy Guggenheim’s annus mirabilis was 1938. Inspired by the groundbreaking, indeed earthshaking, surrealism exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1936 – derided by the British press but unexpectedly popular with the general public – and the encouragement of her friend Peggy Waldheim (“I wish you would do some serious work – the art gallery, book agency – anything that would be engrossing yet impersonal – if you were doing something for good painters or writers … I think you’d be so much better off … ”) she hit upon the idea of starting a gallery dealing in modern artists. She’d met many artists through her first husband. Her uncle Solomon had put together a priceless collection of Old Masters, but she could collect new work for a much more modest outlay. And she genuinely loved the company of artists and writers. She began to look for a suitable space, helped by Humphrey Jennings, the documentary-maker who filmed Auden’s “Night Mail” for the GPO Film Unit, and Marcel Duchamp. As they fixed on No 30 Cork Street, Duchamp gave her some basic lessons in modern art. “Peggy had to be shown the difference between what was Abstract and what was Surrealist,” writes her biographer Anton Gill, “and between the ‘dream’ Surrealism of, for example, Dali or Di Chirico and the ‘abstract’ Surrealism of, say, André Masson. She was an eager and quick learner, showing a natural affinity and sympathy for what she saw.”

Also helpful was Samuel Beckett, who was then living in Paris as secretary/amanuensis to James Joyce. He and Peggy met on Boxing Day 1939 at Bosquet’s restaurant, at a dinner thrown by Joyce. Beckett escorted Peggy home to her apartment in St Germain-des-Pres, came in, lay on the sofa and asked her to join him. It’s one of the few recorded instances of the Beckett seduction technique. They were thrown together for 12 days, in which he persuaded her to stop worrying about Old Masters and concentrate on collecting modern artists.

So the marriage of money and art came together. Duchamp’s friendship supplied a heady throng of top-class artists for Peggy to meet: he introduced her to Jean Cocteau, who wrote the introduction to his exhibition. Beckett translated it and introduced her to Geer Van Velde, the Dutch artist. Meanwhile, Beckett revealed an unexpected |love for driving fast in her whizzy sports cars. And the society heiress was gradually |transformed into the boho queen of the European art world.

The gallery, christened Guggenheim Jeune, opened on 24 January 1938, with 30 drawings by Jean Cocteau. Two large linen sheets, sent over from Paris, displayed a group of figures with their genitals and pubic hair on display: they were confiscated and detained, of all unlikely places, in Croydon airport until Peggy and Duchamp could hurry to south London to have them released.

As the year rolled by, Peggy’s gallery grew in stature. She gave Wassily Kandinsky his first-ever London show, then an exhibition of contemporary sculpture featuring works of Henry Moore, Hans Arp, Brancusi, Alexander Calder and Anton Pevsner.

Despite the speed of her gallery’s success, Peggy grew tired of temporarily showcasing the work of certain artists. Inside a year, she became excited by “the idea of opening a modern museum in London”, and organising it on historic |principles. She would decide in advance which artists and schools would feature in it, and then go out and acquire them. As her guiding influence, she turned to Herbert Read, the art critic, and asked him to draw up a wish-list of all the artists he thought should be represented. As the whole of Europe trembled on the brink of war, Peggy Guggenheim set out on her tremendous cultural crusade. She boldly resolved to “buy a picture a day”. She bought Surrealist works by Dali, Cubist works by Braque and Picasso, geometric designs by Mondrian and Fernand Léger (whose Men in the City she bought on the day Hitler invaded Norway. The painter said he was “astonished by her sang froid”.) In the winter of 1939 and spring of 1940 she bought work by Miro, Picasso and Max Ernst in dizzying succession. She patrolled the ateliers of Paris, snapping up minor masterpieces for a song. She bought Brancusi’s soaring sculpture Bird in Space in Paris, even as the German army advanced on the capital.

The invasion effectively closed down her operations. With the über-Surrealist Max Ernst (whom she later married and divorced in two years), she finally fled occupied France in July 1941 and headed for her beloved New York. She lost no time in finding a new home for her purchases.

In October 1942, her museum-gallery, Art of This Century, opened in Manhattan, exhibiting all her Cubist, Abstract and Surrealist acquisitions. For the opening night, she wore, according to Anton Gill, “one earring made for her by Calder and |another by Yves Tanguy, to express her equal commitment to the schools of art she supported”. The work of leading European artists flowed through her gallery, along with unknown young Americans: Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Janet Sobel, Clyfford Still – and the gallery’s star attraction Jackson Pollock. In Ed Harris’s 2000 film Pollock, in which Guggenheim was played by Amy Madigan, it was suggested that artist and patron had an affair; in fact he’s a rare sighting of an artist who slipped through Peggy’s fishnets; she didn’t fancy him because he drank too much. But she supported him with monthly handouts and sold his work: she commissioned his largest painting, Mural, and gave it away to the University of Iowa. Without Peggy’s generous patronage, it’s doubtful whether the American abstract Expressionist movement would have survived as it did.

Then, after the war, she discovered Venice. In 1948 her collection was exhibited at the Venice Biennale – the first time that Pollock, Rothko and Arshile Gorky had been seen in Europe. The fact that she’d brought them together with all the European masterpieces bought in the early years of the war made her complete collection a paradigm of Western modern art.

A year later, she bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, and held an exhibition of her sculptures in the gardens. The |reputation of her collection grew as it was toured across Europe, and shown in Florence, Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels and Zurich, before setting up its permanent home in the Palazzo. |From 1951, she opened her house and collection to the general public every summer, though |she kept adding to it over the next 30 years. She donated the palace and her collection to the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, but the |collection remains where it is, a cynosure for |art-loving tourists.

She died on 23 December 1979. Her ashes are buried in a corner of the Palazzo garden, near where her 14 beloved Lhasa Apso dogs are buried. The dogs were a vestigial emblem of the flamboyant, rich-bitch socialite she could so easily have remained, with her family inheritance and ritzy Manhattan haut-monde. But Peggy Guggenheim was something more than that: an art collector who believed that some works are worth keeping safe in the collective cultural memory, protecting them against obscurity, as if it were a noble cause.

Art world: The Guggenheim empire

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

Best known for its building, Bilbao’s Guggenheim is an astonishing architectural feat designed by Frank Gehry. Its series of curved, interconnected shapes are clad in shimmering titanium, while the interior is designed around a large, light-filled atrium with views of Bilbao’s estuary and the surrounding hills of the Basque country. Opened in 1997, the museum has provided a home for large-scale, site- specific works and installations by contemporary artists, such as Richard Serra’s 340ft-long “Snake. Guggenheim Bilbao makes a point of supporting the work of Basque artists, as well as housing a selection of works from the Foundation’s extended collection.

Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin

Opened in 1997, the Deutsche Guggenheim is a joint venture based in the ground floor of the Deutsche Bank building in Unter der Linden, a grand boulevard in the historical centre of Berlin. The 510sq m gallery inside this Twenties sandstone building was designed by Richard Gluckman to provide a clean, clear space for artworks that belong to both the Guggenheim Foundation and the bank itself, which holds the largest corporate art collection in the world. The gallery presents major thematic exhibitions, as well as site-specific commissions by new and established contemporary artists, including John Baldessari, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, and Rachel Whiteread.

Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York

Opened on 21 October 1959, the New York Guggenheim building is an artwork in its own right: a white spiral structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Inside, the museum brings together several private collections, including the “non-objective paintings” belonging to Solomon R Guggenheim, who established the Guggenheim Foundation that still owns the museums that carry its name. Up to 1,150,000 visitors flock each year to the Fifth Avenue museum, which is also home to his niece Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of Abstract and Surrealist works; art dealer Justin K Thannhauser’s masterpieces; and Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo’s large selection of Minimalist, Post-Minimalist and Conceptual art.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum, Saadiyat Island, United Arab Emirates

Currently under construction, the latest Guggenheim will also be the biggest. Another innovative design from the California-based architect Frank Gehry, with clusters of block and cone-shaped connected galleries seemingly piled on top of each other, the 450,000sq ft museum is situated on a peninsula at the north-western tip of Saadiyat Island, adjacent to Abu Dhabi. It will house its own modern and contemporary collections, with a special focus on Middle-Eastern contemporary art, as well a presenting special exhibitions from the Guggenheim Foundation’s main collection.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

Solomon R Guggenheim’s niece, Peggy, bequeathed her collection, and the 18th-century palazzo house in which she had lived since the late 1940s, to the Foundation in 1976. Much smaller in scale than its New York counterpart, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni nonetheless houses an impressive selection of modern art. Its picturesque setting and well-respected collection attract some 400,000 visitors per year. The museum reflects Peggy Guggenheim’s personal interest in a variety of modern styles and schools, from Cubism to Expressionism to Surrealism, and is home to major works by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Piet Mondrian, and Jackson Pollock.


April 1986

Peggy Guggenheim as history

by Hilton Kramer


There is no figure in the history of twentieth-century art more difficult to keep in proper focus than the avid collector—the kind of collector, that is, who specializes in the acquisition of contemporary art. To this strange, hardy breed—more often ridiculed and maligned than admired or understood— we obviously owe much. Without collectors who take an interest in new art and who are willing to lavish significant sums of money on it, the entire life of art in our society would be a very different thing. It would be a much poorer thing, in my opinion, and not only in the strictly financial sense. It is upon such collectors, after all, that artists and their dealers largely depend for their living; and it is to dealers’ exhibitions, let us remember, and to the donations and bequests which collectors make to the museums, that the rest of us owe a large portion of what is important to us in our aesthetic experience. We are all, in a way, the beneficiaries of the collecting enterprise—a fact of cultural life which, except on ceremonial occasions, is seldom accorded the acknowledgement it deserves.

Why, then, is it more or less to be expected that these same collectors will be regarded with considerable suspicion and resentment in their lifetime? There are many good reasons, alas. For one thing, in a buyers’ market—which, despite all the changes that have overtaken the art world, is still the kind of market which the majority of living artists are obliged to deal with—it is not uncommon for collectors to drive very hard bargains. What is worse, collectors often boast about them, too, even while claiming the role of generous and disinterested patron. For another, there are the collectors who clearly invest in contemporary art largely in the hope of making a financial killing at some later date. (The activities of the auction houses in recent years have provided abundant evidence of this practice, and the auction houses represent only the tip of the iceberg in this matter.) Then, too, there are the collectors who are guided less by their aesthetic interests than by their social ambitions, their sexual proclivities, their political affinities, or their fixation on some other extra-artistic obsession. Collectors—even the most enlightened and adventurous among them—tend to be arbitrary in their decisions, fickle in their tastes, and impure in their motives. Their interests are subject to sudden shifts which are seldom purely aesthetic in origin. And it doesn’t add to their appeal that, once their collecting activities are accorded a certain degree of public attention, their egotism is often found to rival and even surpass that of the artists themselves. The grounds for suspicion are indeed not wanting.

Collectors with sufficient money and drive constitute a power, moreover, and power of the particular kind which they are in a position to wield inevitably induces feelings of powerlessness—and thus of resentment, envy, and even outright hatred—among those who are excluded from its immediate benefactions. Around almost every significant collection of contemporary art there sooner or later accumulates a sizable accretion of bruised feelings, failed hopes, and broken promises waiting to be avenged. Like every manifestation of power, that of the collector is therefore a natural object of paranoia, and there is never any shortage of people, both inside the art world and out side it, who are given to nursing their grievances (real or imagined) and plotting their revenge.

On the other hand, it is not unusual for the collectors who are the targets of all this free-floating paranoia and revenge to come to believe that it is they who have been ruthlessly exploited. They aren’t always wrong, either. Human nature being what it is, gratitude tends to be of short-term duration in a rising art market. For all of these reasons, we shall harbor fewer misconceptions about collectors and the role they play in the history of their time if we recognize straightaway that they are not in any sense to be construed as angels.

Some collectors, of course, are in less danger of being misunderstood in this respect than others. Consider the late Peggy Guggenheim, who is now the subject of two very different books. One is a biography by Jacqueline Bograd Weld which leaves no sensational anecdote, no matter how distasteful or repugnant, unrecounted.[1] The other is a vast, scholarly catalogue by Angelica Zander Rudenstine which, while rigorously ignoring the personal affairs of the collector, concentrates with an almost superhuman objectivity on documenting the collection of works of art which Peggy Guggenheim acquired during a particularly crucial period of our history.[2] Peggy Guggenheim was, of course, a notorious character in her day. (She died in 1979 at the age of eighty-one.) Her collection is now preserved as a museum in Venice, Italy, where she lived during the last three decades of her life. Taken together, these two books neatly encompass the twin aspects of her career—the scandalous and the serious—neither of which can be ignored in any attempt to understand the place she once occupied in American cultural life.

In her own lifetime Peggy Guggenheim was praised for her sagacity and courage in recognizing important new talent—most especially, of course, Jackson Pollock’s— while at the same time she was reviled for her stinginess, her pettiness, and her utter lack of anything that could be described as personal morals. That as a collector and a dealer she played a significant role in the formation of the New York School is now universally acknowledged, and her distinction in this regard is in no way diminished by the fact that she availed herself of some excellent advice—what important collector hasn’t?—or that she drove some very hard bargains with the artists she benefited. That she was also, for much of her life, a selfish wretch who left a trail of broken lives wherever her power over others was complete is not to be denied, either. In many respects she was the very archetype of the heiress as a mad egomaniac, using what money she had —in Peggy Guggenheim’s case, it turns out never to have been a huge fortune—to gratify her wayward appetites and impose them on others. In Jacqueline Bograd Weld’s biography we are spared very little in the way of sordid detail about these matters. Yet whatever our judgments may be on Peggy Guggenheim as a woman—and they are bound to be pretty harsh, I think—she was nonetheless one of those people who made a difference in the life of art. What that difference was and how she came to play the role in the life of art that she did is, from our present historical perspective, quite the most interesting thing about her. After all, the world has never lacked for nymphomaniac heiresses or monster egomaniacs of either sex wreaking havoc on those around them; but the art collector represented in Mrs. Rudenstine’s 842-page catalogue remains a rarity even today when, it sometimes seems, every collector of contemporary art seeks to emulate one or another aspect of the Peggy Guggenheim role.

Interestingly, her career as a collector, dealer, and patron was of far shorter duration than the size and fame of her collection might lead one to suppose. Its major phase lasted about ten years, from 1938 to 1948. After that she continued to add works to the collection—Bacon, Boccioni, and Gonzalez in the Fifties, for example, and Dubuffet and Kupka in the Sixties, and slews of Italians during the entire term of her residence in Venice—but, with some notable exceptions, these were not the kind of acquisitions which added real luster to her holdings. Sequestered in Venice in these later years, she was no longer in touch with the most vital artistic currents, and she had begun in any case to think of herself as an historical personage—which in itself is probably fatal as far as taking a continuing interest in new art is concerned. For all practical purposes, then, Peggy Guggenheim’s role as a power in the art world was pretty much limited to a single decade. But what a decade it was!

What also has to be borne in mind is that as an American she belonged to the generation which expatriated itself to Europe in the period between the two world wars. She had gone to Paris in the Twenties, and had quickly become part of the American expatriate community of artists and writers there. If not for the Second World War, it is unlikely that she would have ever returned to the United States to live. The bohemian milieux she frequented in Paris and London clearly suited her, and so did the distance they provided from the oppressive family atmosphere in New York which she had fled as soon as she was able to do so. When she did return to New York in the summer of 1941, she was in some respects as much a foreigner—at least in regard to its art scene —as any of the artist-emigres whose arrival so decisively altered that scene.

In Paris in the Twenties she had met, among others, Marcel Duchamp, Brancusi, Kay Boyle, Jean Cocteau, Malcolm Cowley, Nancy Cunard, Janet Flanner, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Man Ray, Tristan Tzara, and Virgil Thomson.[3] This was her entrée into the world of the international avant-garde, and it stood her in good stead when, years later, she set up as a serious dealer and collector. She opened her first gallery, called Guggenheim Jeune, in January, 1938—not in New York, however, but in London—with Duchamp as her principal advisor. Its inaugural exhibition was devoted to the work of Jean Cocteau— which was not, perhaps, a happy augury. But the gallery’s second exhibition was, for it brought to London the first show ever to be devoted to the paintings of Kandinsky in the British capital. Because nothing in the show was sold, Peggy Guggenheim felt obliged to buy one of the pictures herself, and it was this purchase which marked the beginning of her career as a collector.

Guggenheim Jeune proved to be a shortlived enterprise—it opened on January 24, 1938, and closed on June 22, 1939—but not because of any diminution of interest on the founder’s part. On the contrary, she had quickly decided that a gallery was not sufficient for her ambitions. What she now wanted to establish in London was nothing less than a Museum of Modern Art. Inspired by the existence of the Museum of Modern Art in New York—which had been founded ten years earlier and was just then moving into its first permanent quarters at 11 West Fifty-third Street—she set about this daunting task with that combination of demonic energy, shrewd calculation, and madcap insouciance which was to carry her through some very odd adventures in the years ahead. She persuaded Herbert Read to quit his job as editor of The Burlington Magazine so that he could serve as the director of the new museum, signing him to a five-year contract, and she arranged to rent the London residence of Kenneth Clark for both her own and the museum’s use. The inaugural event was to be a loan exhibition of modern masterworks starting with Cubism and abstraction and ending with Surrealism and other contemporary works. Read was asked to draw up an appropriate list of artists to be represented in this show, and when, owing to the imminence of the war, the project had to be abandoned, she paid Read half the money due him on his five-year contract and set off for the Continent to acquire the proposed list for her own collection.[4] She assumed that sooner or later she would have a museum somewhere.

Was she slightly mad or was she merely an innocent as far as the true political and military situation in Europe that summer was concerned? Probably both, I suspect. About politics Peggy Guggenheim appeared to know nothing and care nothing. What is certain is that, in this matter as in others dear to her heart, she was determined to have her own way—and amazingly, despite Hitler and the expected invasion, she did. Her whirlwind adventures in France, which she did not leave until the summer of 1941, certainly add up to one of the most extraordinary stories of the time. Her goal, or so she claimed, was to buy a work of art every day, and she pretty much did—going to galleries and to the artists’ studios, and seeking out collectors who were eager to sell. And as soon as the word got around, there were plenty of people seeking her out. All in all, she spent about forty thousand dollars, and came away with a staggering hoard of superior works by Brancusi, Giacometti, Léger, Miró, Ernst, Dali, and sundry other members of the School of Paris. Not everyone was charmed by the spectacle, of course. As Jacqueline Weld writes:

One painter . .. from whom Peggy got nothing “but rude remarks” was Pablo Picasso. When Peggy arrived at his studio with her shopping list, hoping to buy one of his most recent pictures, the painter arrogantly ignored her, pointedly talking instead to some other guests. Then, ambling over to Peggy, he said contemptuously, “Lingerie is on the next floor.”

All the same, she managed sooner or later to acquire some very fine Picassos, too, though not from him, and for the most part she did very well indeed.

Was she taking advantage of the artists in a difficult situation? Sensitive to the charge, she afterwards claimed that “I didn’t know anything about the prices of things. I just paid what people told me.” But this was not the whole story, of course. She had, after all, been a dealer—even if she hadn’t sold much. She certainly pressed her advantage where Max Ernst was concerned, acquiring an important cache of pictures for relatively little money. On the other hand, the sale undoubtedly saved his life, enabling him to escape arrest by the Nazis. If the prices she paid for things now strike us as absurdly low, they were not all that different from the prices which such works of art fetched in the peacetime market in the Thirties. It was inevitable that Peggy Guggenheim’s wholesale assault on the French avant-garde art market at that dire historical moment would be resented, yet the whole story is rather wonderful, all the same, and I see no evidence that she caused anyone any injury in the process. She even outsmarted the French authorities by getting her whole collection shipped to America as “household goods” only months before the United States entered the war. The entire episode is like something out of a Henry James novel reinvented by Evelyn Waugh. Unfortunately, Jacqueline Weld isn’t really equal to either the high drama or the real comedy of this bizarre episode, but the essentials of the story are nonetheless recounted in a straightforward manner, and it remains a riveting one in any telling.

Within six months after her return to New York, Peggy Guggenheim was planning the new gallery which proved to be her most celebrated accomplishment. Called Art of This Century and designed by Frederick Kiesler in a highly eccentric style, it quickly established itself as the principal center for the international avant-garde in New York. It was also the place where the New York School made its debut.

Again, she had excellent advice. As Mrs. Weld writes, “Peggy credited men like Alfred Barr and James Johnson Sweeney as her primary influences during those whirlwind days of the 1940s.” Duchamp was also on hand, of course. And by all accounts a now forgotten figure named Howard Putzel, who had already been of help to her in Paris and now came to work at Art of This Century as secretary, advisor, and general factotum, played a major role. He was a real connoisseur of the new art. It was Putzel who recommended Frederick Kiesler to Peggy Guggenheim, and it was he who persuaded her to show Mark Rothko and Hans Hofmann—two painters whose work she really didn’t much care for. Not that she always followed his advice—she refused to give Adolph Gottlieb a one-man show, for example. Opinion appears to be unanimous about her treatment of Putzel: it was wretched. She picked his brain, relied on his judgment, paid him a pittance, made impossible demands on his time and attention, and in general drove him crazy. In the end he left her, of course. He got someone to back a gallery of his own, and it too was distinguished—but it survived for only a season, and he died soon after, probably a suicide. By and large, those who were completely dependent on Peggy Guggenheim did not come to a happy end.

In any event, within three years of opening Art of This Century, the gallery was solidly launched as the flagship of the new American avant-garde.

Many of Howard Putzel’s protégés [Mrs. Weld writes] exhibited in the autumn salon at Art of This Century, opening the 1945 season on October 6: William Baziotes, Julian Beck (who went on to fame as founder of the Living Theater), Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Jim Davis, John Ferren, David Hare, Lee Hersch, Peter Busa, Robert de Niro (the father of the actor), Jerome Kamrowski, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still….

Writing to Herbert Read at the time, she singled out Pollock as “the best of all these new young people,” and added that he “may sometime be as well known as Miró.” She had then been acquainted with Pollock’s work for little more than two years.

Mrs. Weld tells an interesting story about Peggy Guggenheim’s first encounter with a Pollock painting, and—who knows?—it may even be true. If it is, it would give us a clue— though not, I think, the clue—to whatever perspicacity she brought to her artistic judgments. In the spring of 1943, Art of This Century organized a “Spring Salon for Young Artists,” and one of the jurors was Piet Mondrian.

As Peggy and Mondrian waited for the other jury members to arrive, Peggy began to set out the works around the gallery. She noticed Mondrian looking at a picture in the corner—one submitted by Pollock. “Pretty awful, isn’t it?” she asked. “That’s not painting, is it?” Mondrian made no reply, but stood staring. Peggy continued, “There is absolutely no discipline at ali. This young man has serious problems .. . and painting is one of them. I don’t think he’s going to be included. . . and that is embarrassing because Putzel and Matta think very highly of him.”

When he finally spoke, Mondrian told Peggy that it was the most exciting painting he had seen—in Europe or New York—in a very long time. “You must watch this man.” Peggy was stunned. But, she said, “You can’t be serious. You can’t compare this and the way you paint.” “So, don’t compare this,” he replied.

Jimmy Ernst, who claimed to have witnessed this scene, said of Peggy Guggenheim: “She was willing to listen, she was willing to be told, she was willing to see …. You know, there was nothing phony about it. And it was shocking to see those paintings.” Duchamp also served on the jury for that “Spring Salon,” and he disapproved of Pollock. Clearly some instinct told her that Mondrian was right and Duchamp was wrong. So Peggy Guggenheim came around, and soon put Pollock under contract—a rare thing for an American artist at the time, and virtually unheard of for an artist of Pollock’s generation. To be sure, she was characteristically stingy about it, and paid him too a pittance in return for quite a few pictures. But she launched him, all the same.

How are we to account for it? It simply won’t do to claim that she was merely following good advice. The advice, after all, was conflicting, and there was no shortage of artists under recommendation from one or another advisor. Also, it is clear that Peggy Guggenheim didn’t particularly like Pollock as a man, and she liked his wife, Lee Krasner, even less. (The feeling was mutual, to say the least.) So there was no question of a sentimental attachment. Unlikely as it seems from everything else we know about Peggy Guggenheim, I think we must conclude that her decision to back Pollock was based on a disinterested artistic judgment. But even to say this does not quite explain it, either. The only persuasive observation I have ever heard on this subject is one which Mrs. Weld quotes from Clement Greenberg. “Her taste. . . was often erratic and unsure,” Mr. Greenberg remarked. “But she had a flair for life, a sort of smell for life that made her recognize vitality and conviction in a picture. It was surer ground in selecting the new than taste.” It is, I think, the principal flaw of Mrs. Weld’s biography that in a book running to almost five hundred pages she really adds little or nothing to this observation. On the entire question of Peggy Guggenheim’s real relation to the art of her time—the art she exhibited, promoted, and sometimes acquired for herself—Mrs. Weld provides no answers. The subject remains as much an enigma on the last page of Peggy as it is on the first.

Compounding the enigma is the fact that when we turn to Mrs. Rudenstine’s catalogue we find that with the exception of the Pollocks there is really very little of the art of the New York School represented in the Peggy Guggenheim collection. The collection, which contains a great many first-rate works of the European avant-garde, is pretty skimpy on American art. Besides Pollock, only Alexander Calder and Joseph Cornell are represented in any serious way—and Calder and Cornell are closer to the Europeans in spirit than any of the painters of the New York School. For Peggy Guggenheim, clearly, her brief adventure on the New York scene was an enforced furlough, and she quit that scene to return to Europe as soon as it was possible for her to do so. I doubt whether she was then fully aware of what she had accomplished in New York. Later, of course, as the fame of Pollock and other members of the New York School prospered and the prices of their paintings began to skyrocket, she began to feel a little bitter— she felt she had been cheated by the Pollocks and even brought a legal action. Yet in the end her fundamental judgment on the New York School is to be found in the collection. Except for Pollock, she obviously regarded most of it as inferior to her beloved European masters. As a dealer, she is rightly considered a champion of the American avant-garde. When she closed Art of This Century in 1947, Mr. Greenberg wrote in The Nation:

[Peggy Guggenheim’s] departure is in my opinion a serious loss to living American art. The erratic gaiety with which Miss Guggenheim promoted “non-realistic” art may have misled some people, as perhaps her autobiography did too, but the fact remains that in the three or four years of her career as a New York gallery director she gave first showings to more serious new artists than anyone else in the country …. I am convinced that Peggy Guggenheim’s place in the history of American art will grow larger as time passes and as the artists she encouraged mature.

And he was absolutely right, of course. But as a collector Peggy Guggenheim was actually much closer to the other well-healed American collectors of her generation in preferring the work of the Europeans. About this curious paradox, too, Mrs. Weld has little or nothing to tell us. Indeed, one wonders whether she is fully aware that there is a paradox to be pondered in this matter.

In Mrs. Rudenstine’s mammoth catalogue, on the other hand, no issue or fact or document pertaining to the collection is allowed to go unexamined. Not only is every work of art meticuously scrutinized, but Peggy Guggenheim’s entire career as a dealer and a collector is painstakingly documented. Every exhibition and its catalogue is described; many of the most important reviews are excerpted; and in general we are given a vivid and detailed archive of a sort rarely attempted in the field of twentieth-century art. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice is a work of exemplary scholarship and intelligence. With its attention so firmly focused on works of art and their history, moreover, this fine catalogue recalls us to what is finally the real basis of our interest in Peggy Guggenheim—not the scandals and sexual escapades and broken lives, but the art in which she seemed to find an identity that eluded her in every other realm of experience. Is it this, perhaps, that offers us a clue to the mystery of the avid collector?


  1. Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim by Jacqueline Bograd Weld. Dutton; 493 pages, $24.95. Go back to the text.
  2. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice by Angelica Zander Rudenstine. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., & The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; 843 pages, $85 (after June I, $95). Go back to the text.
  3. It was in the Twenties, long before she thought of buying paintings, that Peggy Guggenheim began her career as a patron. It was then that she gave Berenice Abbott, who was working as Man Ray’s assistant, the money which enabled her to set up as a photographer on her own. Money was also given to Jane Heap for the Little Review. And it was in the Twenties that Peggy Guggenheim began providing the writer Djuna Barnes with a regular monthly check—a practice which was continued for the remainder of both their lives. Go back to the text.
  4. About this list Mrs. Rudenstine writes: “The list itself has not, thus far, been located—either among the papers of Herbert Read or among those of Peggy Guggenheim, who believed that the list was lost during World War II. By the 1970s she was unable to recall a single specific work that had been on the list, and it has not been possible to reconstruct it. Indeed, it is not even clear whether the list enumerated individual works or merely artists’ names, although the latter seems more likely.” Go back to the text.

Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) was the founding editor of The New Criterion, which he started with the late Samuel Lipman in 1982.

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Addicted to Art: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

  • Joanna McFarlane

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    Joanna McFarlane
ARTH2057 Joanna McFarlane Essay 2: Peggy Guggenheim U5333531 dedicated herself in the 1940s.
 Her influence in Italy functioned in several ways. She presented a full repertoire of pre-war avant-gardes at the Biennale, and introduced the Italians to artists such as Pollock and Kandinsky. The Peggy Guggenheim Museum is modest in size, and in its intimacy is unlike any other. The walls are packed with large canvases surveying Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism and many other movements that Peggy came to love and patronise. Arguably her most successful patronage would be that of Jackson Pollock, the American Abstract Expressionist that Peggy helped in many ways, both financially and also by bringing his works centre stage in both New York and Venice.
 There is a special, rather tiny room, in the Venetian museum that features six priceless Pollocks, which entirely envelop the viewer in his frenzied and swirling world of paint. It has been said that it would be hard to find a more sexist bunch than the male artists who flourished between 1900 and 1960, yet Peggy managed to collect and preserve a boldly avant-garde and collection that is still of great cultural significance. She has been recorded as retaining a sense of calm naïveté and openness to all art that she was shown, and selected an incredible range of contemporary art. In 2010 the Art Gallery of Western Australia housed an exhibition of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, as part of their series on museums and galleries.
 The exhibition served to celebrate her achievements in the collection and patronage of arts, and formed a retrospective of Peggy Guggenheim and her collection. Seemingly, in this exhibition the works acted as bi-products of her success.
Peggy’s gallery and collection
form the manifestation of her life. As seen in this quote from an interview in 1970;
 Rylands & Subelyt
, Peggy Guggenheim: A Collection in Venice, p.28
Peggy Guggenheim: Life of an Art Addict 
, p.290
Rylands & Subelytė,
 Peggy Guggenheim: A Collection in Venice
, p.7
ARTH2057 Joanna McFarlane Essay 2: Peggy Guggenheim U5333531
“I worry what will happen to
my paintings after I am gone. I dedicated myself to my collection. A collection means hard work. It was what I wanted to do and I made it
my life’s work. I am not an art collector. I am a museum.”
Peggy claims that the collection is her life’s work, and
that she herself is a museum. Her
grave lies in the garden, alongside a plaque remembering the Peggy’s ‘beloved babies’ –
 fourteen little dogs.
 The museum pays homage to her and her lucky streak of timing, fortune and open-personality that made this collection possible. The location is her old home, a grand unfinished palace in the heart of Venice, and does in fact act as a self-portrait, defining the lifetime and work of one very special lady. Her passion for collecting and patronising the arts that she loved, which has even been described as an
‘addiction’, has led to the preservation and display of an incredible range of art
examples from the early to mid twentieth century, overshadowing her colourful personal life.
 Dortch (ed.),
Peggy Guggenheim and her Friends
, p.15
 The dogs were pure-bred
Lhasa Apsos, which in a series of generations shared Peggy’s life in the palace, they could be interpreted as yet another aspect of her ‘collecting’.
Detail of Peggy Guggenheim on her bed with Alexander Calder’s
Silver Bedhead,
c.1960, photo by Roloff Beny
ARTH2057 Joanna McFarlane Essay 2: Peggy Guggenheim U5333531
 Dearborn, Mary V..
Mistress of Modernism
: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2004. Dennison, Lisa.
‘From Museum to Museums: The Evolution of the Guggenheim.’
 Museum International. Vol.55. Issue 1. 2003. pp.48-55 
Edlin, Nick.‘The Other Guggenheim’.
Fields, Jill. ‘Was Peggy Guggenheim Jewish?: Art Collecting and Representations of
Jewish Identity In and Out of Post-
War Venice’.
Indiana University Press: Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues. No.25. 2013. pp.51-74. Gill, Anton.
Peggy Guggenheim: Life of an Art Addict 
. London: Harper Collins Publishers. 2001. Guggenheim, Peggy (ed).
 Art of This Century 
: Objects, Drawings, Photographs, Paintings, Sculpture, Collages 1910
 1912. New York: Art Aid Corporation. 1942. Guggenheim, Peggy.
Out of This Century 
: Confessions of an Art Addict. New York: Universe Books. 1979.
Higonnet, Anne. ‘Self 
portrait as a Museum’.
 RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics. No.52: Museums: Crossing Boundaries. 2007. pp.189-211
Mastandrea, Stefano. Bartoli, Gabriella. Bove, Giuseppe. ‘Preferences for
 Ancient and Modern Art Museums: Visitor Experiences and Personality Characteristics
 American Psychological Association: Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Vol.3. No.3. 2009. pp.164
Rylands, Philip. Subelytė, Gražina.
 Peggy Guggenheim: A Collection in Venice
. Perth: Art Gallery of Western Australia. (Organised with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York). 2010.


Fashion & Beauty / Vintage Style

Peggy Guggenheim

— March 26, 2012 —

“We’ve dressed in our best, and are prepared to go down like gentleman,” were the parting words of Peggy Guggenheim’s father on deck of the Titanic. Peggy, aged 14 at the time, would go on, for better or for worse, to be one of the most notorious

Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, late 1950s

Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, late 1950s

“We’ve dressed in our best, and are prepared to go down like gentleman,” were the parting words of Peggy Guggenheim’s father on deck of the Titanic. Peggy, aged 14 at the time, would go on, for better or for worse, to be one of the most notorious figures of the twentieth century: a devotee to Surrealism and a crusader for the beau monde, she amassed one of the world’s most notable collections of modern day art. She knew Jackson Pollock as a carpenter, Samuel Beckett as a secretary and bought Berenice Abbott his first camera.

Guggenheim was haunted by a lonely and suppressive childhood and suffered great insecurities, often using her wealth and wardrobe as a shield. An extravagant flapper, she was famously photographed by Man Ray in a oriental Poiret dress, worn with a hairband given to her by Stravinsky’s girlfriend. Other favourites included an Elsa Schaparelli cellophane zipper, a black and gold Ken Scott dress and a collection of tricorn hats and ethnic jewellery.

Her clothing reflected her state of mind. On wearing two mismatched earrings, she declared: “I wore one of my (Yves) Tanguy earrings and one made by [Alexander] Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract Art.” When first husband Laurence discovered her infidelity on a skiing trip in Switzerland, he found her drunk with a lipstick red-cross marked on each cheek. “She was remarkably ugly,” the painter Jean Helion would comment, “in such a pleasant way.”

“Like her choice in art, her style was avant-garde and daring – she wore flamboyant earrings and illustrative eye make-up, most often covered by her iconic butterfly glasses”

Like her choice in art, her style was avant-garde and daring – she wore flamboyant earrings and illustrative eye make-up, most often covered by her iconic butterfly glasses, designed for her by Edward Malcarth in 1966. As a teenager she assisted in a bookshop, where she would sweep floors wearing pearl necklaces and a fur coat.

Guggenheim was an exhibitionist. Sexually, it is claimed she had close to one thousand liaisons, controversially including most artists that she supported. She married twice: Dada sculpturist Laurence Vali, an abusive alcoholic known to hold her head under water and rub jam into her hair; “he particularly enjoyed throwing my shoes out of the window and attacking chandeliers,” Peggy recalled. Violence was a common thread within her relationships: long-term lover John Holms, a Scottish writer and alcoholic, would make her stand naked in front of an open window while he threw whiskey in her eyes. Her second husband was Max Ernst. She rescued Max and his paintings from the Nazis but their marriage was short-lived, and he left her after five years of turbulent marriage and infidelity.

A botched nose job at 21 left her with what would be referred to as the “Guggenheim potato”. Painter Theodore Stamos would call it “an eggplant,” while John Holms would tell her, “I would like to beat your face so that no man will ever look at it again.” Jackson Pollock famously said that “To f*ck her, you’d have to put a towel over her head. And she did want f*cking.”

Like so many of her kind, Peggy was as extravagant as she was tragic. Tortured and exploited, she eventually settled in Venice in 1949, where she spent the remainder of her life exhibiting her treasures. She died aged 81, her Venetian palace by then a ruin, muddy and overgrown with leaking holes.

She too, dressed in her best, echoed an end somewhat similar to her father’s.

Suggested reading: Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim by Anton Gil.




Life history of the character from the painting.)

Peggy Guggenheim’s career belongs in the history of 20th century art. Peggy used to say that it was her duty to protect the art of her own time, and she dedicated half of her life to this mission, as well as to the creation of the museum that still carries her name.

Peggy Guggenheim was born in New York on 26 August 1898, the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim and Florette Seligman. Benjamin Guggenheim was one of seven brothers who, with their father, Meyer (of Swiss origin), created a family fortune in the late 19th century from the mining and smelting of metals, especially silver, copper and lead. The Seligmans were a leading banking family. Peggy grew up in New York. In April 1912 her father died heroically on the SS Titanic.

In her early 20s, Peggy volunteered for work at a bookshop, the Sunwise Turn, in New York and thanks to this began making friends in intellectual and artistic circles, including the man who was to become her first husband in Paris in 1922, Laurence Vail. Vail was a writer and Dada collagist of great talent. He chronicled his tempestuous life with Peggy in a novel, Murder! Murder! of which Peggy wrote: «It was a sort of satire of our life together and, although it was extremely funny, I took offense at several things he said about me.»

In 1921 Peggy Guggenheim traveled to Europe. Thanks to Laurence Vail (the father of her two children Sindbad and Pegeen, the painter), Peggy soon found herself at the heart of Parisian boheme and American ex-patriate society. Many of her acquaintances of the time, such as Constantin Brancusi, Djuna Barnes and Marcel Duchamp, were to become lifelong friends. Though she remained on good terms with Vail for the rest of his life, she left him in 1928 for an English intellectual, John Holms, who was the greatest love of her life. There is a lengthy description of John Holms, a war hero with writer’s block, in chapter five of Edwin Muir’s An Autobiography. Muir wrote: «Holms was the most remarkable man I ever met.» Unfortunately, Holms died tragically young in 1934.

In 1937, encouraged by her friend Peggy Waldman, Peggy decided to open an art gallery in London. When she opened her Guggenheim Jeune gallery in January 1938, she was beginning, at 39 years old, a career which would significantly affect the course of post-war art. Her friend Samuel Beckett urged her to dedicate herself to contemporary art as it was “a living thing,” and Marcel Duchamp introduced her to the artists and taught her, as she put it, “the difference between abstract and Surrealist art.” The first show presented works by Jean Cocteau, while the second was the first one-man show of Vasily Kandinsky in England.

In 1939, tired of her gallery, Peggy conceived “the idea of opening a modern museum in London,” with her friend Herbert Read as its director. . From the start the museum was to be formed on historical principles, and a list of all the artists that should be represented, drawn up by Read and later revised by Marcel Duchamp and Nellie van Doesburg, was to become the basis of her collection.

In 1939-40, apparently oblivious of the war, Peggy busily acquired works for the future museum, keeping to her resolve to “buy a picture a day.” Some of the masterpieces of her collection, such as works by Francis Picabia, Georges Braque, Salvador Dali and Piet Mondrian, were bought at that time. She astonished Fernand Leger by buying his Men in the City on the day that Hitler invaded Norway. She acquired Brancusi’s Bird in Space as the Germans approached Paris, and only then decided to flee the city.

In July 1941, Peggy fled Nazi-occupied France and returned to her native New York, together with Max Ernst, who was to become her second husband a few months later (they separated in 1943).

Peggy immediately began looking for a location for her modern art museum, while she continued to acquire works for her collection. In October 1942 she opened her museum/gallery Art of This Century. Designed by the Rumanian-Austrian architect Frederick Kiesler, the gallery was composed of extraordinarily innovative exhibition rooms and soon became the most stimulating venue for contemporary art in New York City.

Of the opening night, she wrote: “I wore one of my Tanguy earrings and one made by Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract Art». There Peggy exhibited her collection of Cubist, abstract and Surrealist art, which was already substantially that which we see today in Venice. Peggy produced a remarkable catalogue, edited by Andre Breton, with a cover design by Max Ernst. She held temporary exhibitions of leading European artists, and of several then unknown young Americans such as Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, David Hare, Janet Sobel, Robert de Niro Sr, Clyfford Still, and Jackson Pollock, the ‘star’ of the gallery, who was given his first show by Peggy late in 1943. From July 1943 Peggy supported Pollock with a monthly stipend and actively promoted and sold his paintings. She commissioned his largest painting, a Mural, which she later gave to the University of Iowa.

Pollock and the others pioneered American Abstract Expressionism. One of the principal sources of this was Surrealism, which the artists encountered at Art of This Century. More important, however, was the encouragement and support that Peggy, together with her friend and assistant Howard Putzel, gave to the members of this nascent New York avant-garde. Peggy and her collection thus played a vital intermediary role in the development of America’s first art movement of international importance.

In 1947 Peggy decided to return in Europe, where her collection was shown for the first time at the 1948 Venice Biennale, in the Greek pavilion. In this way the works of artists such as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko were exhibited for the first time in Europe. The presence of Cubist, abstract, and Surrealist art made the pavilion the most coherent survey of Modernism yet to have been presented in Italy.

Soon after Peggy bought Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal in Venice, where she came to live. In 1949 she held an exhibition of sculptures in the garden curated by Giuseppe Marchiori, and from 1951 she opened her collection to the public.

In 1950 Peggy organized the first exhibition of Jackson Pollock in Italy, in the Ala Napoleonica of the Museo Correr in Venice. Her collection was in the meantime exhibited in Florence and Milan, and later in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Zurich. From 1951 Peggy opened her house and her collection to the public annually in the summer months. During her 30-year Venetian life, Peggy Guggenheim continued to collect works of art and to support artists, such as Edmondo Bacci and Tancredi Parmeggiani, whom she met in 1951. In 1962 Peggy Guggenheim was nominated Honorary Citizen of Venice.

In 1969 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York invited Peggy Guggenheim to show her collection there, and it was on that occasion that she resolved to donate her palace and works of art to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The Foundation had been created in 1937 by Peggy Guggenheim’s uncle Solomon, in order to operate his collection and museum which, since 1959, has been housed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous spiral structure on 5th Avenue.

Peggy died aged 81 on 23 December 1979. Her ashes are placed in a corner of the garden of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, next to the place where she customarily buried her beloved dogs. Since this time, the Guggenheim Foundation has converted and expanded Peggy Guggenheim’s private house into one of the finest small museums of modern art in the world.

Camille Henrot’s Mind Altering Visual Poetics: Reviews, Images and Texts


Camille Henrot: Grosse Fatigue

Versatile, solitary, talented, the French artist brings an encyclopaedic video on the history of the universe to the 55th International Art Exhibition — Venice Biennale, which awarded her a Silver Lion at the event.

Art / Federico Nicolao

Versatile, solitary, talented. Born in 1978. For several years now, French artist Camille Henrot has been exploring the multiplication of the illusion of power versus the actual control that is contained in the way we look at the world. Until now, she has done so from the position that France’s art world reserves for its non-militant female artists, which is to say the most uncomfortable one there is.


Women artists receive no forgiveness in this country lying just over the Alps from Italy — nor perhaps do they in most of “Latin” Europe. People smile, often with a bit of arrogance, at their projects, but had they been the work of male artists, they would cry out in marvel. And whenever women artists do finally receive recognition (often from foreign curators from other hemispheres or from northern Europe) people sputter about how their work is becoming weaker — no longer what it used to be when they started out.


Luckily, there are women who continue their work without allowing themselves to be pushed to the margins. If anything, they use the borders of where they have been confined to concede themselves total freedom to explore the fields that interest them most, which are often the most topical and least trite. They travel and often work abroad. They read. Their tastes meet those of the common people. They study. Very rarely do they become polemic.

Top and above: Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue, installation view at the Arsenale on the occasion of the 55th International Art Exhibition — Venice Biennale

The list would be long. For one thing, it would bring us to think that the fall of French art on the international market is to be attributed exclusively to the unbearable insistence with which no one dares defend and promote women artists in France. So much so that Louise Bourgeois, vernacular and refined at the same time, has been the only great artist in the last decades to be recognised both intellectually and commercially. It’s not as if things are much better in the rest of the world, but it explains why the broad public of art exhibitions does not know much about Camille Henrot, despite that her several projects in recent years.


Almost as soon as she started working, Henrot decided to “penetrate” into the atelier of the architect-artist-utopian Yona Friedman, but she did it from the point of view of her dog. Then, when she began sculpting strange tribal forms, she made them from plumbing joints and water pipes or airplane wings. In one film projection, she overlapped the three King Kongs of cinema history — Peter Jackson’s 2005 movie, John Guillermin’s 1975 version and the 1933 original, creating a fascinating hybrid that led to a new film, populated by images that were at once in harmony and continuous contrast. These are simple yet powerful ideas, experiments undertaken in answer to the question: What happens when we experiment? To what degree does our conscience become refined and profound? And contemporaneously, how much are we losing attempting?

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

In recent years, Henrot’s projects have all been courageously diverse, defying the constant obstacle of the marketplace. She makes sculptures, films, installations, drawings, pictorial intentions for the future and, recently, even ikebana. The latter became a surprise hit of the last Paris Triennale at the Palais de Tokyo. A trace of each has remained in her “encyclopaedic” video Grosse Fatigue (2013) — about the history of the universe —, which won this year’s Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale.


Grosse Fatigue is a curious hymn to foundation and creation, but above all to death and extinction. The soundtrack was composed by French DJ and composer Joakim Bouaziz — Henrot’s companion — who leads music label Tigersushi, and includes a text that Henrot co-authored with her friend, poet Jakob Bomberg. All combine in what becomes a strange cauldron of myths and thoughts on the state of the world.

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

Like all self-respecting artists, Camille Henrot has two traits that irritate a certain type of art critic and spectator. These traits excite other non-prejudiced people. She has no problem with using popular codes. The use of rap in the prize-winning video at the Biennale receives a mix of enthused and negative reactions. She has no problem with quoting (sometimes explicitly, sometimes cryptically) complex, difficult books that are not read by the broad public but by sophisticated intellectuals. Here, she is demanding (for herself, and thus for artists in general) the right to break open the codes of academic citations in order to allow books to come alive without excessive complications. People have difficulty accepting this from a young woman who is the first to say that she has not yet found what place knowledge and instinct can occupy in the context of art. But that’s a mistake.

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

Grosse Fatigue is a meditation on creation. Who knows if rap aficionados not used to such unusual clips will like it? Thirteen minutes recount the birth of the world and its risk of dying. What does our desire to make a picture of the world bring us to? In a predominantly philosophical manner, Henrot answers this question by overlapping and intersecting different computer pages on one screen. Among other things, she invents a new way of looking at what happens when we navigate different roads on the same desktop.


Here, she does not play Jean-Luc Godard’s card of emotive fusion, but that of cataloguing and separation — of splicing. This time, Henrot is influenced as much by Matisse and his papiers découpés as by the Coupé-Décalé dance; by myths and humans’ compulsive obsession to catalogue the world. Jean Starobinski and his lucid, dramatic examination of the encyclopaedia is not so far away from Henrot’s universe with its Dionysian dismembering, the taking to pieces of the world by means of discovery, the interruption and caesura that become the orgasmic (here masturbatory) sexual love of those who are watching and reflecting upon themselves in the world.

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

What collection are we part of and why do we, in turn, collect? What do we accumulate and how long does what we accumulate live? Each of us is a succession of cross-sections of the world. But what happens to our life when we explore it and reveal it, from window to window? Moments of joy, festivity, colour, but also exertion and death. With love and desperation, Henrot filmed the wonderful and sinister embalmed animals of Paris’s Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institute, where she spent broad swaths of time. Camille Henrot will continue to elicit excessive approval and instigate discussion. And that’s a good sign. Federico Nicolao

Camille Henrot at the awards ceremony of the 55th International Art Exhibition — Venice Biennale. Photo by Italo Rondinella




Camille Henrot: The Pale Fox

28 February — 13 April 2014, Chisenhale Gallery, London

By Louise Darblay

French artist Camille Henrot has received much attention since she won the Silver Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale for her film Grosse Fatigue (2013). Translated as ‘great exhaustion’, it consists of a 13-minute video in which a rap voice attempts to tell the story of the universe, combining mythical, religious, historic and scientific narratives, while a flow of images flash by simultaneously on a desktop computer.

Taking over the Chisenhale Gallery, Henrot builds on this previous work to create The Pale Fox, in which a similar narrative unfolds, but into space rather than on a computer screen, and that turns the feeling of exhaustion into a meditative and enveloping experience. The walls and carpet are coloured in a deep soothing blue reminding of Yves Klein’s monochromes, while atmospheric, ambient music plays in the background, periodically punctuated by coughing sounds. In this enclosed cosmos, Henrot presents what seems to be her very own universe, including found images, objects such as books, educational CDs, digital tablets, coloured feathers and a snow globe, some of her ink drawings and sculptures, as well as a polymorphous set of undulating aluminium shelves that run across the walls. Creating an uneven visual frieze, the images and objects cover the gallery walls, occasionally overflowing on to the floor, on which a radio-controlled snake slithers around.

Dogon mythology is central for Henrot as, built on the assimilation of different cultural belief systems, it becomes a philosophical model for the construction of her narrative

Behind this apparent chaos lies what Henrot calls a ‘crazy schematic map’ which, drawing on different systems of knowledge, apparently describes the cyclic creation of our universe. The disparate objects are there to represent both a point on the compass and one of the elements, one per wall. This spatial map also corresponds to stages in the development of human life, technological progress or mythological genesis.

The north wall for instance relates to the element water – the artist informs us in the press release – where objects and images are gathered that are associated with creation and fertility such as gourdlike calabashes, an apple, or Gabagunnu, the womb matrix of the world, as featured in Dogon mythology. Frequently referred to throughout the installation, this West-African mythology is central for Henrot as, built on the assimilation of different cultural belief systems, it becomes a philosophical model for the construction of her narrative.

Further on, there is the unfolding and evolution of human life, bringing about technological progress, as symbolised by the tablets and the accumulation of photographic images, and which leads to photographs of sunburnt bodies, a metaphor for man’s overexposure. Elsewhere a newspaper cutting, on the archaeological discovery of a Greek statue, hangs next to biblical crosswords, while a Silver Surfer Marvel comic is placed alongside an image of a Buddhist ritual.

The logic is sometimes hard to follow, and the references not always easy to decode without a press release to guide us through. Although captivating and absorbing as an environmental installation, it is the different layers of meaning and symbolic references interwoven together that make this complex work interesting, even when those references are cryptic and reliant on the viewer having some familiarity with Griaule and Dieterlen’s anthropological study of Dogon mythology, Leibniz’s philosophy or Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue.

That being said, once you have read the artist’s statement, Henrot does manage to make these overlapping narratives work together in one great cycle, without them seeming contradictory. She reminds us that disorder and entropy are the origin and condition of creation and evolution, just like the ambivalent figure of the Pale Fox in Dogon mythology is both destructive and creative. In a world where we are constantly overwhelmed by images and information, Henrot’s installation is an impressive attempt to make this excess and chaos productive again.

7 April 2014





Camille Henrot, Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d’aimer les fleurs?, installation view at La Triennale “Intense Proximity”, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2012
Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour, Paris. Photo: Alexandra Serrano

Relations de Traduction

by Cecilia Alemani

Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers? This enigmatic question is the title of the latest project by Camille Henrot, and it is the practice of Ikebana that removes any reservations about the floral passion: an entire library is translated in arrangements; the reciprocal positionings, the Latin names of species that speak perceptibly of trade, pharmacological properties and history.
Cecilia Alemani meets with the artist to talk about the translative qualities of her work, ranging through anthropology, archaeology and sociology.

Cecilia Alemani: In the last two years you have been focusing on the practice of Ikebana. How do you relate botany and floral decoration to contemporary sculpture?

Camille Henrot: Flowers belong to a time that is not secular (like history) but seasonal.
They address two major expectations of our time. Creating continuity in an era of ruptured temporality, they act like an antidote to the anxiety of living “in history.” At the same time they represent renewal as we wait for change. That’s why I called the project Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d’aimer les fleurs? (Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?).
My initial attraction to Ikebana had to do with how it corresponds to the idea of a healing object. The practice of Ikebana has the role of creating a ‘privileged space’ just as much for the person who views the arrangements as for the person who composes them.
By translating books into flower arrangements in a single gesture, the aim is to concentrate in one object the entirety of a thought, brining together disparate fragments—reconciling opposites in a whole of global dimensions. The approach finds a cohesion (of sorts) in the presentation of several Ikebana. The aim is to build an ‘environment’ within the image of a library that would be simultaneously out of time and connected to the Western fascination with knowledge and its expectations for a revolutionary change.

CA: Your work is bound up with systems of organization and taxonomy. Your Ikebana sculptures are each visualizations of books in your library and your videos often deal with the construction of racial identity. Can you talk about some of these aspects in your work?

CH: I like the serenity brought about by the image of an organized system, but I don’t like simplification and authority. I’m fascinated by unifying systems because they are fragile and appear like ordered complexity.
Regarding categories and racial identities I am interested in ‘Taboo’ objects, the use of which is coded; these can stir a lot of misunderstanding because they continually defy categorization. The idea of culture as “translation relationships” (relations de traduction) was my starting point. We could see the history of Art as a history of misunderstandings. That history would follow the same schemes and patterns as intimate relationships: desire, possession and miscomprehension.

My practice of Ikebana—even though it belongs to a current that is itself non-traditional (the Sogetsu school)—contains interpretive mistakes and naiveties, as well as irregularities in terms of the fundamentals of this art. The presence of such errors is, however, perfectly integrated into my approach. It is even one of the subjects of this project—and more generally of the whole of my work.

I often think of that quote from Frantz Fanon: “As soon as I desire, I am asking to be considered. I am not merely here-and-now, sealed into thingness. (…) In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.”

Camille Henrot, Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d’aimer les fleurs? (L’entretien infini), 2012
Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour, Paris

CA: Anthropology, archeology, and sociology all seem to play a role in your work. How do you see your role as an artist in relationship to these disciplines?

CH: I am very interested in the ‘status’ of objects and the ideas of people like Viveiros de Castro, Clifford Geertz, James Clifford, Monique Jeudy-Ballini, Pascal Picq, Roger Bastide… I find these writers inspiring and sometimes disruptive.

In the case of anthropology, I am compelled by certain almost incompatible desires and undercurrents within the discipline, which for me are also quite present in the artistic process and experience. In this regard, I am consistently more interested in the errors and unsolved problems of anthropology, being a science that takes we humans as both object and subject and our universe and world as both substance and projected meaning at the same time and, like art, continually critiques, overturns and transforms its own findings.

I do not pretend I am handling concepts from anthropology without bias. Somehow one could say I have developed a ‘cargo cult’ for anthropology. (The ‘cargo cult’ originally described cults in the Pacific that emerged after white people arrived; it then became an expression referring to a human behavior that takes elements of other civilizations and integrates them into its own system of thinking sometimes without understanding or shifting the original meaning.)

I am not equating myself with anthropologist; I do not want to claim that authority. I am more interested in the character of Marcel Appenzzell, the anthropologist in check, mentioned in Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. I know that when I’m in Vanuatu, for instance, I am a ‘white man’ above all, and I am conscious of what this means: the vanity of my motives, the voyeuristic aspect of my attitude, the guilt, the self-disgust and self-mockery, which are actually all the subject of the “Tropics of Love” drawings I started after that trip.

CA: Rites of passages and initiations have a strong presence in your work, such as in Coupé/Décalé and in The Strife of Love in a Dream. Can you tell us a little more about the background for these two videos, how they were realized, what was the subject?

CH: The Strife Of Love in a Dream was a project commissioned by Centre Pompidou in Paris for an exhibition about India. I was pretty afraid to go to India and tried to understand why.

The film’s title comes from a book written in the Middle Ages, Hypnerotomachia.
One of the stories, named “The Strife of Love in a Dream” tells of a monk who crosses The Dark Forest and finds himself facing a dragon. He is tempted to escape, but were he to turn back, the adventure would be over. This tale emphasizes the film’s central notion: the necessity of facing one’s fears.
I was struck by the paradox of India being often imagined as a cure against the Western world’s feverish agitation and at the same time being the number one manufacturer of psychotropic drugs. I imagined the film like a series of hallucinations that would create physical sensations and psychological imprints while showing very physical aspects of reality (the manufacturing of anxiolytics).

Regarding Coupé/Décalé, the project started after I found images by coincidence on the web of the Naghol ritual or “Land Diving,” and it made me think of Le Saut by Yves Klein. Thirty years ago this ritual had inspired bungee jumping and is now practiced as a “performance” for tourists visiting the island attracted by the similarity they see with a practice they connect to modern way of life (and need for strong emotions). There’s a ‘back and forth’ movement within the gesture of the ritual itself as well as in its history. But how to escape archetypes when you bring images back from the other side of the world?
I wanted to tackle that issue by creating a rough patchwork of deconstructed hybrid images in which the idea of ‘reparation’ is visual. The process implemented here is illustrated by the title Coupé/Décalé (literally “cut/offset”).

Camille Henrot, Coupé/Décalé, 2010
Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour, Paris

CA: You have just started a fellowship at the Smithsonian that deals with systems of knowledge and organization of information; can you talk about it? Can you explain your approach to the research for new works and in general the importance of research within your practice?

CH: As an artist, I have the freedom to browse through ideas with the curiosity of the amateur. I’m allowed to have an irrational approach to knowledge, which is a privilege I appreciate a lot. I see the world as a fragmented ensemble and that fragmentation is harrowing. Through the research implied by my projects, I can establish some continuity.
The more you progress in research the more categories appear to be arbitrary and oppositions collapse. That’s why Zen irrationalism and thirst for knowledge are not contradictory in the end. I think the starting point of a new research or project should always be too broad. That way the research process is not only about aiming at a goal but also about being open to what you can learn by accident, new opportunities of new findings.
My research will be focused on all-encompassing projects meant to achieve an image and/or a history of the universe compressed into a singular object, a total contraction of knowledge within representation.
To my mind, there is a form of over-communication and over-saturation in our efforts to gather and structure knowledge into a completely globalized worldview, which, by all appearances, as subjectivity inevitably creeps in, seems to finally resemble an artistic goal or artistic project. Even though such processes and intentions might border on the irrational, I do feel that they are necessary for an understanding of what (and who) we are. This global approach and aspiration is to me ultimately parallel to a kind of subjective structuring of knowledge—what John Cowper Powys calls “a personal philosophy of solitude”—where the totalizing or universalizing image perhaps bears more the individual desires and consciousness of the one who attempts to complete it.

To the top


The Wall Street Journal

Life & Culture

Arts & Entertainment
Camille Henrot: An Art World ‘It Girl’
Inspired by eBay, turtles and nail polish, a solo show opens at New York’s New Museum

RESTLESS ART Camille Henrot says she’s inspired by eBay, turtles and nail polish, among other sources, for her videos, like ‘Grosse Fatigue,’ above. © Camille Henrot/ADAGP/Silex Films/kamel mennour, Paris
By Ellen Gamerman
May 1, 2014 11:01 p.m. ET

Turtles figure prominently in artist Camille Henrot’s ambitious video chronicling the history of the world in 13 minutes. She sees the creatures as symbols of a prehistoric past and a burdened future. “The turtle, she’s slow because she is carrying this massive round thing—it’s like a figure of Atlas,” she says.

Thinking hard about reptiles—and most everything else—is a hallmark of the 35-year-old French intellectual’s work. On the heels of that video, “Grosse Fatigue,” which won her the Silver Lion award for most promising young artist at the recent Venice Biennale, the artist is unveiling her first comprehensive U.S. museum exhibit. “Camille Henrot: The Restless Earth” opens Wednesday at the New Museum in New York.

The show features her abstract video telling the story of humankind through quick cuts of images like turtles and eyeballs, dead birds and oranges, fizzy water and the cosmos. Other pieces on view include her works on paper and a new installation of literature-inspired Japanese ikebana flower arrangements.

This spring, the New Museum is dedicating separate floors to three young artists rather than doing a group show. “It’s a way to give exposure, to show the artists who are changing how art is being made,” says curator Gary Carrion-Murayari. “Camille was a very easy choice for us in that respect.”

Ms. Henrot created “Grosse Fatigue” during an artist fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington last year. She scoured the collections, filming employees opening drawers of exotic-bird specimens, flipping through files filled with dead bees, and so on. The film advances quickly through time by using overlapping windows on a computer desktop—search results from the Smithsonian’s database. She incorporated her own footage and studio shots of brightly painted fingernails—a nod to her discovery that even the weightiest words in a Google search often seem to match the name of a nail polish.

It wasn’t a solitary effort: Ms. Henrot worked with a cinematographer and film editor, as well as a makeup designer, models and production assistants. A writer created the text, which is performed like a spoken-word poem, and her partner, a musician named Joakim Bouaziz, created the score.

Ms. Henrot finds inspiration from disparate sources including eBay, where her purchases range from firemen’s boots to nude vintage photographs. Sometimes she buys an item just because she likes the picture of its seller. After moving from Paris to New York in late 2012, she says the cargo container with all her stuff was held up by authorities for months—she suspects because its contents were so weird.

As a child, she wanted one day to have a “real job,” eager to distinguish herself from her mother, an artist. Nevertheless, she attended art school in Paris, studying animated film. She took a job in an advertising agency, where she learned tricks like how to shoot a piece of cake to make it look more delicious (blow it with a hair dryer so it seems fluffy). Along the way, she was making films on her own, including an inventive music video for the band Octet in which the musicians were rendered as half-real, half-animated bodies. The film was shown in a 2005 exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, a contemporary art center in Paris, and her career as an artist was launched.

Ms. Henrot didn’t grow up traveling—she says her mother was afraid of flying—but now her experiences in foreign cultures feed directly into her work. The videos featured at the New Museum include “Coupé/Décalé,” an experimental film illustrating a coming-of-age ritual on Pentecost island in the Vanuatu archipelago where young people jump into a void while being held by liana vines around their ankles.

Sometimes her images can be hard to watch. Those turtles in “Grosse Fatigue” are featured with close-ups of their slick tongues and stony eyes. Ms. Henrot, who as a child had a pet turtle named Zoe that escaped through a window of her Paris home, shot the creatures during a vacation in the Seychelles. She filmed a little girl giving a huge turtle a banana and included the footage in her video. “I was interested in the stupidity of man feeding wild animal,” she says.

Ms. Henrot brought home a souvenir from that trip: A scar on her hand from a turtle that bit her when she too tried to feed it.



Issue 161 March 2014 RSS

Known Unknowns


Useful mistakes, ikebana and messy cultural assumptions in the work of Camille Henrot


Sunburns, detail from the exhibition ‘The Pale Fox’, 2014. Previous pages courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, kamel mennour, Paris, and Johann König, Berlin

One of the marvels of the universe is that it makes amateurs of us all. Educational qualifications are only a measure of the negative space of how much you don’t know. Expertise is defined by an expert’s limits. Your art history PhD has taken you to a profound level of understanding about abstract expressionism – you can even tell us what bourbon Jackson Pollock liked to drink for breakfast – but you’re a numbskull around runic alphabets. Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, is pretty vague about runes too, but he’s the go-to man for particle physics. Higgs can wax expert about the origins of the cosmos, but can he name the players in the French squad who won the 1998 FIFA World Cup? Neither can I, but one of the team at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN can probably rattle off those names without recourse to Google. Unfortunately that same scientist falls into awkward silence when it comes to cocktail-party conversation about tuning systems in Javanese gamelan music. The composer Steve Reich could tell you a thing or two about gamelan because it’s been a major influence on his work, but he’d be a dead loss in a pub quiz about ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. I have some back-of-an-envelope knowledge about ikebana only because it’s an aspect of the work made by Camille Henrot, who practices Sogetsu school ikebana. The French artist knows little about me, beyond my job, but knows a tonne more than I do about ikebana. However, she does admit that her approach to it ‘contains interpretive mistakes and naïveties, as well as irregularities in terms of the fundamentals of this art. The presence of such errors is, however, perfectly integrated into my approach. It is even one of the subjects of this project – and, more generally, of the whole of my work.’1

The ‘whole’ of Henrot’s work is a project about the impossibility of ever knowing the whole – the whole universe, the whole story, the whole of you, me, us and them. It’s about the impossibility of plugging the hole in the doughnut. Her project is shaped by alterity, entranced by cultural disconnections and a little gleeful about the shortcomings of anthropology. Her films tell us that a mess of cultural assumptions, projections, fears and desires gets churned around in the unlit spaces between anthropologist and subject, producer and audience. The artist knows that we know that she knows this, as she once said in an interview: ‘I am consistently more interested in the errors and unsolved problems of anthropology, being a science that takes we humans as both object and subject and our universe and world as both substance and projected meaning at the same time and, like art, continually critiques, overturns and transforms its own findings.’2

Coupé/Décalé (Cut/Offset), 2010, 35mm film still. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris

Fig. 1, Coupé/Décalé (2010): 35mm film, duration five minutes 20 seconds. Made in a style that could have been lifted from a 1970s ethnographic documentary – rich colours, a little verité camera shake, a conflicted feeling of voyeuristic fascination and armchair guilt compacted by having little clue about what’s being filmed – Coupé/Décalé is shot on Pentecost Island in the Vanuatu archipelago. It shows young men, their ankles tied by liana vines, jumping from a tall wooden platform. This rite is said to have inspired bungee jumping, and is now performed largely for the benefit of tourists, modified according to Western fantasies of Melanesian culture. The film’s title translates literally as ‘Cut/Offset’, and the image is ‘cut’ into two halves, with the left-hand side of the film running a fraction of a second faster than the right-hand side – the ‘offset’. That slippage is the key to the work: it’s the gap between what we see and what we know – always a step behind the action. Things get even more interesting when you learn that Coupé/Décalé is also the name of a dance originating in the Ivory Coast and imported to Paris by Ivorian immigrants. In Ivorian slang, the title means to cheat someone and run away. Pentecost Island is a long way from the Ivory Coast, even further from Paris. Henrot’s ‘cheat’ is to dress her film in the vestments of anthropological documentary, to ‘run away’ with the aesthetics of the form and repackage them with her own concerns. But it’s more complicated than that. As a white European wielding a camera in the South Pacific, she’s subject to just the same ethical quandaries about the gaze, race and the inscription of identity as the filmmakers that interest her. (Robert J. Flaherty, who bent a few truths in making his beautiful 1934 documentary Man of Aran, is currently a touchstone for Henrot.) It’s less a film ‘about’ anthropology than a film made inside anthropology, operating a couple of clicks out of phase with the discipline itself. And, like the figure of the anthropologist that Henrot tries to emulate, she will never be properly assimilated with the objects of her study.

Is ‘emulation’ the right word? Not quite. Nor is ‘critique’, which affects moral distance. ‘Act’ is better. There is a knowing pretence at play here; acting a part in order to pull focus on a certain aspect of human behaviour. ‘I do not pretend I am handling concepts from anthropology without bias,’ she says. ‘Somehow one could say I have developed a “cargo cult” for anthropology. The “cargo cult” originally described cults in the Pacific that emerged after white people arrived; it then became an expression referring to a human behaviour that takes elements of other civilizations and integrates them into its own system of thinking, sometimes without understanding or shifting the original meaning.’3 Henrot understands the original meaning of her sources perfectly well; she takes them and assigns new roles to suit her own purposes. She uses the symbolism of ikebana arrangements to describe books she’s read (the series ‘Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?’, 2011–ongoing), pulls pictures from eBay to build a delirious essay on the Western imagination’s persistent fascination with ancient Egypt (the silent slideshow Egyptomania, 2009), and fakes anthropology films in order to make a film about anthropology (Coupé/Décalé). For her exhibition ‘The Pale Fox’ (2014), Henrot has used a specific work of anthropology as her starting point: Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen’s eponymous 1965 book, which explains, in great depth, the cosmological beliefs and creation stories of Mali’s Dogon people. (Controversially, it argues that the Dogon possessed detailed knowledge about the orbital patterns of Sirius before Western astronomers did.) Henrot makes associative leaps of imagination using objects and images of eggs, planets, turtles, foxes and flexing biceps. She turns Griaule and Dieterlen’s book inside out, showing that the work of the artist and the anthropologist are not so different: both are looking to find meaning in the world, whether or not it exists there.

Femme allongée et dents de requin (Woman Lying Down and Shark Teeth), from ‘Collection préhistorique’ (Prehistoric Collection), 2009, c-type print, 40 × 30 cm. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris

The promiscuous moves that contemporary visual art pulls on other cultural disciplines make it the most syncretic of the arts, and these days we’re all-too-used to hearing artists tell us how they’re ‘interested in’ this, that or the other. With all her talk of ‘cargo cults’, we could dub Henrot’s work a form of syncretism, creating new rituals from discrete belief systems. Syncretic religions can evolve for a number of reasons: the trace memories of long-gone civilizations; a means of forging cultural alliances or attracting a broad base of followers; a tool of assimilation used by an evangelizing or colonizing power. A cynic might accuse Henrot’s ikebana and quasi-ethnographies of dilettantism. I’ve always liked what Brian Eno has to say about dilettantes: ‘For me the great strength of dilettantism is that it tends to come in from another angle […] an intelligent dilettante will not be constrained by the limitations of what’s normally considered possible; he won’t be frightened, he’s got nothing to lose.’4 Everyone is an amateur at something, and the amateur is, in some respects, a far more liberated figure than the professional.

Fig. 2, ‘Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?’: mixed media, dimensions variable. (The title is borrowed from Leninism under Lenin, written by Marcel Liebman in 1973. The Belgian historian went on to answer his own question by arguing that: ‘You start by loving flowers and soon you are seized by the desire to live like a property owner, stretched out lazily and reading French novels in a hammock set amid a magnificent garden while being served by obsequious servants.’ Liebman must’ve been a laugh at parties.) Ikebana is a highly codified art form, based upon the idea of objects consoling the soul. It’s a complex interplay between the shape of container, stem heights, the angles at which flowers or branches stand, and the harmony of lines created by the plant materials and their arrangement. Over the past two years, Henrot has made more than 100 arrangements, some of which she then exhibits and photographs, reassigning traditional ikebana codes in order to make a series of homages to books in her library. (‘To make my formal language I use the Latin and common names of the flowers, the names designed for their commercial exploitation, their pharmacological power and sometimes even the history of their travels.’)5 It is an act of translation, of recoding literature and giving it a form that privileges impermanence, the everyday and the domestic. Her approach to ikebana has been one of mastering codes, then breaking them in order to make the arrangements her own.

Anthropology has been a hotbed of arguments about essentializing difference, about controlling the Other, so isn’t it dangerous to start making the codes of that discipline one’s own? Let’s move to fig. 3, Le Songe de Poliphile/The Strife of Love in a Dream (2011): video, duration 11 minutes 40 seconds. Shot in France and India, the film braids vivid imagery of pilgrimages and ritual theatre with comic books, statues and pharmaceutical laboratories synthesizing anti-anxiety drugs. A work about fear, including Henrot’s own anxieties about visiting India, its soundtrack marries serpentine drones to thunderous kettledrums, evoking atmospheres of dread and climaxing in hedonistic abandon. Throughout, the snake is used as a metaphor to symbolize both fear and healing. We see snakes crawling across rocks, snakes represented in classical sculpture, snakes wriggling through hands, snakes sliding through Tintin books and Fritz Lang’s Indian Tomb (1959).

Heart of Darkness, 2012, from ‘Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?’, 2011–ongoing, ikebana arrangement, dimensions variable. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris; photograph: Alexandra Serrano

Opening with psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar’s line that ‘India is the unconsciousness of the West’, Le Songe de Poliphile … at first seems to herald a troubling Orientalism both old and new, as ‘spiritual’ India is juxtaposed with scenes of technological, business-minded India. (The country is one of the major suppliers of psychopharmaceuticals to the West.) In some respects, the film skirts a lyrical universalism that privileges generalized similarities over the specific historical, economic or cultural conditions under which a group of people are acting. Henrot produces an entrancing parade of images, ‘assembled in a network of meanings, somewhat based on the principles in Mnemosyne [1924–29] by Aby Warburg, by merging them into an atlas of images of different cultural and worldly references, all according to the principle of elective affinities’.6 Magnetic as the imagery is, the experience of watching Le Songe de Poliphile … is a dangerous seduction. The audience is never allowed to know what kind of rituals we’re looking at, what pharmaceutical drugs are being made or where the snippets of found source material come from. Only Henrot knows its inner workings. Le Songe de Poliphile … is about privileged knowledge. It moves and feints as if it were documentary, but it conceals risky subjectivity.

But artists who are working with risky subjectivities strike me as far more interesting than those picking over land that has been thoroughly mine-swept by scholars and dealers alike – those who collect the metadata that enables them to predict patterns and relationships. ‘If you like Arte Povera then you’ll love Mono-ha!’ ‘Customers who bought Francis Bacon also bought a large Caribbean island.’ Who knows what, and who you tell it to, is the name of the game in 2014. Measuring, listing, annotating, networking, storing, referencing rather than producing: the quantified world seeks to turn our subjectivities into objectivities of data sets, from which can be extrapolated behaviour patterns. Knowing how to game the knowledge industry and lighting firewalls around personal knowledge – rather than giving up to the world, like spoiled narcissists, information about what’s on our playlists – is a political act. As Morrissey put it in The Smiths’ ‘Cemetery Gates’ (1986): ‘There’s always someone, somewhere, with a big nose, who knows.’

Grosse Fatigue (Dead Tired), 2013, video still. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris; photograph: Alexandra Serrano

Right now, that big nose is Big Data. With that in mind, there is something poignant about watching fig. 4, Grosse Fatigue (Dead Tired, 2013): video, duration 13 minutes. Set entirely on a computer desktop, Grosse Fatigue begins with a Final Cut Pro file being clicked open against a backdrop photograph of the Milky Way. Two windows pop onto the desktop: each shows a large coffee-table book on a yellow tabletop – one depicts native tribespeople, the other a contemporary art catalogue – being leafed through by a woman’s hands wearing bright green and red nail varnish. The scene cuts to a young woman in a grey institutional corridor opening a locker. The corridor is in the bowels of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. In the top right of the screen appears another window showing the phrase ‘the history of the universe’ being typed into Google. A kick-drum punches in groups of three and a voice-over begins: ‘In the beginning there was no earth, no water – nothing. There was a single hill called Nunne Chaha.’

There follows an elegant dance of windows popping in and out, layered and scaling back and forth on top of each other. They open onto a succession of extraordinary images shot in the Smithsonian’s collections: drawers full of neatly arranged toucans and macaws, ancient fertility statues, X-rays of seahorses. We see turtles burrowing into sand, naked bodies showering, ostrich eggs being peeled, a frog sat on an iPhone, a man looking at the inside of a bomb then a telescope photograph of the universe, a glass eye, eyedrops falling onto a real eyeball, a woman masturbating, someone doing calligraphy, an iguana, a man falling over, the back of a bald head, a zebra, a boulder, an angry chicken, paintings of fish, a photo of Lee Harvey Oswald doctored to make it look like he’s in a band with his murderer Jack Ruby, an orange, an inflatable Earth. The voice-over continues over sparse hip-hop rhythms. It synthesizes creation narratives from all over the world, moving chronologically from the beginning of time to the origin of planets and life, through to their death. Each vignette is framed by a computer window. There to be stopped, started, opened or closed, these windows represent knowledge packaged flat – the reference not the thing.

Grosse Fatigue is a powerful work about the vertigo of information, about how too much knowledge turns it weightless, turns it into image and evacuates experience and substance. It is profoundly of the moment, and profoundly sad. But what do I know?

Camille Henrot is a French artist based in New York, USA. In 2013, her work was included in the 55th Venice Biennale, where she was awarded the Silver Lion, and she had solo shows at the New Orleans Museum of Art, USA, and Slought Foundation, Philadelphia, USA. Her solo exhibition, ‘The Pale Fox’, is at Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK, until 13 April. It will then tour to Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, Denmark; Bétonsalon, Paris, France; and Westfälischer Kunstverein, Munster, Germany. Her exhibition ‘The Restless Earth’, is at the New Museum, New York, US, from 7th May to 29th June.

1 Cecilia Alemani, ‘Relations de Traduction’, interview with the artist, Mousse, issue 35, October–November 2012
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Brian Eno, ‘Interview’, from the album From Brussels with Love, 1980, Les Disques du Crepescule, Brussels
5 Camille Henrot, talk given at the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 3 December 2012
6 Camille Henrot, Le Songe de Poliphile/The Strife of Love in a Dream, director’s note for 2011 Cannes Film Festival

Dan Fox

is co-editor of frieze and lives in New York, USA.


-yerba buena san francisco


Mar 30, 2014

'The Pale Fox' (2014), Camille Henrot. Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, London, 2014.

In Pursuit of an Idea: Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery

French artist Camille Henrot’s first solo UK exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery is like asking a question and receiving a million answers. She’s trying to get to the bottom of things – the show is full of references to origins – but this seems at odds with the dizzying array of stuff that fills the gallery space; abstract sculptures, glossy images torn from magazines, second-hand books, tacky postcards, puzzle pens, kitsch mugs, stacks of National Geographic, retro movie posters, a remote controlled snake. A deliberately overwhelming and seemingly random installation, the result is an excessive theatricality. It’s a hoarder’s paradise and a minimalist’s nightmare.

The title of Henrot’s show, The Pale Fox, is borrowed from a 1965 anthropological study of the West African Dogon people, whose complex mythology – incorporating astronomy, mathematics and philosophy – informs Henrot’s own convoluted study. Here the artist is anthropologist, only her subject is the whole of human evolution, the universe, knowledge itself. This whistle-stop tour through the history of the world takes in art and culture, science and myth. Here are books, the internet, babies, eggs, foxes, wolves, cities, global warming. Wikipedia gone mad.

Yet this totalising project and its chaotic barrage of objects and images – made more fractured by the discordant, looped soundtrack – is not without structure. Each wall corresponds to an element and there’s a timeline of sorts that sees objects arranged along a constructed metal grid. So in the midst of chaos is an evolving order, albeit with many knowing narrative asides.

In this way, Henrot looks to the archive and its attempts to categorise and make sense of the world. In Grosse Fatigue (2013), the film that won her the Silver Lion for most promising young artist at the 55th Venice Biennale, Henrot attempts to process the overwhelming collections held in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC – one of the largest museums and a vast repository of knowledge. Her almost childish desire to capture it all means bombarding the viewer with a mix of quick-fire spoken word and disparate, disconnected imagery. No wonder it’s titled Grosse Fatigue; it must be a tiring experience trying to tell the story of the world’s creation in just 13 minutes.

Both this and The Pale Fox obsess over how we store information, how we retrieve it, and how we understand the objects around us. And in Henrot’s storytelling there are no hierarchies; she exhaustively admits multiple thought systems and accepts myriad ways of comprehending the world. The archive, it seems, is much more productive in its very falling apart.

So if Grosse Fatigue is the script then The Pale Fox is the performance. In the Chisenhale, the thoroughly immersive experience of seeing Henrot’s work is made more intense by the blue paint that covers the gallery’s walls. Like being underwater or in the sky, it feels endless. And blue is often associated with calm, which is a necessary antidote to the jumble of disparate works assembled here. It’s also impossible not to think of Yves Klein, and in fact Henrot is deliberate in her references to creativity and art history. Her abstract brush drawings conjure Picasso and in the midst of the second-hand images and eBay purchases are Henrot’s own bronze and ceramic sculptures that draw inspiration from both tribal art and 20th-century modernism. If she turns to creation myths she also looks to the act of creation more generally, to that elusive and age-old creative impulse. It reminds me of how it feels to write – to frustratedly attempt to say everything and to capture something totally.

I write down a quote from a page that Henrot has torn out of one of the National Geographic and stuck on the wall: ‘I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts.’ Written by journalist Paul Salopek, it refers to his journey retracing the route taken by ancestors who discovered the Earth 60,000 years ago. Salopek’s desire to return to the beginning and his compulsion to connect with a world that is now defined by speed, technology and inattentiveness seems also at the heart of Henrot’s project. In attempting to unravel the history of the universe, we are left with just that – an unravelling. A blue room that, in the end, throws up more questions than answers. It’s a lot to take in. But that, it seems, is the point.

‘Camille Henrot: The Pale Fox’ runs at Chisenhale Gallery, London until 13 April 2014.


The Pale Fox. Camille Henrot

Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_09When Heinrich Wölfflin makes concluding observations on the nature of history in Principles of Art History (1932), in spite of himself, he cannot help reaching for images of complexity. How do we account for cessation and recommencement of art historical periods? ‘Only a spiral would meet the facts,’ he writes. How do we speak of the relations between art of different nations? ‘Not the line but the web of lines,’ he admits. ‘Not the established single form but the movement of form.’ There is tension between linear ways of telling and complex, multiple being. The old and the new, the historian tells us, ‘dovetail’.
These are a few of the ‘big questions’ — unfashionable in contemporary art — French, New York-based artist Camille Henrot poses in her exhibition The Pale Fox, installed at Chisenhale in London’s East End. With The Pale Fox, a commission that developed out of her film Grosse Fatigue (2013) (for which she was awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale for most promising young artist), Henrot poses perhaps the biggest question of all: ‘what is creation?’ From the macro to the micro, the artist’s studio, to the universe, how do things come into being, live, and die away?
The title of Henrot’s exhibition is taken from an influential anthropological study of the Dogon people of Mali, co-authored by Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, and published by the latter in 1965. Through his multiple initiations by an elder, Griaule exposed the Dogon’s world view, cosmology, and philosophical system with unparalleled completeness. For the Dogon, he learnt, a creation myth served as a blueprint for all facets of society. Within this myth a fox, borne of thwarted intercourse with the earth, represents disorder and chaos but also creation, bringing about the formation of the sun.
At Chisenhale Henrot has painted the walls a rich blue; these are matched in colour by the carpeted floor. For Henrot the blue references Yves Klein and his eponymous tone of blue, but also, as a ground, enables an ambivalent relation between intimacy and universal distance. Upon entry ambient music envelops the viewer, initiates them into this total environment. (Sinologist François Jullien on blandness comes to mind: blandness is ‘the embodiment of neutrality… at the point of origin of all things possible’.) Following the space’s walls is a band — a more or less continuous structure — that twists, turns and flattens out into shelves. Uneven accumulations of E-bay found objects, loose Chinese ink drawings, ‘primitive’ Surrealist bronze and ceramic sculpture, and digital prints and images, often by Westerners looking at non-Westerners, displayed on tablet devices cluster at the foot of the shelves, or are displayed on its polished surfaces.
The shelf is a timeline, activated to represent periods in cosmic and human history according to Henrot’s alignment of the gallery to points of the compass. Each point is further associated with the four Classical elements of air, water, earth and fire. The West wall Henrot names ‘The principle of being (air): How things start.‘ The North wall, immediately in front as you enter the gallery, ‘The law of continuity (water): How things unfold.’ The East wall is ‘The principle of sufficient reason (earth): Where the limits are.’ And, finally, the South wall is ‘The principle of the indiscernible (fire): How things disappear.’ ‘I decided that there would be a different age of humanity attributed to each of the different walls,’ Henrot explained in the gallery interview. ‘I was already very interested in how the age of humanity can be related to the age of the universe.’
Henrot’s accumulation of objects and images achieves a global image willfully reminiscent of the great museum collections of the world. However, against an accumulation that might dedifferentiate, produce a kind of ambivalence to things, Henrot seeks to particularise, to emphasise unresolved complexity in heterogeneity. There is a will for objects and images to retain their aura, their special powers within a field of others. ‘Synthesis,’ Henrot says, ‘is never really interesting, it’s almost like a bourgeois solution. It’s the dynamic between thesis and antithesis that is interesting.’
For Henrot the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the fold is an ideal image of complexity. Speaking of the fold Deleuze invokes a world of superabundance, with no boundary between the organic and the inorganic. Each folds into the other in a continuos ‘texturology’. Henrot’s assembly of images and objects — her art — is able to evoke a span far exceeding the limits of art history’s knowledge, while, irresistibly, holding a mirror to contemporary Western society.

Jonathan P Watts

The Pale Fox by Camille Henrot
Chisenhale Gallery, London
Through April 13
Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_00 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_01 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_02 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_04 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_05 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_07 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_07b Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_08 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_10 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_12 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_13 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_14 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_15 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_16 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_17 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_18
Camille Henrot, The Pale Fox, 2014, installation view, Chisenhale Gallery. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery in partnership with Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; Bétonsalon – Centre for art and research, Paris and Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster. Courtesy kamel mennour, Paris and Johann König, Berlin. Photo: Andy Keate. © ADAGP


A Savage Mind: Camille Henrot’s Primitive Thinking

Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue (video still), 2013

By Anna Watkins Fisher, as published in Camille Henrot, éditions kamel mennour, 2013.

There is something ‘out of time’ about the world of Camille Henrot, something the artist readily admits. “My relationship with reference has always been very traditional. I’m sorry!” she says, adding with Latourian irony: “I should be more modern.”

The artist’s œuvre visualizes an acute and resplendently beautiful sense of historical dislocation, her syncopated aesthetic conveyed through a set of representational paradoxes that repeat across her intermedial recombinations of film, sculpture, photography, performance, and drawing. Such work formalizes Henrot’s steadfast embrace of old-world craftsmanship recast with high production value and a cool attention to detail. Its disjunctive effect is also largely the result of her persistent examination of non-Western subject matter through an optic of polished cosmopolitanism.

Her soft spot for expressly utopian projects, like Esperanto or Henri Van Lier’s anthropogénie, is apparent in her recent films (especially Psychopompe and The Strife of Love in a Dream), which were inspired by French experimental filmmakers like Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein and Abel Gance and the idea of cinema as a ‘total art.’ It should come as no surprise then that Henrot spent her tenure as a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow in Washington, D.C. working on what she describes as “a project about everything.” The result was Grosse Fatigue, a 13-minute short film the artist made for the 2013 Venice Biennale International Exhibition. A mashup of cross-medial forms — part film, part slideshow, part computer animation — the project draws on her extensive research into the various strategies that African, Western, Melanesian, and Asian cultures have sought to tell nothing less than the history of the universe. Grosse Fatigue visualizes this impossible task in its explicit enactment of screenal psychosis. The film intercuts images of artifacts from the Smithsonian collection and everyday objects (e.g. chromatic scales, early personal computers, sponges, a glass eye) with oversaturated images that highlight procedures of archiving, systematizing, and exhibiting (online databases, screenshots, image searches)1. Unleashing the infinite capaciousness of the historical catalogue, Henrot gives us a taste of the archival sublime in the ecstatic age of digital media.

Her engrossment with the “total work of art,” however, should be read less as an interest in the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk (the comprehensive or all-encompassing capacity of the work), than an imaginative attachment to systematicity as utopian fantasy, as a “timelessness” and “spacelessness” that could accommodate incommensurable orders. One perceives her aesthetic preoccupation with such zones of contact or sites of mutual attachment in works like the Janus-headed Arrivals/Departures or Tevau. Her mischievous testing and breaching of epistemological boundaries may be most apparent in Tropics of Love and Collection préhistorique. In both series, the artist splices up and reassembles images from ethnographic archival imagery and pornography — signifiers of geography, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and special difference — for her drawings, multimedia collages, and photographic still-lives. These works visualize Henrot’s preoccupation with the nature/culture divide, particularly with the increasingly ambivalent status of nature in our hypertechnologized moment as what we mean by ‘natural’ has become ever more uncertain.

Some grappling with her deconstructive approach to totalizing systems is crucial for resolving the postcolonial politics of her work. Her practice explores an aching desire for cross-cultural connection, across geopolitical differences and platitudes, historical epochs and orders. The artist has said that she finds methods of knowledge acquisition that tend toward globalizing or universalizing “both absurd and moving”2. With this in mind, her art practice would seem to be indistinguishable from what she has described as her abiding attachment to objects. Camille Henrot doesn’t like to throw anything in the trash3.

These works are typical of her process: research-intensive and ambitious, yet winning. Henrot — an obsessive researcher, collector, and bibliophile — strikes a balance between the epistemophilia and archivistic inclination that drives her. Approachable and unaffected, her work rests at the interstice of erudition and naïveté. For each new work, she produces copious notes — diagrams of intellectual histories and genealogies of the mythological, historical, literary, and philosophical themes she sets out to explore. These rhizomatic “thought drawings” constitute an important, if undisclosed, archive of her artworks.

Given her inclination toward aesthetics of abundance and forms of seriality, it is fitting that the only stand-alone piece that Henrot, a self-described accumulator, has made is nevertheless a replica. Upon seeing a small anthropomorphic sculpture of Le Balafré in the Louvre, the artist felt a strong urge to possess it. Knowing this was not possible, she decided to make one for herself, only to find that she was disappointed by the result because it looked nothing like the original. Touching it more forcefully, she began making marks with her fingers on his face and torso, only to realize that these imprints captured what the original sculpture was about in the first place: “Balafré means ‘the scarred,’ a person who has a scar on the face… The scar has been made by a very important goddess [who decided] not to kill him but just to make him weaker, to teach him to be less powerful… I kind of like this kind of ‘in-between’ solution,” she says. “I like that it is a small man. It reminds me of a photograph of Matisse in his bed that I love. He is in his bed, and he is making a very small woman.”

Concerned with epistemological practices, Henrot’s works attest to a relationship to knowledge that is characterized by an unquenchable desire for more. Her interest in accumulation is, in many ways, a countervailing force to her fascination with totality. The drive toward a total work is never finished and perhaps more accurately reflects her investment in the work of failure in impossible projects. For the artist, a good work has to be extremely difficult, close to impossible, “or maybe even better if it’s impossible.” “I like approaching anthropology in a critical way precisely because anthropological thinking, in its somewhat tenacious aspiration to connect different cultural spheres or knowledges seems to me to index a ‘pensée sauvage…” she has said4.

The keystone to Henrot’s aesthetic philosophy, the concept of pensée sauvage is one she imports from the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of modern anthropology, who argued, contra progressivist dogma, that “primitive thinking,” rather than a pre-logical stage, is profoundly rationalist5. What is most striking about her yearning for the mythical potentialities of totalizing endeavors — such as those exemplified in postcolonial critiques of the discipline of anthropology — is how the artist seems to have found, in her aestheticization of these, a counterintuitive point of entry into an important conversation about the ambivalent forces of postcolonial fantasy (developed by figures like Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant with respect to the French context). Moving between Paris and New York City, Henrot is attuned to the cultural differences that have marked the reception of her work and most significantly, the relatively wider institutionalization of postcolonial critique in the United States.
When I first showed [Coupé/Décalé in France] few people really understood what it was about. People were telling me ‘Oh the music is good,’ ‘Oh the images are beautiful,’ ‘It’s a nice film you shot of Africa.’ The film was not shot in Africa but in Oceania. This idea of the vision from the outside and the construction of the identity of the other… I was thinking it was a little too obvious.

Her practice may thus be described as one of recontextualizing and disseminating Lévi-Strauss’ insights into a contemporary visual vocabulary — coupage et décalage. Her appropriation of pensée sauvage from the anthropological lexicon encapsulates the artist’s conceptual stake in the interdependence between man and things and compulsion to explore the structuring causality that links actions and events in the world6. Anthropology is thus the structuring ethos of her artistic praxis, and “primitive thinking,” or the idea that everything has a meaning, is the ethical imperative of her work (one that remains consonant with her interests in Eastern philosophy and the posthumanist turn).

The French title of Lévi-Strauss’s La Pensée sauvage (1962), which many consider to be his most important work, contains a pun that is untranslatable in English. The Savage Mind fails to capture the polysemy of the French pensée, which means both ‘thought’ and ‘pansy,’ the flower, whereas sauvage translates less equivocally as ‘wild,’ ‘savage’ or ‘primitive.’ The French edition still retains a flower on the cover, and Lévi-Strauss is said to have suggested Pansies for Thought for the English title, a reference to a speech by Ophelia in Hamlet. The problem of failed translation offers an insight into an artist who appears to thrive in the space of the untranslatable. Henrot has said, “I think it is always good not to be understood very well. Especially for people like me who have a tendency to complication, it’s better.”

In 2011, Henrot began Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers?, a two-year-long intensive period of making ikebana, a virtuosic Japanese practice of meditative and studied floral arrangement. Henrot describes the project as an elegiac ritual that she invented in response to the deaths of several loved ones. The artist, who claims she is a bad cook, was tasked instead with organizing flowers for the bereavement. As a result, she grew to feel revolted by what she calls “the consoling power of flowers.” “They are consoling you,” she explains, “but why should we be consoled? Maybe we should just be angry, you know?” The project’s title — a reference to Marcel Liebman’s book Leninism Under Lenin in which one of Lenin’s lieutenants asks, “Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers?” — alludes to this compensatory promise of flowers.

Around the same time as the funeral, Henrot became interested in ikebana. She had just moved to New York and ikebana seemed a way for her to remain connected to the books from her personal library still in Paris. Over the course of two years, she composed 150 ikebana arrangements, paying tribute to volumes such as Roland Barthes’ Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô, André Gide’s L’immoraliste, and Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. She also made ikebana inspired by books that she hadn’t yet read, such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit.

For Henrot, the flower — with its manifold significatory power (as a symbol for vanitas, revolution, beauty, mystery, and so on) — symbolizes the ambiguity of aesthetics, as subversive potential and/or apolitical consolation prize. “I don’t mean I want to do revolution and stop making bouquets,” she explains. “I just want people to be aware also that beauty has this perverse effect. You think it is nice, but maybe it’s not nice. Maybe you should just not look at art or flowers and you should just be acting against something.” For the artist, a good work of art resembles a flower in that it “has to be like a prism, like a fan. It has to be as open as possible.” Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers? thus maintains the ambivalence that the project explores as an open question: “You can think it is ironical and you can think it’s not and this is good because flowers can be seen as a luxury, a capitalist symbol, but they can also be seen as a symbol of revolution…,” she says alluding to a number of civil resistance movements that have adopted the flower as their symbol (e.g. the Jasmine Revolution, the Carnation Revolution, the Rose Revolution, the Tulip Revolution, etc.).
“One ikebana is consoling (it is the sacred ritual to do one ikebana in the house), but what happens if you have many ikebana in just one single room?” Taking Lévi-Strauss at his word, Henrot literalizes pensée sauvage in her intensification of the elegiac dimension of ikebana, turning it into something else, “something more obsessive.” Not interested in just one ikebana, she creates rooms full of them. Her manic accumulation actualizes the pun of Lévi-Strauss’ title. Bringing together flowers and thoughts (ikebana and her personal library, the intimate ritual of mourning and the public practice of art making, nature and culture, East and West), she engages in primitive thinking as an exquisite work of untranslatability.

1. Camille Henrot, Email to author, 30 April 2013.
2. Camille Henrot, Notes sur mon travail, 30 Mars 2011.
3. Camille Henrot, Interview with author, Skype, 3 April 2013.
4. Ibid.
5. Alan Barnard, Jonathan Spencer, “Claude Lévi-Strauss,” Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Routledge, p. 335, 1996.
6. Camille Henrot, Notes sur mon travail, 30 March 2011.

Camille Henrot
Grosse Fatigue, 2013
Vidéo (couleur, sonore) / Video (color, sound)
13 min
Musique originale de / Original music by Joakim
Voix / Voice by Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh
Texte écrit en collaboration avec / Text written in collaboration with Jacob Bromberg
Producteur / Producer : kamel mennour, Paris ; avec le soutien du / with the additional support of : Fonds de dotation Famille Moulin, Paris
Production: Silex Films
Lion d’argent – 55e Biennale de Venise / Silver Lion – 55th Venice Biennale, 2013
Projet développé dans le cadre du / Project conducted as part of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship Program, Washington, D.C.
Remerciements particuliers aux / Special thanks to: the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
© ADAGP Camille Henrot
Courtesy the artist, Silex Films and kamel mennour, Paris



CAMILLE HENROT The Restless Earth


Camille Henrot’s solo exhibition The Restless Earth made full use of the New Museum’s second floor, leading viewers through a loop of rooms with diverse characters, plots, and settings. A sharp contrast to the gestalt experiences presented by Ragnar Kjartansson and Roberto Cuoghi on the surrounding floors, Henrot covered broad expanses of time and space in four videos, 46 flower-assemblages, a 135-plate adaptation of a jewelry auction catalogue, numerous mixed media drawings, engravings, and two sculptures. All works were accompanied by extensive wall labels that traced and analyzed each project’s evolution, providing facts and details usually absent from the works themselves that added useful layers to a progressive unfolding of meaning. Without names, dates, and places, our assumptions and associations run wild, as they are wont to do in today’s media landscape where seductive pictures are often detached from, or misaligned with, factual information.  Consider Google image searches, Facebook, Instagram, and even, where a slow load or a pop-up ad might obscure or stagger our absorption of the most reputable journalism. These questions of how stories are told, how information is gathered and assembled into knowledge, and how rapidly this process is changing, are central to Henrot’s project.

Camille Henrot, “Coupé-Décalé,” 2010. Video (color, sound), 3 min 54 sec, © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris.

“Grosse Fatigue” (2013), which earned Henrot the Silver Lion at this year’s Venice Biennial, is an epic film compressed into 13 minutes. Its title, translated as “Dead Tired,” is shared with a 1994 French satire about celebrity identity theft. In Henrot’s opening sequence, the phrase “in the beginning” introduces a torrent of interwoven creation myths presented in response to a Google search: “the history of the universe.” This dream-like composite is accompanied by a succession of images: flowing veils of ink, rushing water, the Milky Way, a “Buddha’s Hand” citrus fruit, all of which send us thinking back eons in pursuit of the ultimate beginning. The familiar Biblical phrase repeats again toward the middle of the film while an image of an early computer lingers on screen. Here, “the beginning” is connected to a cumbersome machine that feels as ancient as an early species. This artifact illustrates the origin of the digital age, which has accelerated in its relatively short history, and will only accelerate more. Even the Energizer batteries neatly lined up by fingers with matching blue-polished nails are like an archival display, once marketed to “keep going and going” on a scale that shrinks in comparison to today’s unbroken connectivity, at least for parts of the world’s population.

Camille Henrot, “Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers?” 2012. Installation view. Courtesy New Museum, New York, 2014. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

But Henrot is no stranger to other parts of the population. Many of her films are set in locations remote to Western society where rates and patterns of acceleration are different. “Coupé/Décalé” (2010) records a tribal ritual on 35mm film, giving it the appearance of historic footage. While watching N’gol land-diving (a precedent to Western bungee jumping), the viewer is lead to make many half-conscious assumptions about the subjects and the environment, all of which are called into question when a girl in a T-shirt and jeans with a digital camera comes into view. “The Strife of Love in a Dream” (2011) offers a similar moment of surprise, when a bonfire ritual begins and hundreds of glowing screens pop up to document it. Only when assumptions are refuted do we become aware of them: why do Western viewers often confuse distant places and distant times? And what happens when we realize, as we must, that one or the other is not so distant after all? Most of the exotic objects showcased in “Grosse Fatigue” are in fact located right here in our nation’s capital at the Smithsonian Institute, where Henrot held an Artist Research Fellowship last year. The debris shown resting at the bottom of the ocean off the Vanuatu island Espiritu Santo, which couldn’t be farther from our shores, was actually left by American troops during World War II.

Notions of otherness are further complicated in “The Strife of Love in a Dream” as the footage, shot in the southern Indian province of Tamil Nadu in 2011, offers conflicting associations. While crowds climbing a mountain for a ritual seem set back in time, factory workers packaging the anti-anxiety drug Atarax feel flung into a dystopian future. These scenes have the eeriness of a science fiction film: all characters covered entirely in white except for their eyes; gloved fingers operating controls on plastic-wrapped dashboards; larger-than-life machinery; masses of white pills; expressionless faces. The factory, shown in fast-moving, clinically anonymous fragments, recalls the immaculate outer-space interiors of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the line between human and machine famously dissolves.

Camille Henrot, “Grosse Fatigue,” 2013. Video, color, sound, 13 min. Original music: Joakim; Voice: Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh; Text: written in collaboration with Jacob Bromberg; Producer: Kamel Mennour, Paris, with the additional support of Fonds de dotation Famille Moulin, Paris; Production: Silex Films. © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy the artist, Silex Films, and kamel mennour, Paris.

2001 was made in 1968, a prophecy of the future that is now the past. That same year, Leo Steinberg gave a lecture at MoMA introducing the “flatbed picture plane,” a change of “psychic address” in which the painted surface was “no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature, but of operational processes.”* He cited newspapers, maps, tabletops, and studio floors as models of pictures that collect data instead of representing worlds. This theory may be as easily applied to “Grosse Fatigue” as to Rauschenberg’s work of the early 1950s, only we might now replace the flatbed with the screen, our new interface that addresses the body from any position. By moving between the physical desktop (with drawing tools, rulers, and X-acto knives) and the computer desktop (with icons, folders, and windows, and windows, and windows), Henrot explores this same matter of “psychic address” and its relation to perception. Phones, GPS devices, tablets, and TVs address the body/mind at increasingly close range. With the rise of Google Glass, the “desktop” (or picture plane) merges directly with vision itself. Data-collecting surfaces have evolved and proliferated since Steinberg, and Henrot shows us the results in 2013: somewhere between euphoria and madness, empowerment and exhaustion.

Upon entering The Restless Earth, one is immersed in an installation of flower-assemblages that translate texts from Henrot’s library into the language of Japanese ikebana. It is a poetic play on the shifty relations between text and object; to identify the logic of each match demands close reading and looking, which might be Henrot’s mandate for all forms of interface.


FIAC Paris 2014 Articles and Reviews




Fairs Market France

Paris fair sheds its Frenchness

Pinault and Arnault invitation to view Fiac ahead of VIPs pays dividends

The 41st edition of Fiac (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain) at the Grand Palais in Paris

“For me, Fiac is like the Frieze Masters of contemporary art; you can, in the main, be assured of the quality of the works,” said an anonymous US dealer attending the 41st edition of Fiac (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain) at the Grand Palais in Paris. The French billionaire Francois Pinault, whose collection is housed at two galleries in Venice, also put his faith in the French fair; he bought 30 works at Fiac and its new satellite event, (Off)icielle, at the Docks-Cité de la mode et du design.

The roll-call of curators, artists and collectors reflected the fair’s prestige, with the British artist Tracey Emin, the French artist Bernar Venet, the president of the Centre Pompidou, Alain Seban, and Beatrix Ruf, the newly appointed director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in attendance. Sources on the floor said that Pinault and Bernard Arnault, who is due to open his Fondation Louis Vuitton museum in west Paris later this week, entered the fair at a special pre-arranged time; a fair spokeswoman said that “out of discretion, both men came through a separate entrance a little earlier”.

The Paris-based art advisor Laurence Dreyfus said, however, that “there are not many spectacular works at Fiac this year, except perhaps for the Olafur Eliasson pieces on the stand of Neugerriemschneider gallery” (the German dealer’s solo presentation of works by the ubiquitous Danish-Icelandic artist proved popular, especially Dew Viewer, 2014, a cluster of 212 glass spheres; prices for the works were undisclosed). But a UK collector was overheard on the fair floor saying: “Fiac always plays it safe”.

Other art world professionals were evangelical about the elevated profile of the Paris fair. The dealer Michel Rein, who runs galleries in Paris and Brussels, said that Fiac has shed its reputation for being “too French”. There are 46 French galleries out of 191 galleries in total. “Of course Fiac is truly international,” said Rein who has participated in 23 editions of Fiac. “Why would you fill the fair with French dealers anyway?” he added. A 24-carat gold ATM by the Bulgarian artist Stefan Nikolaev on Rein’s stand, entitled Cry Me a River, 2009, was a hit, with two editions of the piece selling for €15,000 each. Nikolaev said that the work is “a comment on our relationship with money”.

A selection of works by Roni Horn at Hauser & Wirth gallery, especially a series of photographs of the French actress Isabelle Huppert, was also a draw (Portrait of an Image with Isabelle Huppert, 2005, $425,000). A gallery spokesman said that museums have expressed interest in the other Horn works, including one of the artist’s famous glass drums (I deeply perceive that the infinity of matter is no dream, 2014, $3.5m).

The VIP preview also proved profitable for the London- and New York-based gallery Skarstedt. It sold at least four works including a large-scale wall piece incorporating everyday detritus, such as buttons and beads, by the late US artist Mike Kelley (Memory Ware Flat no, 10, 2001) for “more than $1m”, said Bona Montagu, the director of Skarstedt London. “We’re seeing a lot more Americans here,” she said.

The younger galleries housed upstairs in the Salon d’Honneur section seem keen to graduate to the main floor of the fair where the established galleries showcase their works, but the mid-career dealers on the first floor still reported strong sales. The London-based gallery Campoli Presti sold two works by the US photographer Eileen Quinlan priced at $15,000 each.

But the final appearance of the veteran Paris dealer Yvon Lambert at Fiac struck a poignant note. Lambert will close his Paris gallery in December and plans to launch a new business next year devoted to art books and exhibition catalogues. The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, toured Lambert’s stand with the newly appointed culture minister Fleur Pellerin, giving Lambert the state’s stamp of approval before he bids adieu to the Parisian art scene.

Mike Kelley’s Memory Ware Flat no, 10, 2001) sold for “more than $1m” with Skarstedt



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The Mother of all French Markets: The Incandescent FIAC 2014 Paris

©Sylvia Davis

FIAC Paris 2014


October 23, 2014

FIAC 2014 opened at the Grand Palais in a shimmering flurry of celebrities, dignitaries, and VIPs.

One of the leading international art fairs, FIAC was founded 40 years ago to bring a curated exposé of contemporary art to the public. It was born as an event “by gallerists for gallerists” and gradually expanded to a mainstream audience, welcoming around 80,000 visitors at the capacious Grand Palais main venue. It has also sprouted numerous extramural sites and events, including installations in public spaces such as the infamous sculpture by Paul McCarthy. Set up in the swish Place Vendome, the giant green shape –some saw it as a Christmas tree, most identified it with a sex toy – was vandalized, causing it to deflate (there’s an irony somewhere in there) and had to be taken down.

Agrandissez l’image
The Mother of all French Markets: The Incandescent FIAC 2014 ParisPrime Minister Manuel Valls, Minister of Culture Fleur Pellerin (right)

Agrandissez l’image
The Mother of all French Markets: The Incandescent FIAC 2014 ParisGilbert and George, as if they had just jumped out of their picture

Agrandissez l’image
The Mother of all French Markets: The Incandescent FIAC 2014 ParisArtist Tracey Emin catching up with friends Georgie Hopton and Hikari Yokoyama

FIAC is not a museum exhibition, it is a bustling market. The main distinction is that the art on display is bought and sold right then and there. The whole art world stands to notice when a piece or a particular artist is attracting interest at FIAC, and eager collectors elbow their way through the doors on preview day to scoop up their next treasure. The continuing success story of FIAC will start a new chapter in March 2015 with the debut of FIAC Los Angeles.

For emerging young artists, being noticed here can be the fortune cookie that presages an auspicious future. To underline this incubator effect and promote the next generation, a new addition this year is the (OFF)icielle art fair held at the Docks, presenting 68 newcomer galleries from 14 countries.

The sense of occasion on the vernissage came from the tour of the exhibits by Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Minister of Culture Fleur Pellerin, as well as the presence of celebrated artists likeGilbert and George and Tracey Emin, who stood out for being eminently gracious, meeting and greeting, chatting to old friends and generally having a grand time.

For all the fond handshakes and champagne clinking, there’s serious business swiftly moving on in the background, which makes the energy of the FIAC particularly seductive. Sales appeared to be ticking along nicely as we witnessed, just during our brief visit, the red dot going up on Jean Dubuffet’s L’Heure de Pointe, priced well over 530,ooo euros, by Waddington Custot gallery, and brisk interest in a striking 2.9-million-euro Basquiat at the Van de Weghe booth.

FIAC, however, is not an exclusive playground for the elite collector. While the main statement pieces are intended to attract attention, and priced accordingly, galleries offer a wide selection of new art, prints, or limited series – items that are within reach of every art enthusiast. FIAC is a great place to start a collection. With 191 galleries from 26 countries there’s bound to be something that catches your eye, and gallery representatives are approachable and passionate about the art they bring to the show. If you find a piece you love, you could be taking back home the ultimate souvenir from Paris, one that will ignite memories and inspiration for years to come.

FIAC Paris is held every year in October.

FIAC 2014
Grand Palais
Avenue Winston Churchill, Paris 8th
October 23-26
Noon to 8pm – Until 9pm Friday
Métro: Champs-Elysées / Clemenceau
Admission including catalogue €60 – Children under 12 free





“À votre avis,” by Amadou Sanogo, is being shown at the FIAC in Paris as part of the art fair’s (Off)icielle satellite event. CreditAmadou Sanogo/Galerie Magnin-A, Paris
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PARIS — As the art world continues to boom and expand, there can be little doubt that, in order to survive in it, size helps.

In recent years, major galleries have compulsively opened outposts worldwide: Gagosian alone has 14 galleries, with another set to open in London next year; Emmanuel Perrotin has four; David Zwirner, three. Around 200 art fairs are crammed into the calendar, with the major ones like Art Basel and Frieze London also holding international sister events (Miami Beach and Hong Kong for Basel; New York for Frieze).

As the International Contemporary Art Fair in Paris prepares to open its 41st edition on Oct. 23, it appears clear that this event is happy to play with the big boys.

Under the guidance of Jennifer Flay, the fair’s general director since 2010, the Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain, or FIAC, is extending its reach in multiple directions. Its first international event, FIAC Los Angeles, will be held next year at the Convention Center from March 27-29. This year the Paris fair is effectively doubling, with the opening of a new satellite event, (Off)icielle, that focuses on emerging galleries.

“Since 2006 there have been up to six or seven different ‘offs’ around the FIAC, but, with respect, none of them really made the standard,” the New Zealand-born Ms. Flay said during an interview this summer in her office here. “So yes, we decided to do it ourselves.”

Before Ms. Flay was named artistic director of the FIAC in 2003, the fair was considered a fusty relic on the art fair circuit: “too boring and too poor,” as Ms. Flay put it. Today, it has standing as a major international event that has injected new life into the French art scene.

As usual, the fair, which this year runs through Oct. 26, is being held in locations across Paris. Its main gallery base is in the Grand Palais, with events in the Tuileries, the Jardin des Plantes, the Place Vendôme and on the banks of the Seine. The spread of the FIAC is so extensive that this year it has organized shuttle boats along the Seine that can serenely transport ticket holders from the Grand Palais to the Cité de la Mode, where (Off)icielle is being held, avoiding the frenzy of the Paris Métro.

Such is the draw of the FIAC that many Paris art institutions synchronize their calendars with its opening. This year, happily timed events include the reopening of the Picasso Museum on Oct. 25, the inauguration of the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton on Oct. 20 (opening to the public on Oct. 27), and the reopening of La Monnaie de Paris on Oct. 25, with a major exhibition dedicated to the American artist Paul McCarthy. Celebrations are also being held by the Fondation Cartier for its 30th anniversary.


“Joel,” 2011, by Omar Victor Diop, part of the (Off)icielle event at FiAC.CreditOmar Victor Diop/Galerie Magnin-A, Paris

The Grand Palais will hold stands from 191 galleries from 26 countries, including Turkey, Mexico, Norway, India and South Korea. Most galleries, as in previous years, hail from France, the United States and Germany. Major dealers include Hauser & Wirth from Switzerland; White Cube from Britain; Paula Cooper and Gagosian from the United States; Sprüth Magers from Germany; and from France, the cream of the Paris galleries, including Perrotin and Marian Goodman.

It will also be a last FIAC for the legendary French dealer Yvon Lambert, who confirmed this summer that, at 68, he will be closing his Paris gallery in order to focus on books and literature.

The Grand Palais will be divided into sections, with established galleries in one area and newer galleries in another. There will also be a space dedicated to the works of the nominees for the Marcel Duchamp prize, one of France’s most prestigious contemporary art awards. On the shortlist this year are Théo Mercier, Julien Prévieux, Florian and Michaël Quistrebert, and Evariste Richer. The winner will be announced on Oct. 25.

The work of 3,430 contemporary and Modern artists will be on sale, including established names like Marina Abramovic (Krinzinger Gallery); Zeng Fanzhi (Gagosian); Nan Goldin (Matthew Marks); Ai Weiwei (Lisson Gallery and Continua); and Dan Flavin (Pace). They will be alongside rising stars like the 35-year-old British painter and sculptor Lydia Gifford (Laura Bartlett); the multidisciplinary Indian artist Asim Waqif (Nature Morte); and Cyprien Gaillard, the 34-year-old French multimedia wunderkind, whose work will be on show at Bugada & Cargnel, Sprüth Magers and Gladstone Gallery.


“Installation View, Drawn,” by Lydia Gifford.CreditLydia Gifford/Laura Bartlett Gallery

(Off)icielle, the new satellite fair, runs from Oct. 22-26 at Paris’s new City of Fashion and Design, known as Les Docks, which opened in 2012 in the 13th Arrondissement in the city’s southeast quadrant. Sixty-eight galleries from 13 countries will be showcasing works there in a vast, 3,700-square-meter space.

Fringe events are not new to art fairs, a recent example being Frieze Masters, focused on historical art, which opened in London in 2012. But rather than scanning the past, Ms. Flay wanted (Off)icielle to highlight up-and-coming dealers, or galleries that might have been overlooked.

“It’s not some little thing we’re doing on the side, it’s absolutely a part of FIAC,” said Ms. Flay, who, having run her own gallery in Paris from 1990 to 2003, understands the importance of art fairs for dealers.

Galleries showing at (Off)icielle include the London-based Limoncello, with works by the young Israeli artist Yonatan Vinitsky. From Paris, galleries include Magnin-A, which focuses on contemporary African art and is showing works by Omar Victor Diop and Amadou Sanogo among others, and Semiose, which includes the multimedia artist Sébastien Gouju. From the United States, LTD Los Angeles is showcasing the 25-year-old Argentine-born artist Amalia Ulman, while Zink Gallery from Berlin brings the 23-year-old Russian video artist Aslan Gaisumov.


“Untitled (video still),” 2011-2014, by Alsan Gaisumov.CreditCourtesy of Aslan Gaisumov and Galerie Zink, Berlin

Ms. Flay said that in holding the satellite event, she also hoped to provide an accessible entry point to the art world for aspiring collectors. “There is something about being surrounded by these younger galleries that is so much less intimidating than the context of the Grand Palais,” she said. “We’ll be creating a different atmosphere.”

While the FIAC offers private gallery tours and exclusive events for its V.I.P. guests, (Off)icielle is channeling an edgier vibe. Les Docks has impeccable hipster credentials: The former industrial warehouse holds the ultratrendy bar-cafe-nightclubs Nüba (run by the Baron nightclub crowd) and Wanderlust (part of the Silencio bandwagon), where (Off)icielle will hold screenings and events. In keeping with the urban vibe, street food will be available.

Another new event at this year’s FIAC is a collaboration with the Austrian crystal maker Swarovski. As part of the Hors Les Murs section— the showcasing of art outside of the Grand Palais — the house is sponsoring a new work by the French sculptor Didier Marcel, which will be in the Jardin des Plantes in the Fifth Arrondissement. Mr. Marcel, who won a competition to create a work “inspired by Swarovski,” is creating “Rosée” (Dew), described as a scattering of drops of crystal throughout the Jardin’s Rose Garden.

Meanwhile, a Hors Les Murs feature, “Tree” by Paul McCarthy in the Place Vendôme, will not be visible during the fair: The 80-meter-high inflatable sculpture was deflated by vandals the night of Oct. 17, and Mr. McCarthy and local authorities said he would not seek to re-inflate it. The lime green sculpture was described by the artist as a Christmas tree, but critics said looked like something much more prosaic: a sex toy. “After the violent reactions, the artist was disturbed by the potential impact of the work,” according to FIAC officials.

Doreen Carvajal contributed reporting



Paris makes a comeback

 PARIS  |  23 October 2014  |  AMA  |    |  

The one domain that seems to have been saved from the culture of “French bashing” is art. The sudden yet spectacular revival of the Parisian art scene and the multiple events and inaugurations of international recognition taking place day by day across the capital have not gone unnoticed by the Anglo-Saxons, who this week pay testimony to this resurgence in the media with an unusual enthusiasm that deserves to be recognised.

It is in this resolutely optimistic context that the 41st edition of FIAC opens this year, a time when Paris offers art amateurs a myriad of spaces and events, some public — the reopening of the Musée Picasso and Monnaie de Paris — and others private, such as the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

Paris: art capital? 
The pick of Paris museums remains, without a doubt, one of the richest in the world, with tens of millions of visitors arriving every year; however, France’s place on the global art market has been in constant recession over recent years. It is in London (where the majority of important collectors live), New York or Hong Kong where most high-value transactions take place.

The French art scene is obviously not the most profitable in the world, yet France and Paris can nevertheless count on their different qualities. As Anny Shaw underlines in The ArtNewspaper: “London might appeal to the business head, but it seems that Paris appeals to the heart, and never more so than this year.”

Conversely to many perceptions, and despite Paris’ ‘sleeping beauty’ image, we have recently seen the giants of contemporary art (Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac and the equally famous Gagosian gallery) invest in the Parisian suburbs with the opening of vast spaces in the towns of Pantin and Le Bourget respectively. The inauguration of the Fondation Louis Vuitton in the heart of the Bois de Boulogne and the proliferation of new projects elsewhere in Paris, for the most part private, are also consistent with the notion that the decided attractiveness of the capital is only waiting to be exploited.

This autumn, the rich public programming and the good health of FIAC have created an almost euphoric feeling. So what to make of it all? “Paris is suddenly in a very good mood for art,” said Jean-Philippe Billarant, an industrialist and longtime collector who plans to give tours of his collection, housed in a converted silo, during FIAC week. Le Silo sits 30 miles northwest of Paris. “The atmosphere of Paris reminds me of Chelsea 30 years ago, and that’s interesting.”

This enthusiasm is shared by Sunny Rahbar, co-director of the Third Line Gallery and exhibitor at FIAC where he is showing work by Ala Ebtekar, Amir H. Fallah, Farhad Moshiri, Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Rana Begum and Slavs & Tatars. The gallerist explains, “I can say that the fair has gone from strength to strength. We have participated for the last 3 years now, and every year we meet more and more collectors. And yes, it does feel that the market is getting stronger for sure. I feel the future for the market is only going to get better and stronger as there seems to be a renewed interest and a good energy around the fair here and contemporary art in general.”

Focus on FIAC
Since Jennifer Flay took over FIAC, media and art professionals alike have said that the fair has taken on a new life. The efforts made to drag the event from the drowsy atmosphere in which it found itself in the early 2000s seem to have paid off. With an obstinate desire to internationalise, the New Zealander has, over the years, drawn some of the biggest galleries in the world and their precious collectors to Paris. Whilst many fairs have taken off across the world and the competition is intense between the leading events, today FIAC is hot on the heels of competitors such as Frieze and Art Basel.

The 41st edition sees its doors open on 23 October into a more or less serene atmosphere, the rejection of subjecting works of art to wealth tax having arrived just in time to reassure French collectors.

Internationalism is the key word for Jennifer Flay. This year 191 galleries originating from 26 countries come together at the Grand Palais; amongst these, only 65% are European (compared to 73% in 2013). Featured are 48 French galleries, 26 German, with galleries from Norway and Portugal making their debut appearance, whilst 45 North American galleries are to exhibit (four from Brasil and four from Mexico). Furthermore, for the first time, we see the participation of Japan and Saudi Arabia.

Amongst new participants, and also those returning, include: Helly Nahmad Gallery (New York), Hannah Hoffman (Los Angeles), Antoine Levy (Paris), Vera Cortês Art Agency (Lisbon), Cory Nielsen (Berlin) and Wallspace (New York).

Artists at the Grand Palais 
In light of this 41st edition, Artprice has released precise information on the key players at this event. This year we will see no less that 1,451 artists. Whilst big names such as Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter will be on display, one will be surprised to find that contemporary Chinese artists, on the other hand, are rather underrepresented: Luo Zhongli, Chen Yifei and Zhang Xiadong — amongst the ten most popular artists in the world — will not be exhibited at FIAC.

From international galleries to international names; amongst the 84 nationalities represented, American artists take the lion’s share with 25%, followed by Germany (12%), France (11%), the United Kingdom (9%), Italy (3.3%), Switzerland (2.9%), Belgium (2.8%) and China (2.7%).

Recent figures on exhibiting artists show that more than 80% of exhibited artists are still alive, the average age being 50 years old. The doyenne of this selection is Cuban Carmen Herrera, aged 99 years old, exhibited by Lisson Gallery London. As for the youngest, they are just 25 years old: Lucien Smith at Skarstedt and Phillip Timischl at Neue Atle Brucke.

The next step: go international 
If the scale of the event has undoubtedly risen over recent years, the ambition of becoming a rival to Art Basel is still a target to reach for.

Whilst it is certainly globalised, the art market is not totally closed off to locals. Yet we must wonder if the small number of high-level collectors residing in France (the consequence, as we saw above, results in the lack of luxury sales on French soil) does not represent significant obstacles for FIAC.

Despite a visible effort to strengthen their image as an international fair, a process which inevitably comes with a reduced number of French galleries, FIAC is still a long way from the renown of Art Basel, which remains unrivalled, except perhaps by the presence of Frieze, which is of course a younger fair; both of these events have successfully expanded to the United States (Art Basel Miami and Frieze New York) as well as Hong Kong (for Art Basel). So FIAC will take up residence in Los Angeles from 27 until 29 March 2015. The outcome of this Californian adventure is yet to be seen…

Around FIAC, and (OFF), and other offsite events
Amateurs and collectors, often weary of well known names who are mostly inaccessible for the majority of buyers, will this week have a wide range of coinciding events. With seven in total, the big newcomer this year is the launch of l'(OFF)icielle de la FIAC, taking place at the Cité de la mode et du design, in the Jakob + MacFarlane building. Jennifer Flay has highlighted that she wanted “a new event entirely, not just another satellite of the FIAC,” much in the same spirit as Liste, the much-valued event that takes place every year alongside Art Basel.

In the media space that FIAC and its surrounding events must share with the inauguration of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the appearance of l'(OFF)icille raises many questions. For the 60 participating galleries, the success of a newly-created event is in no way assured, even if the opening on 21 October seemed promising.

Does the appearance of this parallel fair — equally as reliant on the powerful Reed Exhibition’s organisation — not risk suffocating a still-hesitant market, rather than leaving the competition in the same segment, leaving them in pieces? Furthermore the stand tariffs at l'(OFF)icille and its mother festival barely seem to differ (€445 against a Grand Palais’ €494 to €545), despite the huge difference in reputation. However, it is worth mentioning that these tariffs are often subject to negotiations. One may wonder if the aim of Reed Exhibitions, in the creation of this new event, is to partially open up FIAC to galleries who have for many years dreamed of participating and to let them in through a side entrance.

As for these external events, despite the cancellation of Cutlog (the director of which accused Reed of monopolising all available locations across the market and thus saturating it), the choice remains varied.

The event considered to be the most important of fairs “off-not-officielle”, is YIA — Young International Art Fair — taking place at the Carreau du Temple in the heart of the Marais quarter, from 23 until 26 October.

Claiming the need to mix up young galleries and more well-established players, YIA’s founder Romain Tichit refuses to deliberately be considered as an “off” event. Betting on the originality and creativity which, it is said, are at the heart of its success, the objective taken up by YIA is to set themselves apart, establishing their own identity in an environment which is, at best, more conservative. This proves a considerable challenge when the YIA has often been accused of unequal selection.

Not far from the Grand Palais, in Hotel le A, rue d’Artois, the first French edition of the Outsider Art Fair will take place. The fair, which was founded in New York 20 years ago, demonstrates the important position of Art Brut today, and more widely that of what Anglo-Saxons refer to as ‘Outsider Art’. Coincidence or not, the event takes place for the first time this year whilst Bruno Decharme’s key abcd collection is on display at Maison Rouge.

Other noteworthy events include Art Elysées (Champs Elysées, from 23 until 27 October) and Design Elysée which, having focused on the particular segment of ‘classic’ Modern and contemporary art and historic design from the post-war period, are also looking to make their mark.

Another fair working in the less competitive, but perhaps more difficult, sector of the avant-garde is Variation, formerly Show off, which takes place at the Espace des Blancs Manteaux from 21 until 26 October. This fair centres around contemporary digital creation, via the work of 40 artists who present photography, videos, 3D printing, sculptures and prototypes.

A sign of the desire for renewal and dynamism which can be noted in today’s atmosphere, the Slick Art Fair has also opted for a name change, rebranding itself this year as Slick Attitude. For its 9th edition, the event will take place underneath Paris’ Pont Alexandre III, bringing together 30 galleries with one common objective: to promote the young international art scene in France and to emphasise the work of new galleries which aim to research and uncover emerging talent.

Finally, new arrival Fair In Off, which is also to take place at the Espace Commines between 23 and 26 October, will try to grab the attention of amateur art-lovers in a landscape which already leaves very little room for competition. According to organisers, it is to be a “complimentary initiative”, bringing together 14 emerging artists standing staunchly at the fringes of traditional fairs. Fair In Off proposes to “bring the public closer to the process of artistic reflection.”

Ed Clark – An African American Artist in Paris Before New York was King

An exhibition of the work of Ed Clark will be at The Mistake Room, Los Angeles, in the fall of 2014.

An exhibition of the work of Jack Whitten will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, in the fall of 2014

An exhibition of the work of Archibald Motley will be at LACMA, Los Angeles, in the fall of 2014.

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles

Photo of Ed Clark Seated in Front of His Work




A History Waiting To Be Written: Ed Clark’s High-Spirited, Abstract Paintings

Clark, _Untitled_ (2005) - lava

David Hammons’ thoughtful curation of the exhibition, Ed Clark: Big Bang, currently at the Tilton Gallery (January 14–February 22, 2014) helps establish a much needed context for an important artist of the New York School, who, now in his late 80s, continues to make boldly exuberant paintings. By including single works by Clark’s friends and supporters — Yayoi Kusama, Joan Mitchell, and Donald Judd — Hammons reminds us that he had the respect of astute, tough-minded contemporaries, even as curators and critics have repeatedly neglected to acknowledge his contribution over the years.

Clark’s inclusion in the traveling exhibition, Blues for Smoke, curated by Bennet Simpson, which was at the Whitney Museum of American Art (February 7–April 28, 203), was certainly a step in the right direction. For, as Corinne Robins pointed out in a review from 1997, even the seemingly inclusive chronicler and art historian, Irving Sandler failed to mention “Ed Clark or any other artist of color” in his book, The New York School (1978). The history that Robins alludes to — which is occult and largely kept alive by artists and poets — needs to be brought further into the light, particularly in New York. I say this because when I first saw work by Clark at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum and, after that, a particularly memorable, shaped painting from 1957 at the Art Institute of Chicago, I wondered why I had never heard of him before, and what had happened to him. It was as if Clark had been present and active in the late ’50s and then mysteriously, he was gone. This, of course, wasn’t the case.

Clark, _New Orleans Series #5_ (2012)

Later, I learned that Nicholas Krushenick included Clark, along with Al Held, George Sugarman, Yayoi Kusama, Ronald Bladen, and himself, in the first 1957 Christmas show at the Brata Gallery. A few small pockets of the art world, it seems, were multicultural long before that word entered the discourse. In a 1972 Art News article, Lawrence Campbell described Clark’s shaped painting in the Brata exhibition as the first of its kind. In retrospect, it seems that with the rise of Minimalism, Pop Art, Painterly Realism and Color Field painting, and the far reaching influence of formalist criticism, Clark, whose roots are in Abstract Expressionism, got left out, both at the time and in every retelling of what has come to be known as the “Second Generation.” Here, it’s worth remembering that Donald Judd gave Clark a show in his loft in 1971.

The larger problem is that decades have gone by with few calling attention to Clark’s absence, as if everyone — including dealers, curators, collectors and critics — had gotten the history right the first time. Self-satisfaction is only one of the art world’s Achilles heels. While very few people in New York from the early 1960s on seemed to be paying much attention, particularly to painting that owes something to Abstract Expressionism, Clark continued making bold, innovative work.  More importantly — as I hope to make clear — his work subverts a number of commonplace assumptions about Abstract Expressionism, beginning with the long held charge that it is elitist. It also enlarges our understanding of what various artists did with this loosely defined approach to painting. Like his friend, Joan Mitchell, Clark never succumbed to the pressures of Minimalism and Pop Art to reject the materiality of paint and a human touch, as did another contemporary, Al Held.

Moreover, contrary to those who claimed Abstract Expressionism was a purely American development, Clark has openly acknowledged being influenced by Nicolas de Stael’s interlocking slabs of impasto paint, which he applied with a palette knife. However, instead of troweling cement-like, slow-drying oil paint, Clark paints on the floor, using a broom to push acrylic paint whose consistency ranges from a watery medium to a creamy paste, in colors that go from white to primaries and secondaries, often mixed with white. Against the unprimed, often slightly dirty canvas, Clark’s thick swaths of white paint evoke crème fraiche floating on vichyssoise. There is something innocent and indecent about their pillowy surfaces.

Clark, _Untitled_ (2009)

Utilizing an impure approach, which distinguishes him from his more stylistically narrow peers, Clark is likely to combine staining, splattering and drawing with a broom in a single work. In “Untitled” (2001) and “Untitled” (2005), he stacked wide swaths of thick, velvety paint that horizontally span the surface. Some of the swaths are made of two colors that have been poured together, with the broom mixing them further, while others are layered, one color on top of another. Although they evoke brushstrokes, we instinctively know that the swaths are too wide to have been made by a brush. By pushing them with a broom, Clark connects the history of menial labor and janitorial services with high art and abstract painting.

Clark, _Untitled_ (2005)

It is one thing to paint like a bricklayer, as an artist I know once said disparagingly of Milton Resnick, but it is quite another to transform a janitorial activity into a high-minded lyricism, which is exactly what Clark has done and more. Clark’s bonding of janitorial services and Abstract Expressionist painting challenges the widely received art historical view that it wasn’t until Minimalism (Frank Stella’s use of a house painter’s brushes) and Pop Art (Andy Warhol’s silk screens of movie stars and disasters) that artists mixed labor, commercial tools, the everyday and art. Clark’s paintings are performative, while his lush, hybrid forms are simultaneously sculptural and painterly, buoyant and even witty.

By drawing in paint with a broom — and really this should be considered an innovation — it is clear that Clark possesses a remarkable amount of control and possibility with an ungainly instrument. This is most apparent in “Paris” (2009), in which he stacked a series of distinct gestural forms on an unprimed canvas. The variously colored forms, which seem simultaneously solid and liquid, frozen and moving, manmade and lava-like, evoke an adagio act, stones precariously balanced on each other, an abstract totem and a veiled dancer in constant movement. In “Paris,” it is clear that Clark has absorbed as well as transformed the Surrealism of Max Ernst and Joan Miro into something all his own.

Clark, _Paris_ (2009)

Clark’s oeuvre is as distinctive and particular, and, in that regard, comparable to the work of other artists who belong to the so-called “Second Generation” — Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis, and Norman Bluhm, for example. He is certainly due the close attention that Mitchell and Francis have received. Clark is an important figure in the history of postwar abstract art, a history that includes African American practitioners, whose work ranges across time and style — from Norman Lewis and Alma Thomas to Sam Gilliam, Howardena Pindell, Stanley Whitney and Jack Whitten. It is a rich, complex and little-known history that requires further research and scholarship, not to mention exhibitions and monographs.

Hammons selected eight large paintings that Clark did between 2001 and 2012. They were all done after the artist turned seventy-five. What an eye-popping revelation and joy to see them hung in three spacious rooms of an Upper East Side townhouse. Their enthusiasm is unrivaled and catching.

Ed Clark: Big Bang continues at Tilton Gallery (8 East 76 Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 22.




Ed Clark by Jack Whitten
Art : Oral History

Ed Clark

by Jack Whitten

BOMB’s Oral History Project documents the life stories of New York City’s African-American artists.

Self Portrait 1947-49, 11½ x 14½ inches

Jack Whitten Okay, we’re absolutely ready to go. My name is Jack Whitten and I’m here to interview Edward Clark. Today is Tuesday, 14th of November. And we’re in Ed Clark’s studio at 4 W 22nd Street, [New York, NY].

Edward Clark Say the year.

JW The year. 2011. Clark, I’ve known you a long time and I know that you are probably bored with people asking you when and where you were born (laughter), but—I want to know your family background, your place of birth, and the year.

EC Okay. Born New Orleans, Louisiana, May 6, 1926. And both sides are from Louisiana, my mother and my father.

JW What’s your mother’s name?

EC Merion. M-e-r-i-o-n. I just called her mother. My father was Edward Clark. I’m a junior.

JW Where was your mother born?

EC Madisonville, Louisiana, a little, small town [north] of New Orleans on Lake Pontchartrain.

JW And your father?

EC He was born somewhere near Alexandria, Louisiana. I’ll tell you this story now just to explain my name. First of all, he was illegitimate, okay? His mother had him when she was fourteen. His father, who she never married, was a white man, the sheriff. We lookin’ up on that now. So what happened when he was born out of wedlock and all that, she sent him up further to Baton Rouge to live with her aunt. His father [the sheriff] had a French name, but his aunt, she was married to a Mr. Clark—that’s no bloodline to me though. But that’s how we got the name “Clark.”

JW You had brothers and sisters?

EC One sister. Shirley. She died, six, seven years ago. I’m eighty-four now . . . let’s say she was seventy-four, seventy-five.

But back to Louisiana—my parents didn’t know each other [there]. My father did not meet my mother then. [Both of them] had gone up [to Chicago]. There was a Louisiana [neighborhood in Chicago]. Just like the Puerto Ricans hang together; they [all] knew each other, right? And both my parents were in that group. And they were almost as racist as white people, you know. She [my mother] met him in Chicago, but they were both from Louisiana, and they returned to Louisiana together after meeting.

JW Were they considered to be Creoles?

EC They were Creoles—

JW And what do you mean by that term?

EC Let’s say the first Creoles were white [of French extraction] and the other black ones were from Africa. But everybody knows who’s who in Louisiana . . . I don’t call myself a Creole, to you—we don’t talk about that, I don’t care. But down there you say you’re Creole with pride.

JW So they took pride in the fact of being Creole?

EC I’m not educated like that, [but] if you’re thinking like Creoles, then anything would be better than there being black roots from Africa [in your blood]. Which we have, right? I’ve never met a Creole who would tell you that they had a black father or that he had a Negro father or mother. We know they’re black, but they never say it.

JW Oh, they don’t own the fact that they have black blood?

EC Not everyone. To the ones who are most sophisticated it’s not a big deal, but it was when I was a boy many, many years ago, right? Like my aunt in Baton Rouge who raised my father, her name was Irene though I didn’t call her that. She was Creole too. She looked like a witch. She was old as hell, had straight hair, and so did Mr. Clark, who was no blood to me. And one time she told me, “Don’t go out and play with them porch heads.” She’s talking about the blacks in the house next to me.

JW Porch heads?

EC They would put their hair up so that when they put Vaseline on it, it would go [straight] back, right? You know. The point is—

JW They called them porch heads?

EC No, no, she did. No one else. “Don’t go over there with them porch heads!” (laughter) She was illiterate . . . and we didn’t have electricity; we had kerosene lamps and we had an outhouse. Now, you’re from the South.

JW Oh yeah, I remember outhouses. We had an outhouse.

EC Yeah and kerosene lamps. No electricity. But before we lived in Chicago, we had moved up to [Baton Rouge in 1932, from] New Orleans where I was born, so it gets into three different areas [New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Chicago]. But anyway, say if some Creoles [are] together—they’d rather not see a dark brown [person among them] even though they are of that race. Now it’s different, with the young people.

JW What’s the best memories you have of your mother?

EC My mother had a sad, sad life. And one of the reasons was because she was a Creole. She said there was a black doctor who was interested in maybe getting married to her, but instead she chose my father because he looked white. I’ll show you a photo; he looked exactly like he was white. And he was not the right kind of father. She told my sister once she never had a real whole day of being happy, and all her life was like that. Now this was the Great Depression, man—this is a joke what’s happening now—everybody was broke, even the whites. And I remember when I went to grammar school, it was a Catholic school, they didn’t have a lunch program. One time I took a sandwich that my mother made the night before and someone hollered, “Look at Edward! He’s got a grease sandwich!” She pushed the bread in the gravy and gave it to me, just like that. But everybody was in the boat together.

JW So, what’re your memories of your father?

EC My father, he could pass [for white]. But he didn’t want to pass. But he did pass when he moved up north one time and he was working for Western Electric. He had a good job. Somebody told on him after about six months. He lived in a black neighborhood and when the company realized he was black they fired him. But in those days you didn’t have to have a degree, if you were (snaps fingers) smart. He had wanted to be a pilot—before I was born. He was born in 1906, I’m [born in] ’26, so he was a very young father. But he gambled, and that’s why I won’t gamble. Someone asked me—somebody you might know, doesn’t matter—he wanted to gamble with me about something. I said, “Look, man. If I gamble and we’re playing poker or shooting craps—I don’t feel too cool, if I get all your money because you’re my friend, and I’d feel worse if you get my money!” Right? So I don’t gamble. And I don’t gamble because my father was a gambler and he was proud of it. My mother was a devout Catholic, but when she saw him . . .

When we were down in Baton Rouge maybe I’m a little boy, six or so. I’m sitting on the floor and he’s sanding these cards. Some of the B-decks he’d sand until the angles were marked—real fast—then he’d put them back into the deck, put the cellophane back on. Now he wouldn’t get away with it when they’d get a new deck during a game. One time his body got cut all over. Somebody probably caught him. So I never gamble because he never really made any money gambling.

JW But were you fond of him?

EC They say in the beginning I really was. But I can remember I’d wipe his kisses off of my sister because I heard him cursing and I couldn’t believe that anyone would say those words. When you’re six, to hear those curse words. But I adored my father before then. He couldn’t even go out without pretending to put his hat on like I’m gonna go [with him].

JW So you knew him a long time?

EC Yeah, well, in those days there was no such thing as divorce. And if you’re Catholic you don’t divorce anyway! That’s out! You get married; it’s for life. Sometimes we wouldn’t see him for a week, see, but then he would come in—this is the Great Depression—and maybe he’d won. He would be still high and my mother would have done what most women would have done in that day—you know, so drunk he’d fall on the bed—she’d go through his pockets, and all the money would be [there]. A ten dollar bill, man, you could live a month on that. But you don’t preach at him, because that day everything was fine.

JW So he provided for the family?

EC No, no, that was just sporadically. Most of the time—the worst experience of my life, it must have been for my mother even worse—we had moved up to Chicago from Louisiana into an apartment in an area called Woodlawn. Nice neighborhood for kind of high-class black people. And one Sunday morning, my father had spent the night [out]. All of a sudden, [from] the third floor, we looked out the window and here comes these guys to put us out on the street. She loved that apartment. And they put all of us, all of the furniture, right out on the street.

JW For not paying the rent?

EC For not paying the rent. And the landlord liked us, but my mother couldn’t come up with the rent. So he didn’t provide for that. And we were put out on the street.

JW Any memory of your grandmother? Grandfather?

EC No, my grandmother on my mother’s side died before I was born. She died in a rocking chair in the kitchen in Louisiana. I did meet his [my father’s] mother, because she was only fourteen when he was born. And she also contributed to me, so I could live in Paris, because when she died, my father went down to Louisiana and so did other relatives. They were all waiting [for her to die] because she was what we called “nigger rich.” She had a house that sold for $30,000. That’s a lot of money. And she had two houses. Anyway, she died suddenly, and my father went down there first. I was in Paris. There were holes in the wall everywhere [because] the moment she died, people started looking—they knew she must’ve had money somewhere. And she probably did but she also had money in the bank. And [my father] got it all. She had promised some of those other relatives that they would get it, but I think that I had something to do with it. These others, they moved up to Chicago, and they were doing better than us. When I was in grammar school, I was always in trouble and stuff like that, but the other family, they were doing everything right, but they had a child who was born like this, you know—

JW Retarded?

EC Yeah, but she heard through the grapevine that I was the same way. But when she saw me in Chicago, she kept looking back [at me], and she realized they had lied to her. They were saying: “Well, both families have something to hide. Edward and Merion had this other one.” So when she died she left everything to my father, and at that point I’m Paris-based. My sister told me I needed to come home so that my father could give me some of the money. And he did do that for me; when I returned to Paris I had money. But right away I knew he wasn’t gonna keep it too well. He was gambling on the phone; he was calling up Chicago to place bets all the time. We took a train, the Mason/Dixon line, the train from Alexandria. Because of segregation, he rented out the whole car. No one did that, you know, whatever that was.

JW He had inherited that kind of money, that he could do that?

EC Yeah, he had [inherited] that kind of money. And people were drinking. He took about sixteen of them up to Chicago like that; everybody was around him. I was a young man then. But I had an expensive suit in Paris, and whatnot. So we were rich. But within about a year he was broke.

JW What was your relationship with your sister?

EC My sister and I were very close; we were only eleven months apart. She told everybody she was younger than me, but we were the same age most of the year. My mother had another one named Claude who died before I was born, and that must have been tragic for her because Claude lived to be about three months old, so you feel worse about that than if he had died at birth.

JW So you and your sister Shirley were close?

EC Real close. We looked like twins, like dolls. My mother was a seamstress; she had a sewing machine. She couldn’t do nothing with men’s stuff, but Shirley Temple was [my sister’s age], and Shirley Temple was so famous they had patterns and whatnot [of the clothes she wore]. I remember one time we were in church on a Sunday and my sister looked like a doll. And the women would say, “I don’t know where they get the money.” But the reason is because she had been looking at patterns and she sewed. But she made some money like that.

JW What did you grow up eating?

EC As long as I remember, my mother, she had never been, ever in a restaurant. The nearest she’d come to that, when we were in New Orleans, she’d take us up to the five-and-dime and you could get a hot dog and a drink; a hot dog was ten cents. But she was never at a sit-down restaurant, nor did she care about it.

JW Did she cook?

EC Cook? Well yeah, it was the South. (laughter) She wasn’t a great cook, but she could cook gumbo. And my father said, “See how sloppy this place looks? When she cooks gumbo that kitchen is all fucked up.” But the gumbo would be real good; he liked it. But she’d say, “Don’t bring no chitlins around.”

JW She would draw the line with chitlins?

EC Well he liked chitlins, my father. But he never dared. We were living somewhere in Chicago where you could smell when they were cooking it, on another floor. To her that was like black people’s food. But anyway—

JW But you grew up eating soul food, am I correct?

EC Yeah, well, she cooked. Like when we moved up to Chicago—they had a fish from Lake Michigan that was delicious. But she did fish; she’d also go to the meat market, the butcher. In those days, even in Chicago, they’d get the chicken and cut the head off right there, just like in the South. A lot of times we didn’t have much food. Sometimes we did. I was always skinny, but I was healthy, I never got sick, ever.

JW What was the role of religion?

EC Big in her life!

JW In her life—

EC She was a devout Catholic. She made sure we went to Catholic school. When we were in Baton Rouge, that’s where I first started school; there were black nuns, and there was something happened there that changed my life. I had to memorize the primer they called it, the first book: (spoken with even rhythm) “Alice said, ‘Come cat, come to dinner.’ The cat said, ‘No, I’ll find my dinner.’” I’m memorizing that, see? But by the second page, I just couldn’t read. What do they call that nowadays?

JW Dyslexia.

EC Then they just called that dumb, right? (laughter) But all of a sudden, I could do something that stood out. I could draw better than everyone else. And one day this nun had a contest of who could draw a tree. We were in kindergarten. And so everyone started drawing a tree but I drew a tree with branches on it and whatnot. Whoever was going to draw the best was going to get a gold star on their head. She came to mine—she didn’t like me for whatever reason—and rather than give me the gold star, she just dismissed the class. That made me realize [that] I could be the best all my life and not get recognized. She didn’t like us because we said we were going up north, up to Chicago [to better ourselves]. Finally, my father went to see his mother in Alexandria, she must have given him $300—a fortune then!

JW I can imagine.

EC And we took the Greyhound bus up to Chicago. Now we got to Chicago and it was worse than Baton Rouge. We had a kitchenette apartment. That has a chic name, but there were bedbugs everywhere and my mother would get this can of something to kill them…but anyway, we were there, right like that, a change of air.

JW How old were you when you went to Chicago?

EC I was seven or eight. My best friend from then said, “I remember you. You grew up down South, barefooted.” (He used to run up and down South Park.) Because in Baton Rouge, just playing with the boys, I didn’t wear shoes. It don’t take long, [for] your feet [to get calluses so] that you can deal with that.

JW I was going to ask you about your early childhood in terms of friends. Do you remember them?

EC Yeah, we had friends all along the way. Jackie was my best friend, one of them. And the one who said he remembered me when he first saw me in Chicago—he was good at sports and his father worked at the post office and that was a gifted job. Because you know in those days there were some guys who had law degrees and they couldn’t get a job. They had to go work in the post office. It was very hard. And the women? You knew who had the money. All schoolteachers were women. In those days you never saw men [teaching] in grammar school. So women would have the school teaching jobs. And they would make more money than the husband who was going to be a lawyer or something.

JW So the neighborhood that you grew up in, were they all black people?

EC Oh yeah, Chicago, even today—one black moves to the neighborhood, the whites will not deal with him. There has to be exceptions in the Hyde Park area around the University of Chicago, you’ll see some of that.

JW So even in Louisiana, your neighborhood was all black?

EC Well in Louisiana, no. We lived on Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans and that was a beautiful area—before they built a super highway and concrete on top of everything. They had white people next to us. Louisiana could do that, depending on the—there was some white people in the house next to our house.

JW Any memory of race relations growing up, good or bad?

EC Well, I didn’t realize until I went into the military—but in New Orleans, I had never been in the French Quarter. She wouldn’t take us there because she didn’t want us to experience rejection. In other words, even though we might get past, she didn’t take a chance because she could see us trying to get an ice cream cone and they’d say, “Now you go around to the back.” First time I ever went to the French Quarter was when I was in the military, and we would go into New Orleans. I’d never seen the French Quarter before that.

JW So you don’t have any bad memories of race relations? Anything ever happen to you personally?

EC Yeah, the first thing happened back in Louisiana [when I was there for military service]. One time I was with this other guy, and we went to the bus station to go back to Biloxi, Mississippi where we were stationed. We realized that we couldn’t get any seats, there were so many people. We knew that they left the back seats for the blacks. This was the first time I experienced that. He was a really, really light-skinned guy and he said, “Look we’re Negroes”—that’s the word we used—“can we go back to the back?” And the driver said, “Make a way for two niggers coming back there!” So that’s Louisiana. That’s during the war, 1944.

JW Were you involved in sports at all?

EC I was so bad in Catholic grammar school that my mother took me out and put me in public school my last year. So I’m in the eighth grade. They were testing people in running—this was a 40-yard dash—and I got a 4.9. I didn’t have endurance but as a sprinter I was real, real fast. And that saved me from getting my ass beaten one time. We were in Chicago and I was like fourteen, fifteen, and with a friend trying to talk to some girls in another neighborhood. All of a sudden, we looked and all these guys from the neighborhood were all around us; they came in to beat our asses, and I took off, man. (laughter) To this day I feel guilty for it. I start running towards Washington Park. This was at night—there were cars parked and I went over them, jumping. And they said, “Look at that nigger run.” I was like a gazelle, and it saved my ass. I never felt good about that. I mean he stayed there to fight and they beat the shit out of him. But he got some revenge. He went back with his brother in the neighborhood and put the hurt on some of them. But nobody got cut. I never got in a fight with a knife. You?

JW I’ve never been in a fight with a knife, no. Only fist fights. So, you finished high school?

EC No, I was at Englewood high school and then Mosley but I didn’t finish. This is why I didn’t make it to pilot training, what I’m going to tell you now. [The war started and I enlisted.] I passed all the [military] tests, the oral, written, aptitude and all that, but then before the next step you had to see a psychiatrist. And he caught me lying. He said, “I see you didn’t finish high school.” And I said, “Er, I was helping my sister out.” That’s a lie, right. I was expelled from Englewood High School because I got caught making out with a girl in the auditorium. I barely even got to kiss the girl but her parents got me kicked out. So he’s still looking at me and he probably knew I’m lying, because I was lying. And he said, “What’s a Mustang?” I didn’t know what a Mustang was, but my friend who had gone in front of me, they asked him “Who makes the B-51 engine?” It was Pratt & Whitney, and he just happened to know that. He became famous as a cadet. My friend told me that the psychiatrist was going to ask me about that, so when he asked about the Mustang, I said “Pratt & Whitney.” So he knew I had talked to someone. Anyway, I didn’t know what a Mustang was. All I had to say was, “I don’t know it, man, but I can fly that motherfucker.” (laughter) That would have been better. So he rejected me, and I didn’t go beyond that.

JW So you didn’t finish high school—

EC I went to Mosley High School after getting kicked out from Englewood, and I left Mosley to enlist in the army. So no, I didn’t finish. But I’m a young man! I’m seventeen, in the military. After fifteen months, when I came out then I went right back to school, to The Art Institute [of Chicago]. So I got an education, but back then, on paper, I was a dropout!

JW You weren’t drafted?

EC Well, no. I enlisted because I wanted to be in the Air Force [Army Air Corps]. But you didn’t have to think twice about the war then. I was looking for action!

JW Wasn’t the Air Corps unusual for a black guy?

EC Well, yeah, but that’s why they invented Tuskegee. If you qualify and pass all the tests. I was underweight by two or three pounds, and this guy said, “Go eat some bananas,” which I did. And they put me back on the scale and I passed. But I didn’t get in because this guy caught me lying. So that stopped me.

JW So how long were you in the military?

EC I think two years. I’m not an air cadet; I’m a duty soldier. And I’m in trouble, not with my life, but, see, I’m bored after thinking of flying, and my aptitude was better than everybody’s— they put me in a wooden plane; they let me take some lessons, I was a natural. But you had to pass this man. And he caught me lying. That changed my life. All of a sudden, they’d say, “Your aptitude is engineering.” I didn’t want to do that, but you had to do what they told you. They just sent me to somebody’s garage, working on tractors. I refused to go after a while. After two days, I just wouldn’t do it. I would go shoot pool in this area where all the soldiers were. Now the First Sergeant over me happened to be gay—so he came in, he was looking for me. I could have been court-martialed, and he said, “PFC Clark, you don’t have to do that. I’m going to see to it that you be nice.” He said, “Meet me on base tonight somewhere.” And I knew what he was after—

JW (laughter) Yeah, you were hip.

EC But it wouldn’t have worked, because I would have killed him. (laughter) So now I’m in trouble. All of a sudden we are alerted to go overseas, and they don’t tell you where you are going in the war because you’d be telling people. All they say is that you’re going to Seattle. We got on the boat [in Seattle] and I’m in a black outfit, and all these brothers are talking about—not every brother, but the ones who didn’t want to go—“Oh, I’m sick.” And they want to go to the doctor before they get on the ship. When you get on the ship there’s a guy [medic] there, you know, “Open your mouth.” Boom. (laughter) You don’t want to hear that shit.

In high school, I was very good at physics and astronomy, an A, maybe A+ student. I knew where we were, more or less, the latitude anyway, not the longitude. I could tell the ship [was headed south]. When you’re at the equator; you can see the handle of the Dipper. So I knew, even on the boat, when we were below the equator.

JW Okay, you were in the army how long?

EC About twenty-six months [stationed in Guam].

JW After the army what happened?

EC We didn’t know about the GI Bill. That was all of a sudden that Roosevelt sent it [to Congress] before he died. So [after I found out about that], I went to The Art Institute [of Chicago], even though I hadn’t finished high school.

JW And how long were you there?

EC Like three years.

JW Did you get a degree from The Art Institute?

EC No, no, and didn’t want one. After that I was at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, this is one of the most prestigious places. I didn’t want a diploma. I was reading about Picasso’s life, and he’s a great artist, and he went to Madrid to get into this famous school, and after a while he stopped going to school. He didn’t finish. I’m not looking for no paper [degree]. I remember Beauford Delaney liked Piero della Francesca of northern Italy. I went there in the ‘90s see this chapel. There is no train to get to that part of Italy. You have to walk about three miles from the last place that the bus will take you. Just to see it. So that’s how interested I was. I studied art history at one of the greatest schools in the world, The Art Institute [of Chicago], Louis Ritman [1947-51] was my teacher, and I was interested in that.

JW Who else did you study with at The Art Institute?

EC Yeah, two instructors, Helen Gardner, Louis Ritman. He turned out to be an older man and he influenced me; the others I didn’t think much of anyway. I could draw better than them. But in his case, I never forget, one time he came up to me—he could see I was outstanding in some way—he said, “Look, let me show you something.” He took my brush and he put it in some white paint, oil, they didn’t have acrylic [then], and he tells another student to take their brush with white paint and go to the door. And I say, “It’s white.” And he says, “No. Look at this one and then look at that one. The one near me is white, the other one is taking on [the] surrounding colors; it’s no longer white.” Now he’s an Impressionist. Chicago has one of the greatest museums for Gauguin and the Impressionists. And I saw that that was right.

The next one [teacher] was when I finally got to Paris and I was [still] on the GI Bill. I had to [go to school to get the GI Bill stipend]. I had been in school too goddamn long but I went back, and they give you your art supplies and all that, and I met this guy, French, Goerg [Edouard Goerg]. And he said, “I see your work has a certain [knack] to it.” And then he began to get really interested in me. And then one day, he was hitting on a girl, and he must have been in his 60s or something, and I thought that was terrible.

JW I want to go back just a little bit; when you finished at The Art Institute, what happened then? Where did you go?

EC Well, I never finished. I just went to Europe. I got on the ship and I went to Europe. I mean fuck it, I just put the [past] behind me.

JW With what money?

EC Well my father’s mother died, right, and she left all that money. So he gave me some money and I [had time left on the GI Bill]. Now, I’m talking about a naïve guy. I’m on the ship right here in New York; it’s a French line, the Liberté. It used to be a German ship, a war trophy, because Germany lost the war. But I had never been on anything like this. They said, “Well, you sit anywhere.” So I’m sitting at this table where two other people are sitting and they had a bottle of red wine and whatnot, and I had never tasted wine that good, right? It was Beaujolais. At night I went back and to my pleasant surprise—I thought that one bottle was supposed to last the whole trip—the bottle was full again. And I thought, Oh shit. (laughter) This is something, man! I’m drinking that wine!

JW So I find this interesting. Your father actually funded your first trip?

EC Actually, no. I confused you a little bit. The first trip, I wrote to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and I was accepted. And the U.S. Veterans Administration had a place where you could get your money every month. So I just took the GI money and had saved up enough, about $300 together to go [to Paris]; I had about $500. But when my grandmother died a year later [in 1953], that’s when I got something from my sister saying, “Come on back before Daddy spends all the money.” And [for the trip back to Chicago] she sent about fifteen letters [to me] with ten- or twenty-dollar bills in them. And by the way, it’s illegal to send cash to France but nobody opened them. So I went and got an air ticket and flew back right away.

JW So you did a transatlantic flight from Paris?

EC That was the first flight that they had from Paris to Chicago. They already had something to New York. When my grandmother died, my father had money, temporarily. He gave my sister the money to send to me, so it was his money that reached me, and that’s how I got back.

JW Okay, When was the first time you went to Europe?

EC The first time, that must have been 1952.

JW Where’d the army send you?

EC To the South Pacific. In the war, I was in Guam and Saipan: you go wherever they send you to.

JW So your first trip out of America was to the South Pacific?

EC Absolutely. And when I got there, I was a duty soldier. I’m in trouble because in other words I’m a private—you’re automatically a Private First Class—and anybody can make me do what they wanted. And let me tell you what happened that first night. We landed in Guam and some of the guys were so frightened. They’d seen all these movies, and they thought that was combat. So they come with the PT boats, and we got our rifles, and one guy got up to the top of the ship and just plain fell down stiff—he wanted to get hurt. And I’m just bored. I knew that they didn’t have much action going on in Guam. So finally we got to shore. We had to do just like in the movies, pitch tents and all of that. And I’ll never forget, the first night is the nearest we ever come to [combat]; all of a sudden bullets start going through our tent. We got our guns and start shooting back. There was a blackout and some of the other black soldiers thought we were Japs and started shooting. See, nobody got hurt. But anyway, the great white father came the next day and took all the guns from all of us on the island. So we’re strutting around that island [with no guns] and some of those guys could kick ass. And I remember one time, we were doing just the normal thing and some white guys walk by and one of the black soldiers jumps down to confront the white solider, and the white soldier cocked his gun and said, “Get the fuck up there.” We didn’t have a gun. We were on the island without a goddamn gun. Not that I wanted to kill anybody, I didn’t. And I didn’t dislike the Japs! Even though we passed Pearl Harbor . . . that’s terrible what they did! But here’s the thing: Pearl Harbor had only happened two years before that, [but] the Japanese did not bomb Honolulu. It’s terrible what they did, but they tried to avoid hitting civilians. So I never liked Hiroshima, because they didn’t have to. And they let you know it was symbolic—[Little Boy fell on Hiroshima at 8:15a.m. on August 6, 1945]. There was no military there [in Hiroshima] and some people were vomiting purple, children were destroyed.

JW You never saw combat?

EC No.

November, 14, 2011

EC And then there was Paris. Which was, you know, especially after studying art . . . Paris! I remember when the boat got to Le Havre, and then you go to Paris from the railroad station. All I knew was to tell the cab driver to go to the Hotel M. It must have been about nine at night when I got out. I looked to my right and it was all lit up. Paris is like that. I just walked towards the light—Somebody who I had studied with was sitting at the Café Dôme. You could see anybody. Giacometti would be at the Café every night. I had never experienced that.

JW Did you have a contact in Paris?

EC No, but I was going to Académie de la Grande Chaumière—but see I got to Paris on a weekend. If I had gone to the school then, I would have met some Americans. But on that night, I was just out in Paris. And I was such a stupid square; I thought you had to pay the rent. I was trying to get some money. So I went to a bar—and it’s really festive—and this girl, she happened to be black, a foxy little thing, she was trying to tell me that she wasn’t flirting: “Don’t buy me no more drinks because I can’t go out with you.” Meanwhile, I’m getting drunk, real drunk. I stayed up all night because I couldn’t cash any money. I didn’t need to; all I had to do was go back to the hotel. But I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what a bidet was. I saw the bidet and I thought: they have a toilet down the hall, what’s the bidet for? Henry Miller had the same experience! (laughter) But the French women, they could squat on that thing and it would shoot up and clean their pussies. Americans used to say that on Monday morning you could smell the French people because they hadn’t had a shower, but one thing they had over American women was that every French woman’s pussy was kissing-clean.

JW What attracted you to Paris? Why Paris?

EC It was the most famous city for an artist in the 1950s. I mean New York in that moment was not considered the capital of the art world—it was Paris. They were all alive, man! Picasso, Braque, both of them. Everybody was there!

JW So, art attracted you.

EC Well, not only that, but the way of life. See, when the GI Bill ran out after about ten months, I didn’t have any money, but I stayed. I starved over there, almost! But I was determined to stay there.

JW How did you make a living?

EC I hardly did, but I saw others doing the same thing and one thing would lead to another. But as long as I could keep painting, and I kept painting . . . this teacher I had in France, who really liked me, said to me—he’s bragging about his country, right? He must have been part Jewish because during the war, he was in Austrialia. He said, “Go, go, go, and talk to them.” He meant go to the great museums and talk to the work. You hear about young Picasso, who liked to sketch people, and Cezanne liked to look at nature. That was a big thing. The history was second to none.

Ed Clark with father (Edward Clark)1952

JW You managed to live in Paris without employment? You didn’t have a job?

EC Well, the one thing I had was girls who liked me.

JW Aha.

EC Now, I was never a gigolo, but they’d be living with me. You can do a lot of things when you’ve got a woman hugging you at night, right? Women always have liked me. Pretty women.

JW So this is another issue. Art attracted you. French women attracted you.

EC All pretty women attract me.

JW Had you met Beauford Delaney before coming to France?

EC I came [to Paris] in 1952. Beauford came in 1953 with Gentry, but Herbert Gentry had been there before. I used to joke with Gentry. He said on the boat coming from New York to Paris that they’d look at the moonlight. I said, “Did you tongue kiss?” You know, Beauford is a little like that. Not that he ever hit on anybody we knew of. Anyway, what did you ask me?

JW What about [Haywood] Bill Rivers? Was Bill Rivers there?

EC Well Bill Rivers had left—I was to meet him though—he had just left. He went down to Spain.

JW Yes, I remember this.

EC And a lot of people thought I was him and would be calling me.

JW Now you’ve traveled quite a bit. You’ve been to the South Pacific with the Army.

EC This was in Guam, yeah. There I met a Gauguin-type woman—really short, but really nice, goddamn. But I didn’t do any art! I mean some of the soldiers wanted me to draw. A lot of them wanted me to make dirty drawings, but I wouldn’t do that. And then we went to Saipan too. But still, I’m not in the action. I mean, it was bloody. And I saw some Japanese slaughtered! I saw a guy with his head off, an officer too. Brand new, he must have just died. He was just laying there. Looked like he was alive, almost.

JW Now where else have you been in Europe?

EC Oh, everywhere. I’ve always traveled. It all started with me as a theory. When I had a rendezvous with you in Crete [in 1971], I knew I was going to be working on paper. It’s cheaper and whatnot. So when I went to Crete and we had that nice place, didn’t hardly cost five dollars a day. And it was better than we thought, because they had hot water. They had a big tank up on the roof that the sun would get to, so, we had everything! And you could even drink it! The water was rainwater. But I’ll never forget . . . I started working there, I’m doing my thing, and one thing I never would do is sun read, look at nature. I forgot about it, I did the work. When I got back here—people said, “Where’s the ones you did in Crete?” They had become the Crete series. And I realized, Wait, unconsciously I’m influenced by where I went [by the light, etc.]. Then I begin to experiment a little. I was one of the first to go to [Nigeria] . . . A lot of brothers had been to Africa, but they be talking about me like [I was] white. I went to [Ife, Nigeria] right, that’s where they do the realistic sculpture, and I almost got in a lot of trouble down there because they didn’t accept me, they didn’t like me down there.

JW How long were you in Africa?

EC I was there a month on that trip [1973]. I went all over Africa. I did a lot of work, a painting series, and, sure enough, it looked different than the others without me thinking about it. I went everywhere! [Later] I went to Martinique [1980-81] and did the Martinique series. And I went to Cuba with LeRoi Jones [Amira Baraka] when Castro was in the first revolution.

JW You went with LeRoi Jones [Amira Baraka] to Cuba?

EC I’ve got the book, Cuba Libre. He writes about it.

JW Okay. You went to South America?

EC Well Brazil, I had a whole Brazilian period [1988].

JW How long were you in Brazil?

EC On and off for months, yeah. I had a Brazilian girlfriend, and I went to Bahia. Baahiiaaaa. The north of Brazil, right. And all those murals, I sold them eventually.

JW You’ve really traveled a lot, all over the world.

EC All over the world, that’s right. I went to China! That’s how I met Liping [An], man.

JW That’s how you met your [current] wife?

EC This is a China one! The one over the bed is a China one!

JW Which brings us to marriage. How many times have you been married?

EC Four times.

JW Four times?

EC I was also “unofficially” married to Louise—real exotic looking sister.

JW What was her last name?

EC What was it? [Dockery] I don’t know, but anyway, she was going with this brother and, you know, she fell in love with me. I fell in love with her. We were together for like nine years.

JW Who was your first wife?

EC Muriel. I’ll show you a picture of her. Muriel Nelson was her name. She was from Chicago. Yeah. She looked like she was white. When she came to Paris, a lot of guys thought she was, but she wasn’t. (shows Jack a picture) That’s the first one.

JW Who was the second wife?

EC Lola. She was brown-skinned. Lola Owens was her name [they were married for about four years].

JW And who was your third wife?

EC Hedy, the mother of my daughter. [Hedy] Durham. Like Durham, North Carolina.

JW And you have one daughter with her?

EC One daughter [born in 1974]. Only child. No outsiders.

JW Yes, and what’s your daughter’s name?

EC Melanca. M-e-l-a-n-c-a.

JW Okay, and how long were you married to Hedy?

EC A long time. We didn’t even think about the baby [Ed didn’t think he could have children]. We didn’t realize that she was pregnant, and I couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe it either!

JW So how many years do you think you were married to Hedy?

EC Maybe seven or eight. I took her to Paris and that’s when we stayed with Joan Mitchell [he married Hedy in 1966,and they stayed with Mitchell in 1968-69]. That changed my life because she had a beautiful place right outside of Paris, less than an hour’s drive by car and I had a car.

JW We’re going to get to her, because I have some questions about Joan. And where was Hedy from?

EC Philadelphia.

JW And your fourth wife?

EC Liping [An].

JW And how did you meet Liping?

EC I went to China [in 2000]. See, I never wanted to go with groups, but I made a mistake. You should have a group when you go to China because—the people are okay, they’re not going to bother you—but it’s very hard to learn Chinese, and calligraphy. At the last minute I called George [R. N’Namdi] and I said that maybe I would need someone. So he calls a sister who lived in Shanghai and who was paying a lot of rent, General Motors was paying it for her, and by chance she called me back and said, “I do have somebody. Maybe it will work out for you.” She said, “She’s a female.” I couldn’t ask if she was good looking or not. (laughter) I got to Beijing and I didn’t see her. She had mixed something up. I was in China, I knew it was Communist—not that I care if you’re a Communist! As long as you don’t come over here and bother me! I got nothing against that. All of a sudden I saw this young girl, I mean she was twenty-three; I was seventy-three.

JW Twenty-three? Interesting.

EC Yeah, it was fifty years’ difference in age. So she’s going to be my guide. She apologized for being late and said that she’d be with me for a month, taking me anywhere I want to go.

JW Interpreter.

EC Yeah, an interpreter. You need it, man! I remember one night in Beijing, the first night—and I know she’s young! I mean not jailbait, but I thought, Oh shit, we’re going to Shanghai, and she’s got friends. But she just stayed with me that night. That’s when I knew she liked me a little bit. And it’s a good thing because look, man, if you’re in Shanghai, you’ve got [to have] a hell of an aptitude for a lot of things. The street signs were all in calligraphy! Don’t think you’re going to see an American . . . But that’s a hip city. I took her out to a restaurant and we hadn’t shaken the sheets yet, we were still just seeing each other. And we were walking around and the woman from the restaurant ran down and said that she had forgotten her umbrella. So Liping went back to get her umbrella and I’m alone. This guy comes up to me, and he must have used about four languages to try and make me understand. Finally, he said in English, “My house or yours?” (laughter) I thought, you know, this is a lot like New York.

JW (laughter) So you had a sexual encounter in Shanghai.

EC That’s a wild fucking city. But I’m with her all this time, right? And then she wrote me a letter once when we were on the train: “I’m twenty-three, I’m a virgin, and I know—without saying it—what you want, but that’s not going to happen.” So I kind of backed off. I don’t touch. And then, we were on a train to Shanghai, from Beijing—and the conductor said, “By the way, the air conditioner is not working. We want everyone to move up to another car where it is working.” And all of a sudden we realized that we’d be alone, and she realized that too.

JW So you were falling in love!

EC Yeah, I was falling in love.

JW Why did you go to China in the first place?

EC Because why not? I always thought about the Chinese. Who were these people who had Chinatowns everywhere and always maintained their Chinese heritage? They never wanted to integrate much. I mean, you see that China is so strong that they bring China with them! They were always that way. So I’d say, Who are these people? And then I began to realize that their history is something else! And I always liked Asian woman too, physically just to look at them. Not the men. (laughter) But I respect their culture.

JW And you married Liping. How long have you and Liping been married?

EC Maybe twelve years now.

JW Twelve years. And your daughter Melanca would be how old now?

EC Thirty-seven or thirty-six.

JW And what does she do? Is she into art?

EC No, she’s a lawyer. A Harvard graduate. She’s a lawyer in D.C. [Melanca Clark is with the Obama Administration as Senior Counsel with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Access to Justice Initiative. Prior to this position she worked at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law; the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison, all in New York.]

JW And I understand she just got married.

EC Yeah, she married this West African—Moddie Turay, his family is from Sierra Leone. He’s pure African but was born in Washington D.C. and grew up in North Carolina.

JW Sounds good. Are you and your daughter close?

EC Real close. She’s real happy. I mean she was unbelievable with me. I would spoil her. You know, me and Hedy had separated, and she’d say, “I want to go see Daddy and play.” She was real small then, right? And she’d come over here and say that she wants to go to the Natural History Museum to see the animals. And I’ll never forget, we went there, stood in line and finally got in and then she said, “They’re not moving.” That meant that she wanted to go to the zoo.

JW Did she ever have an interest in becoming an artist?

EC Yeah, and if she had been a male I would have taken it more seriously. But I’ll show you something. See that blue thing?

JW Yes.

EC That’s her painting herself. She was never trying to flatter herself, right?

JW So that’s a self-portrait by Melanca. Very nice. Did you ever offer to give her art instructions?

EC No, I never thought she would be an artist. As I said, if she had been a male I would have maybe.

JW Aho!

EC Well, now I’m just thinking that. But I didn’t think that she’d be an artist.

JW But are you proud of the fact that she went into law instead?

EC Well, yeah. First of all an artist, unless she’s from a real rich family, man, you know, how you going to make it? You got to get a job and do that too. I’m not real rich; I’m rich enough . . .

JW Very good, Ed is just going over to bring the self-portrait done by Melanca a little closer. Looks very good, sort of light grays. Very direct, very serious. Interesting portrait. It’s approximately ten, twelve inches squared. We’re in Ed Clark’s studio and we’re literally surrounded by paintings from different periods. Some small, some huge, I’m thinking like twelve, fifteen feet. I’m sitting on a chair in the middle of his studio. The floor is entirely covered with paint—

EC (from far away) Hey, Jack?

JW Yes, Clark.

EC I want to open up this safe a minute. I want to show you some papers if you got a minute.

JW Yeah, sure, go ahead. Looking at Ed’s studio floor, it is some sort of physical memory of every painting that has been done. I can see the paint spills. It’s what we call the tracks. And in his studio, the tracks of the paintings are on the floor. You can get an idea of the process that he uses. Obviously, a lot of fluid pigment was used in the process. The floor is totally covered in paint. And it’s not the whole floor—it appears to be a platform of some sort. I would say it probably measures fourteen feet square. So all of the activity takes place down on this plywood platform. The build up of paint is quite amazing. There’s a plastic sheet covering the floor. I’m looking at blacks, pinks, reds, blues, a whole range of grays. The blues become gray; some of them become bright. In truth it’s like sitting on an artist’s pallet. Some of the paintings are very dry, obviously done with dry pigment. Some are totally wet, have a real nice wet look, very sensual. I’m looking at one facing me right now. It’s a bright pink: probably one of the brightest pink paintings that I’ve ever seen in my years of viewing paintings. Very sensual. I mean downright sexy. Some delicate grays toward the centers, some blue-grays, some dirty-whites, some dirty-grays, dirty-blues, but the whole painting has an intense sensual quality to it. Which makes me think, we haven’t yet talked about Ed the painter in terms of his ideas. But we’re getting there; bear with us. We have just finished marriages and finding out things that I didn’t know. Ed has been married four times. The first wife was Muriel Nelson from Chicago. The second wife was Lola Owens. (calls across the room) Ed, where was Lola Owens, your second wife from?

EC Montreal.

JW Muriel Nelson was from Chicago. The Hedy Durham marriage lasted, Ed said, seven or eight years. She is from Philadelphia. He has one daughter by that marriage, Melanca, who is thirty-seven at this point. He spoke of going to China, meeting his fourth wife Liping [An]. At the time he met her she was twenty-three years old. And Ed claims that they have been together now for approximately twelve years.

EC (distant voice) I can’t open it up. I’ve been trying to open it but I can’t open it.

JW That’s okay. Let’s continue.

EC I had a lot of papers in there that I wanted to show you. But you’re coming again some time.

JW Yes, we’re going to continue at another date—but I’m finding out a lot I didn’t know about you. I didn’t know you were married four times.

EC Four times, but I was nine years with the one we were talking about that I just mentioned—[Louise]. There was one I wasn’t married to but it was just like marriage—

JW But you were not legally married to Muriel?

EC Oh yeah. Big, big wedding! She was a big bougie from Chicago.

JW And how long were you married?

EC It was probably three years. She came to Paris with me [1955-1958].

JW Tell me Ed, a little bit more about Paris and your exhibition record there. You were showing at galleries—

EC At good galleries.

JW I’m interested in the commercial galleries in Paris that you showed with.

EC Yeah, I made money. A lot of them are not big names, but that one was—

JW Yeah. Galerie Creuze?

EC Yeah, Raymond Creuze. He was a rich man.

JW And who were some of the people you showed with?

EC He had John-Paul Riopelle. You know John-Paul Riopelle?

JW Yeah.

EC But that’s before me that he showed Riopelle. But you know, that’s what buried Paris. I mean around the time I got there the big names were happening here. Jackson Pollock and just Jackson Pollock alone changed it, so the pendulum started swinging towards here [New York]. I would be a different artist if I hadn’t gone to Paris. I got into the French sensibility. I used to talk about the Mediterranean use of colors. They use certain colors that we don’t use so much, like Monet. When you went to Paris, did you go to Monet’s [garden in Giverny], where the water lilies are?

JW No, I didn’t.

EC Monet died in 1926—that’s the year I was born—and long before the turn of the century he was famous. And all of a sudden the Cubists and modernists started in Paris. They’re making modern art and experimental art—and here’s Monet. The president of France just happened to like Monet. Everyone was in Paris; the Surrealists, everybody was in Paris. Now let’s say you and I were young, [we’d be saying], Guess what he’s painting? Water lilies. (laughter) Now when we look at the water lilies, you stand there and there is no focal point! Your eyes do that…you just absorb something else. Just like Pollock. But this was long before Pollock. Monet was at the vanguard, but Cubism and everybody was there and they’re all on fire! Marcel Duchamp, everybody! So they’d say, you know, [Monet] knows the president, he’s lucky, but his reputation? He’s painting what?

JW What other galleries did you show at in Paris?

EC Well, I’ve shown in different galleries, [Galerie Craven] but in terms of a solo show it was only Creuze.

JW You did it to make money?

EC No, man. I mean you did it to make money, but you’re in Paris and it’s any way you can get on a wall, man, right? That’s the same here in New York—not only in that gallery. I didn’t speak a word of French and I showed in another gallery where he spoke no English, but somehow he liked what he saw and to my pleasant surprise, he put it right in the window! I mean everybody could see it! And that was like a whole summer it was there. So I went back to get it, and he said, “No, you have to pay me for showing it.”

JW Oh, that’s what we call a vanity gallery.

EC Yeah, but I didn’t know that. I didn’t know anything. Now, four months ago the painting shows up, I gave it to Melanca. So all those years . . . but it was shown and people noticed it. The guy was just a sheister, that gallery guy. I don’t know where it’s been all that time but some German guy bought it and he’s a big shot. And when he found out that my daughter wanted it, he let me buy it back. So I bought it and I gave it right to her.

JW Did you ever show at Galerie Huit?

EC No, because I was already in a gallery. Galerie Huit at the time was the first co-op gallery in the world, maybe.

JW And who started that gallery?

EC [Hayward] Bill Rivers knew where the money was. There was a money man—American, white, I guess—who wanted to do something, and they were wondering if it would happen, but Bill Rivers was one of the ones who was there in the beginning, and he was the go-between between the money guy and the artists.

JW Okay, well, for the record, because you were there and you know the facts—

EC I wasn’t there when that happened.

JW Yeah, but you know the facts of it. So we can say, without a doubt, that Bill Rivers started Galerie Huit?

EC Yeah, but he started it not by being a director. He was a great artist, and he knew the man who rented out the gallery space, see, but there was no director at the Galerie Huit. The Galerie Huit was as big as this room.

JW A decent size gallery.

EC The thing is that a lot of the French didn’t think much of American artists then. I mean the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, when I went there, didn’t have one fucking picture by an American artist. They didn’t have any! They didn’t think much of American art in general. All the big name artists were alive: Matisse was alive; Picasso was alive. And they were like gods then! I remember when I got there in ’52 there was a bookstore that had a pyramid of books just on Picasso! He’s something very special. In my opinion he is the epitome of the 20th century. Even Marcel Duchamp, who is a genius but I think he was intimidated by Picasso being overwhelming with his talent. And now this is the twenty-first century, and it’s time for you and I to be great artists.

JW What has been your experience with commercial galleries?

EC I couldn’t get into a commercial gallery where a white person was running it. I remember Max Hutchinson had a gallery and all my friends in Paris tried to get me in. He didn’t say anything about a nigger, but he didn’t take me. OK Harris [in New York] wouldn’t take me. But a lot of people didn’t think of that because I was getting to be known because a lot of the spaces I was showing in when I came back—I rented out the spaces! That was another way to do it—to rent out a gallery with a name. I mean it was a co-op gallery. I was making money any fucking way. And then I showed in the James Yu Gallery [in New York]. James Yu was fine. Big, big gallery! But James Yu happened to be from Taiwan and so was his wife. I’m just getting technical. No white dealer ever took me.

JW You showed with Brata Gallery [founded in 1957; Clark showed there in 1958]. That was not a commercial gallery.

EC No, but Brata was different. I had the first show at Brata.

JW But that was a cooperative gallery [on Tenth Street, New York], not a commercial gallery.

EC Yeah, and that was a white guy. But they were waiting for me. I mean, I knew George Sugarman; I knew all of them. And Sal Romano; we were all in the Brata Gallery. That means we were brothers.

JW Your connection with the Brata Gallery started in Paris?

EC No, no, no. It started in New York. When Sal and I came [back] here . . . [Paris is where Ed met Sal; they came back to NYC together and were roommates for 9-10 years in a loft at 798 Tenth Avenue, off of 27th Street.] It was George Sugarman who wrote me—he knew how much I loved Paris—but he told me to come to New York because things were happening. So I left Paris and came here. You know everybody didn’t think about race. I knew Al [Held] in Paris.

JW You knew Al in Paris?

EC I knew him well.

JW Who else did you know in Paris? American artists. Give us a list.

EC Well, Sam Francis [1923-1994], Al Held [1928-2005], Beauford Delaney [1901-1979], but I was there before Beauford.

JW Harold Cousins [1916-1992].

EC Yeah, Harold Cousins. And….

JW Haywood Bill Rivers. Bill Rivers [1922-2002].

EC Bill Rivers, yeah. I didn’t know him in Paris but I knew him right away when I got back here.

JW Did you know Ellsworth Kelly in Paris?

EC No, but he was there.

JW He was there. Sam Francis you knew?

EC Yeah. He tried to help me once. He saw my painting in Paris at a Gallery Creuze exhibit where Shirley Jaffe had taken him. When he later saw me in New York City, he said, “Let’s do something together,” perhaps an exhibition, a project? I never followed up.

JW What about Romare Bearden, when he was in Paris?

EC No, I met him here in New York.

JW Is there anyone else we should know about that you met in Paris at that time? Now did you meet Joan Mitchell in Paris or in New York?

EC In Paris.

JW And what was your relationship with her?

EC One day I’m walking down Montmarte with Hedy [1966], and Joan’s sitting at this café that was festive at night, and she said that she wanted to invite us over to her studio. And we went. And right away, the thing that always made me uncomfortable, Joan was always into race, and she would look at me and say, “I see you, and you’re not all black.” And she would look at Hedy and say, “I see you have some white blood in you too.” So we felt uncomfortable by that, but she said it. I didn’t think much of her then but I was wrong. So then a year passed, and all of a sudden she got a place outside of Paris where Monet was when he was young. Vétheuil. And she had the property up the hill. She had just moved there. I think she had inherited some money, and she got the place, which was like heaven. I couldn’t believe it. But she said, “There have been some robberies out here. I’m wondering if you might want to come out and stay?” So she picked us up in a car and we all went out and I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never seen a place so goddamn beautiful. You looked straight down at the Seine River.

JW Beautiful home, studio.

EC Now here’s what’s happening. She said, “Well, maybe we’ll do a little work here and whatnot.”

JW She invited you to do work?

EC She’d mean like paint some walls, the ceiling too. But anyway . . . she wasn’t in any hurry or anything, because she was having a show at the Stable Gallery here in New York. So she went back to New York and said to hold the fort down. She bought a little painting from me, anyway, so I had like $300.

JW Joan Mitchell bought a painting from you?

EC Yeah, a little thing. A bullshit painting. Well, I never bullshitted, but she probably knew I needed money. I never asked for more money, never. Nor did I ask to exchange any work. I remember Ausby [Ellsworth Ausby] wanted to do that, and I said, “Artists should never do that.” If one artist is making a lot of money and you’re not, you might be better than them, but don’t do that, right? I never did that.

Paris Gothic 1993, 70½ x 66½ inches, Acrylic on Canvas, All images courtesy G.R. N’Namdi Gallery, Detroit and/or the artist

JW But Joan Mitchell bought a painting from you and she invited you to stay at her place and do some work—

EC Yeah, and she wasn’t famous in Paris. She still did all these great paintings. I like her work now, but then I didn’t like it. I didn’t dislike it, but I’m just telling the truth. But Riopelle, he’s French Canadian, he was the cat’s meow. He made a lot of money—sort of the way I’m making money now—all through his art. He even had a yacht down in the South of France that he got through his art. I was invited to go on the yacht one time but the trip never came together. And he was a purist: he wanted a yacht with no motor, with the sails. And he collected Bugatti cars, very expensive, antique cars. Once he came here to look at one and it had a new engine so he wasn’t interested.

JW I knew someone here in New York who collected Bugatti cars.

EC Well, he was an interesting guy. So, here we are, and Joan goes back to New York. She had a sold-out show once, and then the gallery [the Stable Gallery on 57th Street] went bankrupt. The woman didn’t get the money [the gallery never paid her], but that’s her life. Anyway, as soon as she was gone, we were comfortable. I had some money. I also had a car. Now we’re sitting alone and here comes the maid, “What would you want for dinner?” I knew she had a maid, but I didn’t think that had anything to do with us when she wasn’t home. So the maid comes and the plates were hot! I’d never had hot plates. But see, that place was once owned by very, very rich people—and the only way that Joan could buy it was to promise that they [the help] could stay there for life. They lived down in this little place on the road near where Monet lived. Monet’s wife Camille died there in her twenties, during childbirth. So all that history is right there. And I’m sitting right there. All kinds of shit happened out there! I started painting. I did a little thing that Joan saw, real fast. She had a studio up on a hill. You’ve seen the famous painting by Monet where it looks like a young girl and guy—they’re right on that hill where her studio was. It was Riopelle, not Joan, who said that it was time for me to start painting. He was an artist and had seen some of my work in Galerie Creuze. Anyway, she didn’t see it. And it was Riopelle who said, “Go paint.” And he was her lover—

JW Wait a minute. Riopelle was Joan Mitchell’s lover?

EC Oh yeah. Yeah. For years.

JW How long did you stay at Joan Mitchell’s place?

EC Fifteen months or something.

JW And you did work around her studio, painting?

EC Well, I finished it.

JW So that was generous of her.

EC No, it was fine, it was fine. But this was paradise, man! All kinds of famous people would come there. I mean, Sam was my friend anyway, but Sam was there.

JW Oh, Sam Francis was there?

EC Yeah, I met him through Al Held.

JW And he would come to Joan Mitchell’s place?

EC He came one time. A lot of people—celebrities—would come to her place. I’ve just never seen a place so beautiful. Oh, goddamn! And right down the street was where Monet, where the tourists go now—

JW Giverny.

EC Right, Giverny. We passed it one day and it was decaying, but they got money to rebuild that place up. You could walk there in a half an hour from her place. It was paradise. I did some of my best work there.

JW How was Joan Mitchell as a person, did you like her?

EC Well the racism bothered me.

JW You think she was a racist?

EC Well, no, I didn’t dislike her. I respected her. She was also stuck on me; she wanted to sleep with me and I knew that.

JW Aho!

EC And I would have done that. She was my height, my age, and she was masculine looking, even though I don’t think she was gay. But she told Hedy one time, “I’d love to fuck him!” Hedy never even mentioned it that night because she knew that she wasn’t my type. But Riopelle had a daughter who was beautiful. She had some Native American in her. And if she had said it, then Hedy would have been worried because she knew that that was my type. But anyway, there was no way that was going to happen with Joan. But she’d say things like, “I don’t have any watermelon!” You know, I know blacks like watermelon. I’m sorry I don’t have any watermelon.

JW Did you know Joan Mitchell in New York at all?

EC Yeah, I knew her afterwards when she came here.

JW But at the time you didn’t have any respect for her as a painter?

EC No, no, not really. I was never in awe of her. But now I feel different. I’m looking at her [work] now and the paintings stand out.

JW It’s interesting to note that you received a Joan Mitchell Fellowship grant [1998], did you not?

EC After she was dead, yeah, yeah. I never even asked—I was trying to get the Guggenheim. I never got the Guggenheim. Did you get it?

JW Yes, I got the Guggenheim. How many grants have you received?

EC Well the biggest one is from the National Endowment [1972]. I got that before you could apply. And who did that was Don Judd, who was also a good friend of mine. Don Judd was a real friend of mine. He was a painter then, he wasn’t a sculptor.

JW Right, I remember.

EC And the reason he stopped painting was because he was allergic to turpentine. February 23, 2012

JW Did you like Don Judd’s work?

EC Yeah, yeah, yeah, but he hadn’t gotten to the boxes yet. I remember when he first did. He and I lived in the same building [Park Avenue South. Ed moved there first]. And I congratulated him then—it was beautiful. And he was anti all of that, right? Yet regardless of what he says—one time the Guggenheim had a show of his up on the top floor—it looked like jewelry. He was anti-anything. He hated pedestals. So I never asked him about Michelangelo, who’s probably the greatest artist who ever lived (laughter)—but he hated pedestals.

JW Okay, Ed. We’re ready. Let’s see, what time is it? 11:15AM. (sound of siren in background) You with me, Ed?

EC Yeah.

JW Yesterday, we covered a lot of background in terms of your biographical material—You have a beautiful daughter that you had with your third wife, Hedy. She is absolutely charming, someone I know personally, someone that not just you, the father, but the whole community is proud of. So there have been a lot of fantastic highlights in your life: a very large record of exhibiting both here and abroad. We’re gonna take up where we left off yesterday. At the era of artists, people whom you have met who have proven to be important to you. Ed, from an art historical perspective, you are classified as a second-generation abstract expressionist.

EC Some people would say that, yeah.

JW Which means that you came along at the time and shared that classification with Joan Mitchell, Michael Goldberg—

EC That was one of Joan Mitchell’s lovers.

JW (laughter) Please let us know things like that. Norman Bluhm, Alfred Leslie—

EC Yeah, also Sam Francis . . .

JW Sam Francis, and Edward Clark. It’s a neat group of people. Now a lot of those people rejected the label “second generation.” I knew Mike Goldberg well—he didn’t like that label. He would say to me, “That’s bullshit.” I just see it purely as a matter of age and as a matter of timing, of when people entered the scene. I knew all of those people—they were a group.

EC Is Goldberg still alive?

JW Oh no, we lost Mike. Unfortunately, we lost Mike in 2007.

EC I knew him.

JW Yeah, I knew him well. Met him first in the early ’60s. He was somebody that was from that second generation of abstract expressionists. Historically, you are in that group of artists.

EC Yeah.

JW Now, who do you consider to be major influences in art for you?

EC Let me tell you this. I’m an American who went to Paris, and if I’d gone to New York, I would have been programmed differently, but the moment I got to Paris, my first big influence was looking at what they call in art school Holiday magazine. It was a picture in color, a full page of Cezanne. It wasn’t even seductive, just trees. I looked at that, I started sweating—something about it, right? That’s what he did to those other artists, too. Back at the turn of the century—he died in 1906. One time Van Gogh and Gauguin made a pilgrimage just to see Cezanne. Cezanne gave them that . . . whatever abstraction is about. Cezanne influenced me.

But Cezanne, with every stroke, was trying to do something just plain intelligent. He had exceptional given talent with paint, not just brains. He was pulling things around, respecting the flat surface of the canvas. Some people can’t see it. But Cezanne did influence a lot of people. I was quickly getting beyond the point of copying. I was painting the way I thought: flattening the surface and the images. 1

I mean you gotta look at Cezanne. You know, there’s a mountain, there’s a sky. And then you look at it close and the sky is on the same plane as the mountain. He just brought it straight up to the same plane . . . he’s into something; we know that.

But just real quick, now you know I’m a Creole. Being here you have to know I’m a Creole—

JW Oh, Ed’s showing me a letter from the Creole Heritage Society.

EC That’s the Creole heritage. I didn’t ask to be in it but they put me in it.

JW So they’re proud of you. We’ll come back to that. Let’s continue with the influences. So who else was a major influence?

EC Now when I got to Paris, see, I remember I was shown into the Salon de l’Automne. It was on the Grand Palais, this big show they have every year. It’s the same show that I think Manet—long before I was born—was rejected [from] but then he had money, and he opened up a Salon des Refusés [Salon of the Rejected]. You know, he’s gettin’ back at them, right? And that Refusés introduced him to people like the Impressionists. And I’m walking through the Salon d’Automne [in 1952], and all of a sudden I looked at a painting that—I didn’t know who did it—but I’d never seen anything like it. Now this was influencing. First of all, I thought it was abstract, completely. But then the next Wednesday, that’s when they used to have a newspaper in Paris called Art Spectacle. It was the format of the New York Times, that big—but only about three or four pages. And there it was, reproduced—it was an image of a football game! I didn’t know it had a story to it. Well, I was so shocked because in the painting, the football field had come right up onto the plane. I’m not interested in illustrating. But it was a football game, and I didn’t care. What I liked was that I’d never seen painting with these big strokes, [his strokes are more plastic].

JW And that was Nicolas de Staël—

EC Nicolas, he committed suicide—nobody knows why. I mean they tell a story. They said it was over a woman that he committed suicide—he jumped into the ocean somewhere. We know how he died.

JW You met him personally.

EC Here’s why I didn’t. I went to an exhibit of his. He was real tall, like 6’3 or something, stooped over. He was probably in his forties. And I was afraid to go up to him because of the possible rejection. But then I was in the same show. It was a catalogue that I had—they had everybody in the catalogue and they had the address [of everyone in the show], even Matisse, who wasn’t at the show but his paintings were there. And I’m looking for Nicolas de Staël’s address and I couldn’t find him because I looked under “S.” But it’s under “D,” de Staël. I didn’t know that; it was there all along. And I was gonna go to his house. I know he would’ve greeted me, right, he would’ve been flattered, but I didn’t meet him when I saw him. And in this gallery, all these people looked like they were from the nineteenth century, older people—they knew they had some kinda genius. Well, I wish I still had that catalogue.

JW So, we have Cezanne, we have Nicolas de Staël. Who else?

EC Now, if I had lived, if I had been in America at that time—even though, they had a show over in Paris that was forced on the French. You know, [Sweeney] got a show together and sent it to Paris. Paris was always the place to show. The first time in my life I went to the Musée d’Art Moderne was in 1952, and there were these pictures of Rothko, Pollock and whatnot. The French were really excited about the Americans there. The Musee d’Arte Moderne now is different. Back then, they didn’t have one American painter—not one [in their collection]. They had all the geniuses there, I’m not counting—they had Matisse, Léger and everyone. But they did not have an American painter. Now it’s changed. They got ‘em. I think the first American painter was—I forgot his name. He still may be alive; he was over in America. He happened to be talented and rich—really a household name but anyway . . . if I had not gone to Paris, I would have been right in the mix of things here. But anyway, I was influenced by de Staël. In fact he was better known then than he is today. But then he died. And still, it costs a lot of money to buy one of his paintings. But that changed me—the flattening out of space.

JW After de Staël who else would you list?

EC Consciously maybe nobody. I influenced a lot of people. But, I’m living in France. I never met Matisse but they were all alive. I’m influenced maybe just being in France. The main thing that influenced me in France was the color—the colors of the great artists there were more memorable than American color for some reason. They’re painting from nature—Monet for one—and their use of pink, and Matisse. Obviously when you’re looking into color the French Impressionists become very important. That movement was over. But it was different than America; France is blessed. There’s something about France—the angle of the sun or something. Also when I was in Vétheuil (Joan Mitchell’s place), something was different. It gets into your unconscious a little bit. I could see the color was different. We got a lot of Americans—Arthur Dove, who had been over there just before my time and who was influenced by a lot of them. But, you know, color was the French thing.

JW So after de Staël who else would you list as being a major influence on your thinking?

EC I guess when I came back here to America, maybe unconsciously, de Kooning. De Kooning gave me a book—I’ll show you. A painting was dedicated to me. I’ll show it to you.

JW Anyone else from that period?

EC Well, that whole school. When I left Paris in the late ’50s with Sal Romano, and we [came to New York and] got with the Brata Gallery on Tenth Street, there were a lot guys, a lot of energy. You’ve heard about the Brata Gallery. And that was luck because George Sugarman knew me in Paris. George Sugarman was the one who got me to come to [New York], because things were getting bad—I was successful in that Galerie Creuse. And then I had another show and it didn’t sell well. So, you know, I could see I wasn’t going to make more money. It was time to go somewhere. I wasn’t going back to Chicago. Well then George Sugarman wrote me and said, “Come on, Ed, come over here. You’ll see what’s happening.” And it was happening like that (snaps fingers).

JW Okay. Did you know Michael Goldberg before moving to New York?

EC I met him because he was once Joan’s lover. I remember that Hedy and I met him, and he invited us to his studio at Fauberg-Saint Antoine. He was smoking the reefer, and he said, “Be my guest,” like that. So we spent the afternoon with him, but I didn’t think much of him. But Joan got him out of trouble. He’s the one—I hope I have the right name because this is important—he’s the one that went down to where Cézanne’s from, this famous place where Cézanne died. There’s a little museum.

JW Oh, Provence.

EC Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s in Provence. Anyway, this is a true story, because Joan told me Mike went down to the museum there. They had Cézanne’s sketchbooks and he—don’t write this until I make sure—he cut a page out of one with a razorblade. When he got to the station they were waiting for him. They caught him with the—

JW For cutting a page out of a book?

EC You cut a page out of a Cézanne sketchbook, you’re gonna go to jail, man (laughter). I mean that’s Cézanne’s sketchbook!

JW Oh, it was a sketchbook? So wait a minute, let’s slow down. Are you telling me that Michael Goldberg stole a page from a Cézanne sketchbook?

EC Yeah, from a museum—

JW Get outta here.

EC Yeah. Well, that ain’t the end of the story! You know who got him out of it? It was Joan Mitchell, ‘cause he was her lover. She had to pay a lot of money. So he never got incarcerated. But she told me this story. But that’s too iffy because it could have been another guy.

JW Oh my. So did you know Alfred Leslie?

EC Alfred Leslie, yeah.

JW What about Norman Bluhm?

EC Yeah, I knew Norman.

JW In Paris or New York?

EC He was an obnoxious guy, but not to me. He’d come out and he’d curse—well, I don’t mind him cursing—but he’d come out of the Jones Street Bar after spending an afternoon. I knew him all along anyway. He would be like, “That fuckin’ bitch.” He’s that kind of guy. Now a lot of those guys had been pilots in World War II. One was Sam Francis. Norman Bluhm was also a pilot and actually fought in combat. He was like, real, he was okay, but I never was sold on his work that much. There’s a famous picture showing him on a ladder in front of a book on abstract expressionists. He was all into that. I mean Joan liked him; a lot of people liked him. Yeah, I met him many times.

JW Okay. So, let’s move on. You’re eighty-five years old. Born in 1926. That means you have been practicing art . . . you’ve put in sixty years, at least.

EC Well, see the self-portrait was done when I was twenty-one, that’s 1947. I’d been in art school maybe two years, but it wasn’t painted in art school, it was painted in my apartment. There was no instructor looking at me—

JW Yeah. So—

EC The war was over in 1945, when they dropped that bomb. We didn’t know about the GI Bill until we got back here. That was something; all of a sudden you qualified to go to four years of school. It was a good deal, if the school was accredited. A lot of them [the art schools] were over in Paris, and all of a sudden Léger, who happened to be a part of the Communist party, and who had a school over there was cut off the list. A lot of the artists went to Léger. The only reason I didn’t go—I knew about Léger—was because I didn’t particularly like Léger—I mean, he’s all right—he would come there on his bicycle and whatnot, but he influenced lot of art. They say he was a real nice guy.

Erotica 2003, 72 x 58 inches, Acrylic on Canvas

JW It was a school?

EC Yeah, it was called Léger.

JW And that was the name of the school: Léger?

EC Yeah, yeah, yeah. Joan Mitchell went there, a lot of people went to Léger, and then they also went to one here [in New York]—who is the German who had this school on Eighth Street. What’s his name, Hoffman?

EC Hoffman, yes. But that was here in New York—

EC Yeah, I know, but he was a European. And Hoffman influenced a lot of artists. I knew about Hoffman. I didn’t like his art, much. But that’s just personal.

JW Now, you’ve practiced art for a good sixty years. What I would like to know is how have you made a living all these years?

EC The nineteenth century way—you starve a little. People talk about my studio in Paris, and they call it a chicken coop. It was unbelievable! Because of the GI Bill, I had to be affiliated with some school, and so I was at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. The teacher—who thought I had great, great potential—he said, “You know your work has the smell of the Academy.” He means, it’s still student age. And then I thought, Wait a moment. If I painted a nude model in bed in the school, that’s different than a nude that is your girlfriend. You’re doing it and the whole class is doing it. And I never once painted in a school after that. Then I went looking for a studio. I had no money, and there was a Hungarian guy—he looked like Rasputin, right? He wore boots and whatnot—Zarbo was his name. And he had this place full of artists. L’Atelier le Feu—the word for fire—was his thing. I went over there. It was hard to get a studio in Paris. Paris has always been occupied. In New York the prices go up high—in Paris, it’s a law that everything is more or less taken—unless you got super money—and I got this place. He had other artists in there. Sugai—a Japanese artist, and this younger one from Haiti—a great sculptor—anyway.

JW L’Atelier de Feu was the name of the place?

EC No, it didn’t have no name then. He thought of it afterwards—he had a show there called Académie le Feu—

JW I see. So how were you makin’ a living?

EC First, not just me, man! A lot of people ran outta money, and they did what you do: you starve. I mean you don’t go rob no banks or nothin’ like that. Well, first we had the GI Bill. When that ran out, you got a problem. I’ve told you the story: there was a woman. I shouldn’t give her name ‘cause she still may be alive—and she was attracted to me. She said, “I’d like for you to give me art lessons.” And she came over and she started payin’ me—and she wanted to go further, but I didn’t desire her, right? But a lotta artists—I mean you might go for two months without knowing what’s gonna happen. I would eat oatmeal, right? Like that. But I wasn’t gonna go back because I didn’t know about New York—I’m from Chicago and I couldn’t see me going back to Chicago after Paris—and all those great artists were still alive. I mean they were right there. I was gonna stay—I just stayed!

But look—the studio had no light. Everybody else had a window; I didn’t have a window! And all the other people would come to see—they’d kinda smile, “It ain’t got no light!” You know, except for a light bulb. And then one day Zarbo went up on the roof and he sawed a big rectangle in the roof and he put a plastic skylight over it: voilà! I had light like Moses. (laughter) And then I was the envy. Plus I had the mezzanine. You could go up to the balcony, where I slept. I had a lot of girls [who] would go up there. I had things like that. And I began to really work. I did some great work there, you know. In fact, that thing I showed you from the Studio Museum; that was painted in there. [The City]

JW Mmm hm.

EC I bought The City [1953], back from the collector who had it, and paid—two years ago or so—$50,000 in cash to get it back. When he bought it, it was $5,000. I bought it for my daughter. She has it now.

JW Have you had any teaching experiences?

EC Yeah. I avoided teaching. Not that I had any papers anyway, ‘cause I didn’t finish school—but I was offered, even when I got back here. There’s a school on 14th Street, and this guy wanted to hire me—nice guy. He came up and he said, “Look, why don’t you—” I said, “I don’t know how to teach,” but the moment I walked down to 14th Street with him and we went up the steps—I could smell oil paint. I knew I was gonna tell him no, but he really wanted me to teach. But I did teach as a visiting artist a lot. Many schools: I went to Syracuse, LSU, Ohio State . . . That would last for maybe a month, and I’d be gone. I wasn’t a good teacher, you know—the Art Institute of Chicago, even—

JW Did you go there to teach?

EC Remember Emilio Cruz?

JW Yes, of course.

EC Yeah, well he was teaching at the Art Institute. So he got me a visiting artist thing, which was fine. So I’m in Chicago—he was sayin’, “This guy’s an important artist.” I’m talkin’ to them—and I’m so lazy, I’m lookin’ at my watch. They couldn’t see it—and I’d say, “Okay, tomorrow we start.” They’re ready to start right away, ‘cause they were excited about me, the way I would talk and whatnot. And I remember, the Art Institute’s on Michigan Avenue, and I decided I just wanted to get away from everybody and go to Wabash Avenue and eat a hamburger—I would just dream of this hamburger. I just left the class—I went two blocks, I’m eating my hamburger, and this little girl that’d been listening to me all the time, comes up to me and she said, “Mr. Clark, can I ask you a few questions?” And I’m very polite, so that went on for forty minutes, ‘cause I’m nice once I’m trapped, right? And I was exhausted! They can drain you—me, anyway—some artists can be cool about it. But if they asked, I was a lazy guy, I didn’t wanna go—

JW (laughter)

EC I was invited to Skowhegan—and Danny Johnston had somethin’ to do with that. I stayed a week out there and they have a place for the visiting artists. Only thing wrong with Skowhegan, the mosquitoes’ll kill you! You know who was teaching that year? I only was there for a week. They give you a place, a bottle of good liquor, and a nice room, and if you can catch a girl, that’s up to you. You ever been to Skowhegan?

JW I’ve been invited but I’ve never been there.

EC It’s somethin’ else. I was there the whole week—and Danny Johnston set it up. He said, “Look man, don’t worry about it, they’ll give you the check, and all you gotta do is go to the bank before you get on that train.” And you have that money. They paid well: $500, somethin’ like that for a week. So I’ve experienced all that.

Portrait of Nicole 1952, 20 x 25½ inches, Oil on Canvas

JW Do you like working with young artists?

EC No. But they didn’t know that. No, I never saw an artist in the school I thought would be great someday, but I would never say anything. A lot of ‘em wanted me to touch their paintings with paint. I said, “No, it has to be your decision.” I was not a good teacher. Nor was de Kooning! Now I knew de Kooning, and when he was with Janis Gallery before I ever worked there, he was out of money so Janis sent him to Yale instead of giving him money . . . because one of Janis’s artists was Albers [who taught at Yale]. I know people who studied under de Kooning. He wasn’t a good teacher—they didn’t fire him, but you know, his name wasn’t always a household name.

JW Right.

EC But I was not a good teacher and I knew it—I was just waiting for the bell to ring. At the Art Institute of Chicago, the teachers still gotta take attendance and whatnot. In France—I don’t know about the Sorbonne—a guy walks in once every two weeks, he doesn’t say anything. He goes from easel to easel and the kids gather ‘round and listen to what he’s gonna say, and then he leaves. He don’t have to take attendance or nothin’. [Ossip] Zadkine—you know the name?

JW Yes.

EC I decided to take sculpture, so I went to this class, and all these kids—they knew I was talented—but I didn’t want no one to look at me or anything. An older man, was modeling; he was naked—and I’m doin’ just his head. He was The Thinker, à la Rodin, right? Now this was in the ’50s. And I didn’t know nothin’—didn’t care—and anyway, here comes the teacher, [Ossip] Zadkine. And he walks around, cerulean blue sweater, white hair, really nice, Jewish. Now he gets in front of my work, and he said, “You see? Let’s say I’m doing your face. You got the front, you got the side, yeah, but you have to think ROOOUND!” So that was the end of me being a Michelangelo, right?

JW (laughter)

EC I mean, he destroyed me, and then he just waltzed on to the next thing. You gotta think roouuuund, as you’re doin’ it. I’m thinkin’ I’m doin’ it just right.

JW When you came back to New York—you did work for Sidney Janis for a while.

EC Two years.

JW And what was your position there?

EC I was the young man [Ed was an assistant, helped show paintings, etc.]. I was recommended by William Baziotes, who knew me so he told me to go. Baziotes eventually became an artist in the gallery stable, and Janis later kicked him out. It’s a sad story: I wasn’t in the gallery at the time. He wasn’t selling as well as the other artists, so Janis told him, “This will be your last show.” Baziotes, said, “I’ll take my paintings now.” Baziotes died in a year anyway. His pride. The other artists Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko would talk about the fact that Baziotes just got up and walked off, you know, instead of waiting for the show.

JW So what did you do for Janis?

EC I’m the young man! The young man you need, right? I would be there, and, first thing, I knew a lot about art! I would go out and look. I remember, the artists would come in the back, especially if it was a Klein show, a de Kooning show, and Janis said, “Look, I don’t want you to spend all the time, wasting time . . . ” ‘cause you could lose more money on the artists, right? I mean he didn’t know. There’s Donald Judd and all those people. Janis said, “No swivel heads”—swivel heads means people just lookin’ at the paintings; they ain’t makin’ no money, right? But still, Janis was a genius in what he did.

JW He used the word swivel head?

EC Yeah yeah—

JW (laughter) Fantastic.

EC Let’s say people would walk in the gallery—and Janis would be in his with the door closed. He’d say, “Don’t bring anybody [in] here unless they’re serious.” And so many people would come and they just wanted to know the price. He was a vanguard. What’s the Italian one, he would come later, Castelli—we’d have to wait for someone like that to come to New York from Europe. Janis was the number one gallery in America.

(pipes banging over voices)

JW And what did you do for him?

EC First of all, you need someone to be out there that makes sure they don’t steal anything. All I was required to do was vacuum the floor before I go home and make sure I’m the last one. He said, “Never leave before me.” He was hard to work for but he was a genius in what he did.

JW Did you know his sons?

EC Yeah, he was hell on them—both of em’. The taller one—the better looking guy—he had been in the movies. It was a complicated thing. All I’m doing is working. He paid good money but he was difficult. He could make a sale like that, and I’m learning a lot from him. Some people walked in and said, “Mr. Janis, I like Klein, but the paintings are too big, do you have a smaller one?” And I knew right where [they were]. I started towards the back and he’d get like this, “Don’t go back there.” I’d have to keep my mouth shut, see. He’d say, “No, we don’t have any that size, and there’s a waiting list, anyway.” He’s talking to them, right? He said, “You know, maybe we’ll be lucky.” So the guy called—he might’ve been from Kansas—white guy, and he’d say, “Yeah, one did come in.” Well, the reason we had it—it was a lousy Klein—but he painted it with house paint and whatnot. He knew what to do—he says, “I’ll ship it to you, or you’re gonna have to come for it, at your expense.” You know, “I’ll send it.” The thing never came back. Now I used to think about that, no matter what, that Klein’s worth money enough. No matter what it was, [but] it wasn’t a good Klein. Klein’s a genius—a nice guy. I’d been to his studio on 14th Street. Nice guy—he liked music as he was working. You know, I met all those guys like that. Janis never saw my paintings. He said, “I don’t want you to take advantage—you’re here.” You know, in other words, “Don’t try.” I never showed him. I showed [them to] his wife, Harriet. I remember one time, I’m with the Frenchman, the famous—he was a sculptor, and a painter—the father of everybody—he’s dead now—Marcel Duchamp. He would come in all the time. Marcel Duchamp was ahead of everybody. He started all this.

JW He was a very smart man.

EC Yeah, and he could paint, too! Picasso blew everybody away.

JW Did you ever meet Picasso in Paris?

EC No, but I saw him. I’m sittin’ in the café, and all of a sudden the people—I’m in the back on the terrace—I’m in my twenties now—and all the people start doin’ this silently [applauding], and that was Picasso walkin’ down the street—he just waved. And they just meant, “Thank you for being Picasso.” The French never go up to celebrities. They never ask for autographs. I saw Clint Eastwood in the Coupole once and he was famous: nobody went up to him, but they knew about him.

JW Now, Bearden knew Picasso.

EC Yeah, I wonder. Look, Bearden’s all right, but I’m the one who told him when I came back from Paris about Picasso walking down the street. Then, he was at some kinda thing sayin’ he saw Picasso walkin’ down the street—that same story, like I said—but he put himself in it. Bearden might be a great artist, and to me, he’s good. He’s got the stamps, and good for him! There’s something even in the Times today about him. But to me, I could smell old fashioned-ness in his work, you know.

JW The way I heard the story from Bearden—

EC All you need is a photograph. Who else said that—there’s Beauford Delaney. He didn’t say that, but another guy that was livin’ with Beauford, who was ninety-eight when he died—he didn’t know that Beauford died in his sixties—he told me that when he was with Beauford, Picasso was there all the time. And I said, “Well did you ever take a photograph?” Because even one photograph, if you were with Picasso, would [have been] everywhere. If you have a photograph of him in your studio, you’ve got somethin’ that the whole world would envy.

JW But the story I remember hearing from Bearden was that he’s in Picasso’s studio and a woman comes into the studio—an American who was draped in furs and pearls—and Picasso says to Bearden, “Excuse me, Mr. Bearden, but I have to take care of some business with this woman.” And this woman, she’s all over the place, flingin’ around her pearls and her furs. She goes up to a painting and she says, “Oh! It’s so beautiful! What is it? What is it?” And Picasso says to her, “That, young lady, is $50,000.”

EC Yeah, that story’s been in the books all along.

JW I’ve heard that story from Bearden.

EC Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JW Is it true? I don’t know.

EC Anyway, it wasn’t $50,000 then. It was, maybe $10,000—with inflation—that was a fortune. He said, “That is $10,000,” and that would be like $50,000. That was a lot of money.

JW So that’s a true story?

EC Yeah, but I didn’t never hear Bearden [tell it], but I heard that story.

JW Yeah. Okay, I want to zero in now on, who is Ed Clark? I think that artists only have a few symbols to work with. Nature is available, sexuality, technology, autobiography, diary-like narratives, the sublime, formal issues, political, spiritual—so what about Ed Clark? What symbol do you react to? What symbol in art excites you?

EC Well I’m a big ego guy, I think about me! (laughter) When I was very young, I’m not thinkin’ about the next painting. Let me show you this real fast. This is 1946-1950. I’m in the Art Institute: (pages flipping). Let’s see, I’d taken drawing first, then general drawing. I’d taken drawing the figure, still-life figure painting—you had to; now it’s not like that. Lecture art, evening school, the history of art, here’s where we start learning the—

JW The history of art—

EC Art One—

JW You studied with Helen Gardner.

EC Yeah. Chicago. Evening school, figure painting—history of art. I went to the best school in the—

JW How long did you study there?

EC Here it is, man, look! (laughter) 1946-1951, because I didn’t go to day school; I went to night school and whatnot—it’s fragmented.

The City 1953, 76½ x 45 inches, Oil on Canvas

JW So you were there for five years?

EC Five years—it only takes four years to graduate—but the day school you’d have to take other courses.

JW Did you graduate with a certificate?

EC No, I didn’t want it! I would’ve turned it down.

JW You were there for five years and you left without receiving—

EC I left and wouldn’t have gone back there if they wanted me to get it. I just felt that way. And I got that from reading about Picasso. Picasso went to the great school in Madrid; he surpassed everyone and he never bothered to get a piece of paper.

JW So what ideas do you work with?

EC I get my brain now into the vocabulary. I’ll tell you something. One time I was in Chicago having this show at N’Namdi, and this woman, an educated woman, a lawyer—she said, “Can you explain this painting [Paris Gothic, 1993] to me?” This was the opening. Some people look at work and if it’s abstract, it’s like a puzzle they want to put together. And some people don’t need that. They had kids from grammar school come in, white and black. And someone said, “I’m going to show you Mr. Clark’s painting [Paris Gothic].” And one little boy, he was about seven, he said, “This is beautiful!” He didn’t need it to come together, he had that kind of mentality to just say, “This is beautiful!” Some people just can’t think that way. When I get myself into painting now, it’s hard to put in the words. I’m thinking, and thinking, and thinking, but it’s like talking about relativity. I’ll get into it and then all of a sudden I’ll say, “This is going nowhere!” And then destroy the fucking painting through frustration. But I’m certainly not the first artist to do that. And with acrylics you can do things that you can’t do with oil! I started with what you could do. I’ll be working for a week and then get some hot water out of the sink and just pour it on it and all of a sudden it will start doing something I didn’t have in mind. I’ll start looking at it and it’s still my color sense but I’m just watching it, right, watching it as it moves. Some of them looked like they were moving pictures!

JW So what you’re saying is that you’re not reacting to anything specifically?

EC No, but I’m in a higher part of thinking. I’m just thinking about this painting, my painting: Do I like it? Can I live with it? They’re not going to be decorative just for the sake of it. I mean, what’s her name? She’s written about you too. She’s white. Very pretty.

JW April Kingsley.

EC April Kingsley. She wrote on me. I’ll show you when we go into the living room what she says about me.

Ed Clark is like a sponge, absorbing every drop of life’s experiences and processing them unconsciously into art. He goes on frequent working trips to distant, often exotic places to experience new sensations of light, atmosphere, and material substance. Clark knows that, without doing it purposely, his work will look different, feel different, and sometimes even be made by a different method as a result.2

The writers can write, but I can’t put it into words! But I know when I’m here [in the studio], and I’m not thinking about nobody else, I’m thinking about it, it itself, and what to do. I’ll tell you it really started when I went to Crete [with you and Mary] that time [1971]. I’m just doing the thing I did in New York before that, and then people said, “Do you have anymore of those from Crete?” That’s the first time I realized that I’m [un]consciously influenced by where I am, but I’m not looking out at mountains or the ocean. I’m not going to do that.

JW But does nature inspire you?

EC I’ll show you. The unconscious things in my work are too sexy.

JW Sexy?

EC Let me go get the book.

JW Okay, Ed’s gone for a book that he wants me to see [For the Sake of the Search]. I want Ed Clark to express himself in terms of what he’s working with. So far he says things like, “I can’t put it in words”—which is a legitimate response. But. I think that he is capable of doing this. We still have a lot of material to get into. We have not gotten into his processes or materials. I’m very much interested in his worldview. There hasn’t been any mention of him being black as an artist, except peripherally. I’m very much interested in seeing what kind of sensibility comes out of that. I’m interested in his coming from the South, and if that plays a role in his thinking.

EC (calls from across the room)

JW Come a little closer and say that. Here’s your mic. There’s your seat.

EC First let me show you this painting. This is the painting [The City, 1953] but here’s where it was painted [it was painted at L’Atelier Le Feu, Rue De Lambre] That’s the one that I paid $50,000 for. My daughter has it now. That’s from back in Paris when I was young.

JW You re-bought this painting from a collector?

EC Yeah, a collector who had a lot of my paintings. He wasn’t going to sell it to me. But he said, “Well, I was going to leave it in my will [for your daughter] anyway.” So I paid. $50,000 cash.

JW Why is this painting so important to you?

EC Because it’s one of the best paintings I ever did. When I was painting it, I was trying to paint a city. At one point—and I’m not religious—but this was probably a cross, a church or something. This was a tree. And then I’m just painting to put it together. This is the one that Valerie Mercer put on the invitation for the “City of Light” exhibition at the Studio Museum of Harlem. And this collector, he was an architect with Polish ancestry [Herb Auerbach].

JW How would you describe yourself as a painter?

EC Let me just show you this unconsciousness down here.

JW You keep using the word “unconscious.” Please help us understand what you mean by that.

EC I’ll show you a couple of pictures to show what I mean. This painting is called Erotica (2003). When I’m painting it, I’m not thinking about anything but paint. But I’m looking at it now and I see a woman’s torso. Maybe that could be a vagina. So that’s unconsciousness. Here’ s another. This one painted itself. I mean, you can’t paint those, not you, not anybody, yet these clouds were made by the flow of the [of the broom]. Look at this one…

JW The title of this painting is [Jumaane’s Choice, 2005].

EC When we look at it now—it looks like a woman with her legs open and that’s her vagina. But I’m not thinking of that when I’m painting it! I’m not thinking of figurative art; that’s unconscious. Like Erotica [2003], Impact [2002], could be a body, but I’m just thinking about sweeping my broom. And later when I look at it, I see all the sexual implications.

JW So, you would agree that sexuality is a major symbol in art history?

EC It’s unconscious. I’ve got nothing to do with it! I’m not trying to think of that at all. You know that I can’t wait for my panties, but I’m not thinking of that.

JW So what are you thinking about when you paint?

EC It can’t be described. Even this one—I see the brush but if you turn the lady over on her back with her ass up then that could be the vagina. I left it but I’m not thinking of that. I’m thinking of making a painting…. Here, I’m in Avignon, France, painting outside. I’ve only painted outside a couple of times in my life. But you can see, obviously, that one called Erotica (2003) that’s unconscious. Now people look at it and they say, “That’s breasts, and the body with the legs open.” It’s sexy but not consciously, not to me. A lot of people see that in the work.

Untitled 1957, 46 x 55 inches, Oil on Canvas

JW You would agree with the Surrealists’ notion of the unconscious?

EC It’s obvious when people talk about it, but it’s strange because I never think about it consciously. I just know that there’s something very sexy about the work. All those were eventually sold.

JW I call it sensual. I find your work very sensual.

EC That’s a good word.

JW Now, you were raised Catholic. You spoke of your mother being very religious.

EC Very.

JW You spoke of your father as being not interested in religion.

EC Man, in the Depression nobody was. The Catholic school taught religion but they didn’t teach art. But I was lucky because they needed somebody to draw pictures and I started drawing Jesus and all those types of things.

JW Ed Clark, do you believe in God?

EC Sometimes, logically. What happens when you close your eyes? What’s the great magician? The greatest of all? Magic tricks and all that—Houdini, that’s it. Houdini said that he would come back from the dead. That’s what he told people. And I think, What happens when you die? The light goes out. What’s the next moment? You might be so intelligent that it’s not worth coming back. I don’t know. You may never come back. I used to joke with the guys, used to say, “Have you ever thought of this: Jesus, Moses, Confucius, Buddha, they’ve all died? And we haven’t heard from them since they’ve died. If they’re God, why don’t they come walking around?” I’m sitting in Catholic school, seven, eight years old, and I believed everything! The teacher’s a nun, and they didn’t teach us science but they taught us religion. And when they said that Christ died on the cross, I thought, Okay, he died on the cross. And the next thing they take his body off the cross—the Renaissance painters show him going up to Heaven—and they look to where his body was and he disappears, he rises to heaven. I don’t believe that.

JW Do you believe in Jesus Christ?

EC No, I don’t believe in him. He might have been a great man, but he didn’t defy the laws of gravity. I can’t see that. Einstein—what was complicated to others he could understand. And he had no ego, because he knew that as bright as he was, there was much more that he didn’t know. But he did say, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

JW So what does Ed Clark think about God?

EC I don’t know, it’s a mystery. But I can’t believe in any floating. Nobody knows because they never came back!

JW Well, B.B. King said, “I got a sweet little angel. I love the way she spreads her wings.” So, does Ed Clark believe in angels?

EC Here’s what I was. I was hopeless. When we were in grammar school, in Catholic school, if you went to church every morning, instead of going to school, that was good for you. Finally in this Catholic church—St. Anselm in Chicago—they had some German artist paint angels over the altar, one on one side and one on the other. And he started by just making the outline. And I’d be there every day because they were naked. And the nuns would say, “Oh, he comes every day!” And I just cared about the naked chicks. I didn’t believe anything else.

JW You grew up Catholic. Do you believe in the Virgin Mary?

Creation 2006, 72 x 84 inches, Acrylic on Canvas

EC Look, the biggest cuckold—do you know that word? That means you’re being cheated on. I was with a French guy once, and he was with an American, this woman who was in a department store, and she called him that. She didn’t know that he understood it, she meant, “Your wife is cheating on you.” That’s a real insult. Now what did you ask me? Because I’ve got a point.

JW Do you believe in the Virgin Mary?

EC The Virgin Mary. Was she a virgin? I think that Joseph was the biggest cuckold we ever knew. She got pregnant and a kid was born, and the story is so powerful that more people are Christians than any other religion in the world.

JW Are you Christian?

EC If you give five years of a child’s life to being Catholic, they say that you’ll always be Catholic. I told you about this nightmare I had about three years ago right in this house. It didn’t seem like a dream. My daughter is in the dream, and Lily was, and my sister. We’re all sitting in a hospital building that looked like a set, but at that point it’s real. And they got ready to go downstairs, and I said, “I’ll meet you downstairs.” I had something to do. And then I started walking. Twenty minutes later, or at least it felt like that amount of time, and I must have looked strange because a doctor ran up to me and said, “Do you need a doctor?” And I said, “No, I need a priest.” And I’ve never thought about a priest in any way like that, but that’s what I said. And the dream isn’t finished. I started walking to the elevators. They had three big elevators but I looked at them close and they were like three refrigerators. Then I look to my right and there was Adger Cowans, a friend of mine, and he was just sitting. I looked at him close and he was dead! A real nightmare. Somehow I did get downstairs. I said, “I needed a priest!” I used to joke about that with my sister, and she would say, “Just wait until your time comes.” (laughter) But I said, “a priest!” I don’t think much of priests. They represent God even as they masturbate! Let’s say I’m dying in a hospital and the Pope is there. He would scare me. The one that died before the current one, I wouldn’t mind.

JW Do you still consider yourself to be a Catholic?

EC I’m sure if I’m on my deathbed and the priest came…. In fact, it’s happened already. I was in the hospital in Vienna one time [1996] and a priest comes automatically because they found out from my records that I was Catholic. He comes in—they wanted to give me a test for irregular heartbeat—and he looks at me and starts praying. Someone said, “That’s the blessing they give you when you die.” I didn’t think I was going to die; and I didn’t. Well, my dick died eventually but that’s something else. (laughter) But I remember I ran into him a week or two later and he was startled to see me because—

JW He thought you were dying?

EC I don’t know. I told it to some other guy and he said, “No, that couldn’t have been the Last Sacrament.” And here’s what I always doubted about the Catholic Church, even as a kid. They say that to get into the kingdom you have to be a Catholic and I said, “This doesn’t seem right.” So I asked, “If you’re not a Catholic, and you can’t get to the Kingdom of Heaven, then where do you go?” And they said that you go to Limbo, a halfway thing. And yet if you are a Catholic, and you’re a very bad guy and kill some people, if you confess to the priest while you’re dying, then you go to Heaven. That don’t seem right. So I don’t believe in any of it.

JW So you don’t believe in Heaven?

EC Worse. Most people believe in Heaven but they don’t believe in Hell. Nobody believes in Hell. Now when you go to Paris and see the great cathedrals, they got all those things that people believed in. A lot of people couldn’t read so they’re showing it visually. In Notre Dame, on one side they got Christ and on the other side they got a lot of people, and if you look close, they’re going to Hell. And the good people are going to Heaven. No, I don’t believe in that shit.

JW So you’re lucky—you don’t believe in Heaven, you don’t believe in Hell, you don’t believe in Jesus Christ—

EC No, no, no, I lean towards existence.

JW Existence?

EC But it won’t be what we want to understand it as. We probably go back to something that was created before. Because life is a mystery. It’s always been a mystery. And death is a mystery. That’s why we have religion.

Jumaane’s Choice 2005, 58 x 72 inches, Acrylic on Canvas

JW Okay, who is Ed Clark?

EC I don’t know. (laughter)

JW (laughter) I want to know: who is Ed Clark? The world wants to know. Is he an African? Is he an American? Is he a black American? Is he a Southerner? Who is Ed Clark?

EC But that black thing has been good and bad for me. I went to Africa when nobody was going to Africa [Ife, Nigeria in 1973]. And I’m in Africa, and people didn’t like me. I wasn’t with a woman or nothing. They just didn’t like me. And it got worse and worse. I remember I was in the University [Obafemi Awolowo University], and I had a cheap camera and I asked a guy to take a photo of me, and when he took the photo he cut the head right off. He didn’t like me. And then I went to see the Classical sculpture [of Ife, Nigeria ] with the vertical lines, and I met these teenagers—I was still in my 20s I think—and I thought they were coming to kick my ass. I put my hand over my pocketknife, but they wanted to just talk to me. They were curious. Finally they [the Nigerians] took me over and began to be very friendly with me. They told me stories and gave me an African name and all that shit. But I could tell, Okay, everything is fine, they like me. They liked any foreigner. And then I realized that they probably didn’t think I was black, because that has happened. I couldn’t get it across to them. I said it, and they were still nice. So I told them a little black lie. I said that my grandmother was from Africa—she wasn’t—but I said that she was. And just like that, they understood, because that meant she was black. She was light-skinned like me and you, but I said it anyway. And then they said, “They cannot say no to you now. You’re one of us.” And I was getting ready to meet Ulli Beier. He had a big collection, and he even had a school where he taught art. He said, “By the way” —he spoke [King’s] English—“I had a chap here two years ago whose name was Bill Hudson.” I said, “Bill Hudson. He’s in my studio right now in New York.”


I’d already asked if he could find a place for me to paint, without begging. He did it the 19th century way: He got out a piece of paper. He wrote something. He put it in an envelope. He didn’t seal it. He gave it to me. He said, “Take this to a certain chief.” I did. And see in the 19th century that’s what would happen. He [the chief] looked at it and he read it. He was a jet black. He was about six feet seven. He looked like a chief. He said, “What can we do for you? Well, the art school’s closed. This is summer [but] why don’t you go over there?” I went there. I couldn’t believe it. The art school was fantastic. No one was there. Someone let me in the door. There was this studio with all kinds of easels that the students had left up. There was even dried pigment there, rare colors and what not, everything I needed. And nobody bothered me. I’m in there two weeks working on paper. And I remember then it almost got surreal. On the last day, I’m getting ready to pack up, and the same African guy, who was a big shot, said, “Did you enjoy your stay here?” I said, “Yes, yes, very much.” And then he got into things so I realized he didn’t think I was black. He said, “We satisfy our women.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, this is like Laurel and Hardy—Who’s on first?” He said, “We’re very strong down there.” I said, “Yeah, yeah.” He’s looking at me, and I’m looking at him. I’m saying “Yeah, we.” He’s talking about, “But our race, we’re men. We please our women.” In other words, we’re better than you. And I said, “Yeah.” But he couldn’t understand: You’re looking at a brother.


A lot of those kinds of things happened there. We had to go to Cameroon, and that’s the frontier. When I got to the frontier, I had to change money into Nigerian money. I had to see some guy at the border who said, “You should have changed your money [earlier].” “I was told I could change it here.” He said, “You should have changed it last night.” I said, “Well, I didn’t. I’m sorry.” I had like 150 dollars in their money. He said, “You cannot take it out of this country.” He’s giving me an order. I said, “Well what do I do?” [He said,] “There’s some blokes out there changing money.” The bloke out there gave me about thirty-five dollars. There were a lot of African ladies and they were laughing at me, like, That’s what you deserve. Now, to get to the other side of the border, there was a rope bridge. There’s a guy there with a rifle. I started to just walk across. Someone said, “They probably wouldn’t have shot you [for taking money across].” But hey, I didn’t take any chances. I walked across that rope bridge and when I got to the other side that was the bush. The jungle. And there was a guy, who heard the argument about changing money, an African guy who spoke English. “Sir, I must apologize for my colleague. But we have a vehicle if you want to pay your part.” Well, there was no other way with no bus or anything. I got in this Volkswagon. This guy reminded me of [Desmond] Tutu, later on. He spoke with an accent. He was friendly and luckily I learned to eat the food and drink the water, or otherwise I would have had a problem. I learned to drink the water from my Japanese friend who once went to Mexico. And what he did right away was drink the water. He got diarrhea, but he kept drinking the water. He built up an immunity to it. So I’d done the same thing. When this car would stop, it would be so filthy. They would just reach up and give you some water. The food was terrible, but the people were good. And good thing I’d been drinking the water; I didn’t have diarrhea or anything like that.

JW Ed, what’s your definition for art?

EC I always wanted to be an artist. I always wanted to be the best. When I was in grammar school, I started with a lot of problems from the South. It was a black school. But by the time we got to the third grade, the nun asked, “Could you copy this and put it on the blackboard?” And that started it. I was the star of the school. Still to this day I’m wondering, what did that give me?

JW So what are you trying to tell us about the meaning of your art?

EC That I always felt I was the best. Even in Louisiana…at that point, I knew I was the best at copying. Other students were drawing bubbles for leaves when I was doing branches. I knew I could be the best. I’m not the only artist who thinks that way.

JW What does that have to do with your meaning of art?

EC I’m a painter and nothing else. I could have probably been a scientist. When I got out of the military, I wanted to go to the University of Chicago. When they told me you had to write—I couldn’t even spell. I can’t spell centrifugal, inertia. So I said, I’d better go to an art institute.

JW Which brings us to an interesting junction here. When did you know you were an artist, absolutely?

EC When I did the self-portrait [1947-1949]. But when I did it, no one was looking over my shoulder. That was done in my house. I was studying Art History and Art [at the Art Institute of Chicago]. They got to da Vinci before Michelangelo, who I like better now. I saw the Mona Lisa. I hadn’t been to France yet, but I saw [pictures of] it. I said, I’m going to draw and paint better than anybody. I didn’t even have oil paint. They didn’t have acrylic then. I didn’t know what to do. I took watercolor, the cheap tube kind. Painted it on a board. Of course, it did funny things, and I kept it on until I built it up, built it up. For two years I’m working on the thing. Ain’t nobody else can show me any painting in this country better than that, from my point of view.

JW Your self-portrait?

EC I would not look at a photograph. And now it almost looks three-dimensional. Just looking at it every night, every night. I hadn’t seen Wyeth’s paintings—but I don’t like them as well as my painting.

JW Your self-portrait convinced you that you were an artist?

EC A great artist. Not an artist, but a great artist. I’d go into the American museums, [where] there’s obviously artists such as Vermeer. I hadn’t known about him; he’s very, very perfect. Almost too perfect. But pretty soon, when we got to Michelangelo, that’s something else. It took da Vinci two years, I think, to do the Mona Lisa and it might even be a self-portrait. Michelangelo didn’t even want to be a painter, but with those twisted figures and all of that, he becomes the greatest.

JW You’re known as an abstract painter? Would you give us your meaning of abstraction? Would you define yourself as an abstract painter?

EC First of all, you abstract things. It’s up to you. I don’t want no figure paintings around. I have painted every wife, but that’s something else. I don’t consider that as important as abstract painting. Once I could do the self-portrait, I figured I could do everything. I got that out of my system. All you’ve got to do is look at it, if you don’t think it’s good, then you do it and show me. I knew it. So then, I’m abstract.

JW Did Jazz play a role in your thinking about abstraction?

EC I’m from New Orleans. Even though I don’t really have the love I should have for Jazz, I know damn well that I like Jelly Roll Morton. Everybody talking about Louis Armstrong—I can’t stand Louis Armstrong. But they say he’s the best. Elizabeth Catlett did a statue of him in Congo Square [in the French Quarter], and she felt like me about it. She did it for the commission. I’m black, from New Orleans . . . but everybody knows more about it than me.

JW So what’s your connection to Jazz music and abstraction?

EC I know one thing. When I’d go to that Five Spot [Cooper Square on the Bowery in New York] and see Thelonius Monk, I knew he was a genius. And a lot of artists went there, Pollock and what not. We’d go there and that’s genius. Ornette Coleman gave me some of his records. I never played them, and then when I had this place painted, this guy stole them. I had two or three records.

JW Do you think there’s a connection to Jazz and abstraction? Could you describe it?

EC Yeah. There’s also a white sound and a black sound.

JW How would you describe Jazz’s connection to abstraction?

EC I went to Brazil. They’ve got beautiful music too. But Jazz has something to do with the industrial revolution. The train: humm du dumm, du dumm, du dumm. But it’s the black man who’s doing the music, watching that kind of thing. It changed the world. You know, everything’s better in Europe than here, even though this is one of the greatest countries. Who’s the greatest scientist? Edison. But they had Einstein. Who’s the greatest anything? Who’s the greatest artist? It’s probably European. Picasso. But Jazz was different than anything. In World War I, the blacks went to Paris, and that changed everything, that Jazz music. King Oliver and all of that. They didn’t even have records. One musician who was a legend [in Paris], didn’t realize how popular that was going to be. He wouldn’t let his stuff be recorded.

JW We’re looking at a painting here now. What’s the title of that painting? It’s a beautiful pink—sort of a center, with a grey, blue, whiteish.

EC I have a hard time with titling things. That one back there, just sticking out, is called Winter Bitch [1959]. That’s a hell of a name. I think my second wife thought I was talking about her. Because they were all sisters, who I’ve been married to. Except Liping. She [Lola] might have thought I meant her. She was from Montreal. And maybe, unconsciously, I did mean that.

JW What about that big one there? I’m looking at a painting there that’s got to be over twelve, fourteen feet.

EC I guess it’s called Silver Stripe [1972]. It was shown in a big gallery. 141 Prince Street Gallery in SoHo [September 16-October 5, 1972]. It almost was sold. But “almost” don’t mean it was sold. I’m glad I’ve got it now. You came on as a plumber once to do some work when I was in. You’re the one who told me how to use the tape to seal it up. You influenced me on that. I hadn’t seen your work.

JW What does that painting, Silver Stripe, mean to you? That large oval painting?

EC I don’t know. But I used to say, Look, the eyes are oval shaped. That used to be my excuse. [His first oval painting was painted in France in 1968]. It’s like the expanding image. You got a pen? (sketches on a piece of paper) When I started making those lines, I realized if I put those lines next to each other, and then away from each other, and then further away, it would give the illusion of form. If you place them closer, closer, closer here, and wider there, it’d give the illusion of a third dimension. That’s just elementary. Can you see it there? That was all thought out. Anyway, we know that’s going to be sold. I’m not worried about it. I’ll sign it. It’s a piece of bullshit for you. (laughter)

JW Thank you, Sir Clark. Now, what’s your thinking about the term Black Art?

EC I never liked that.

JW How do you understand the terminology? What does it mean to you?

EC The reason I got into that Galerie Creuze in France was, that this critic [Michel Conil-Lacoste] from Le Monde saw my work—in fact, it was this painting—The City, 1953—in the American Center in Paris. I was at the opening but he wasn’t. One day, he came there, and he wrote about it for Le Monde. He was so famous he just put MCL. He didn’t have to put his name. Then someone came up and said, “Ed you’re famous,” to me. So he read it to me. In those days, they didn’t say blacks. They said Negroes. He said, “Negro of great talent.” The French never put race on ID cards. “Great talent.” He said, “Why don’t you send him something?” So I sent him something. And to my pleasant surprise he wrote back, “Let’s have a rendezvous at the Café Select.” So when he came to Select, he was older than me, but not as old as I thought. I said, “You’re younger than I thought.” And he said, “You’re not as black as I thought.” So I said, “By the way, why did you use that word?” He hadn’t seen me. I wouldn’t have said anything. He said, “Because the woman [at the American Center]—who was American—she must have said it thirty times. “He’s a negro, negro, negro, negro.” That’s why he said it. Well, he never used that word again. Nor in France do they say that. They only talk about your nationality. I remember once the Herald Tribune, wanted to know how many blacks were in Paris. Now, they probably know anyway. But they said, “We only put down nationality. We don’t put down race.” Now when he [LaCoste] writes, he would ordinarily avoid that and just talk like a human being. In America they couldn’t do nothing with my name. A Latin name would have been better. Clark, that’s an Irish word for clerk. Now Basquiat never went to France, but he had the name. He’s a good artist anyway. He’s been here, before he was famous, according to Danny Johnson. Did you ever meet him?

JW Yes, I met him through Henry Geldzahler. I still can’t get you to talk about your ideas in art. I want you to talk about your paintings. What you’re thinking about.

EC It’s a vocabulary that’s beyond rational words. When you get abstract eyes, even saying that is abstracted conversation. I’m trying to make something that’s visual and attractive but not to the point of being pretty. When I’m painting, it’s my end. I read just like you do and what’s his name…Greenberg?

JW Yes, I knew Clement Greenberg.

EC I remember when I was having a show in SoHo. No one knew who I was. He was across the street and I’m looking at him. He didn’t even talk to them about my work. And none of those artists there, Danny Johnson and all, none of them turned out to be an Ed Clark. But he didn’t particularly say anything. Just nothing. And yet, I respect him as a writer. He writes very well. He influenced James Little on Seventh Avenue who just had a show at June Kelly about sixth months ago. Oh, he’s famous. But he needed Greenberg’s influence. Greenberg liked his work. He encouraged it. But he didn’t say anything about me.

JW Tell me something about this painting. We’re looking at the cover of the book on Edward Clark, For the Sake of the Search, and reproduced on the cover, is a painting with an irregular shape. Tell us about that painting [Untitled, 1957].

EC The thing about this painting, this was the first one that was written about. I was making that painting without thinking about anything, and nothing would work. It was an almost painting. And then I must have accidentally dropped a piece of paper on it, and it looked better that way than any other way. And that was the first [collaged/shaped] one that was ever seen.

JW What’s so important about that painting in your mind?

EC The big thing is it went beyond the frame. And that’s what they talk about when they talk about it. I got other documentations here. Anita Feldman is coming over here, but not now. She was the first one to write about it, as her husband [Joe Feldman] was in that gallery [Brata Gallery]. They had never seen a painting like that. It was Tenth Street that started this thing with co-ops in the world. The artists would pay the rent, and when your time comes your wife or girlfriend will be there to sit at the reception desk. And that was the [Brata Gallery]. And they put it right in the middle of the gallery. It was written about that week.

JW Tell us about your thinking in doing that painting.

EC In that painting, it’s because I got frustrated. First, it’s on a rectangle. This was all paper. I just tore it off. And I’m using it to glue it on any kind of way. Like a collage. But then this is paint too. And then nothing would work until I saw that [piece of paper lying on it], and then it worked. It influenced everybody when they saw it. Sal Romano was there. They were all witness to it.

I was painting a rectangular picture that looked pretty good, and I decided to coat the paper with oil paint strokes. I was going to glue it like a collage, and I looked at it and looked at it and looked at it, and I thought it had a punch. All of a sudden, I put the paper over the edge; it stuck out and it worked! Only without a stretcher, the piece was limp, so I built it up. I built it up a stretcher, and I mounted that area so that it was no longer limp. There was no precedent for it, but that was the only way the piece would work…Then it was shown in a group show at Brata for Christmas 1957…People said they had never seen anything like it…It wasn’t called shaped painting, just something strange and different that began with that painting. 3

Part Four: February 23, 2012

JW How many of those shaped paintings did you do?

EC Only about seven or so, some of them I probably destroyed. But it just needed that one to make the difference.

JW So if you felt that painting to be so important, why didn’t you continue working in that way?

EC Well, I did. I knew I was doing something that nobody was doing. (Showing a picture in For the Sake of the Search) You should see this in color. I don’t have it now. It was sent over to Europe; it got left in a crate. Water damaged it. But it made a big noise. Here I am [in 1985]. (pages flipping) This is me with Joan [Mitchell]. I got this in color. Those are my paintings. This is Paris. She’s got a cigarette and I don’t.

JW You said she was a heavy smoker.

EC That’s right. She always smoked. She died of lung cancer. And she was crazy about me but I wasn’t crazy about her, sexually. But she told that to [my wife] Hedy, “I’d love to fuck him.” She was that kind of woman.

JW How would you describe yourself today as an artist? If you had to put yourself in a proper perspective, in terms of art history—

EC (interrupting) Like a master. I feel like that. I’m eighty-five and I just feel like I’m ahead of everybody. That’s my own ego, right? It’s not written on the walls that I am, but when I look at other artists . . . I like Warhol’s idea. It’s almost poetic. He’ll do, for example, somebody in an automobile accident. He’ll silkscreen an electric chair and make it pink. He’s hitting on something like that. And I like Lichtenstein, who I met, when he first came from Ohio State. I like when you take those dots . . . I never met Warhol. But Bill Hudson did. I’ve seen him, though, in the news on modern art.

JW How do you want to be known? How do you see your position in the history of art?

EC Well, I want to be called “great.”

JW For what reason?

EC Because I am great, in my opinion. But most artists think that. I’m not the only one. They’ll say that but I don’t see anybody out there that I like better than myself. But I still know when they’re good. I ain’t got nothing to do with Warhol. But he’s a great artist.

JW So tell us, for the audience, what makes your paintings so good?

EC It’s visual arts. You get that picture. I’ve had so many compliments in different areas, and so much written about me, as long as I’ve been painting. I’m not in envy of anybody. No. I might have had a problem in 1913 with a whippersnapper named Picasso around. He buried everybody. But he’s not around now.

JW So what makes Ed Clark so great? Tell us.

EC Because I love painting. I can’t think of nothing else. And I’m lucky: now that I’ve got the money, I don’t have to do anything but paint. That used to bother me. I’d think, What am I going to do? I’ll go broke. I suffered but I still was young. One thing about being young is you don’t get sick. Now I’m married to Lily. She’s sometimes like a hypochondriac, but she’s fifty years younger than me. She’s not gonna get sick.

JW (laughter) How many years?

EC She was twenty-three, I was seventy-three when I met her. That’s fifty years’ difference. I forgot your point.

JW I want Ed Clark to speak about Ed Clark as a painter. I want Ed Clark to position himself in the history of art.

EC I’m thinking of myself as a lover right now.

JW (laughter) So Ed Clark refuses to talk about his paintings and his ideas of art. Here’s one. Untitled, 1992.

EC That’s been sold a long time ago. Now this one, which is Untitled from 1992, [p.50 of Edward Clark, For the Sake of the Search], the interesting thing about this picture, is if you put it in black and white, you wouldn’t see some of these things. But then the strength that comes with the movement…. You take a pastel color and make movement; it’ll get stronger than another one. The broom had a lot to do with it.

JW Tell us about the broom.

EC Well, I’m the first to use that. There were two artists in Paris, Hans Hartung and Soulages. They used the broom but they didn’t use a push broom. The moment you use a push broom, you do something else. Straight up and down. But I never liked their work much.

JW So you wouldn’t list Hartung and Soulages as an influence?

EC No, I wasn’t really influenced by them. I didn’t like their work much. I know it was in a good gallery in Paris. The son of one of them was here about a year ago. And he said, “Maybe my father was influenced by you.” He said that about his later work. Because when I used the broom it made it something else.

JW So that was the first time you had seen a painter use that type of a tool in painting?

EC You can’t show me any one now who uses the broom. There’s no evidence of anybody using a broom but me. There’re people after me who used the broom but you go dig it up in a museum. I’ll be the only one with a broom. The broom itself makes something possible. You crush through things. You get a feeling like (imitates noise of broom, or wind).

In 1956, I got into using a broom or what I like to call “the big sweep.” I wanted to cover a large area. And the push broom I began to use a little later gives you another thing, something you cannot do with your wrist. You can use a broom that’s wide with your hand, but it won’t give you that straight stroke. You have to want that straight stroke. It’s like cutting through something really fast; that’s what the straight stroke with the push broom gives you, speed.4

JW Is there a connection to Jazz in your use of the broom?

EC Probably. In fact, I said that once. I was talking to my daughter about when I did this painting for Reginald Lewis. I’ll show you. (pages flipping) This is a big painting. Eighteen feet. It’s almost twice as high as this loft. But when I did that painting [Elevation, 1992] was commissioned to do it. I only had two commissions, this one and doing a piece for Reginald Lewis’s jet. And I remember I had Chris Shelton helping me.

JW Chris Shelton. I remember him. Is Chris Shelton still alive?

EC Yeah, he called me about two months ago. I remember, he, Ernie Crichlow and Norman Lewis. They were all involved in the Cinque Gallery.

JW You knew Norman Lewis?

EC Yeah. And Chris got a commission. There was a big thing to do a schoolyard in Brooklyn. Chris wanted the sculpture to be a certain way. They accepted it. But then they realized that they couldn’t do it that way, because it would just come down from gravity, unless you spent a lot of money anchoring it. And Chris never went back to even look at it. It had to be his way and it was almost impossible to do it his way. And other people said if he could just realize what he’s doing—he’d be a big, big name, and we’d see it. But Chris was that pure.

JW Tell us more about your use of the broom. What would it allow you to do? Is it a notion of freedom, when you use the broom?

EC I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. Somehow, I just felt I needed that speed.

JW So the broom gave you more speed?

EC Yeah. That’s modern times.

JW You drive a car, right?

EC I’ve had cars. And I drove real fast.

JW You ever own a sports car?

EC No, I would be dead if I did.

JW (laughter)

EC But speed was something. April [Kingsley] writes about that.

JW I think it’s an important ingredient in your work. So, Ed Clark. What does Ed Clark want?

EC I want some strange drawers. Do you know what “strange drawers” means? In the military, when you do target practice, when you shoot your rifle, you’re a long way from where the target is, so they have guys in the pit down there. They let the shooters, who are maybe seventy meters away, know what it was. They would put up a sign. “Target. Bull’s eye.” Let’s say it missed the target altogether. They’d call that “Maggie’s drawers.” That means a woman’s panties. I want strange drawers. That means something new. After a while, you get bored, no matter who. So I’m looking for some strange drawers.

JW Very good. Ed Clark wants strange drawers.

EC Most men do.

JW But you see yourself as part of a movement?

EC I’ve influenced a lot of people. I know that. When I had the last show down in Chelsea, we’ve got a little video of it. Do you know how to put that video in? It was done a year and a half ago.

JW If you believe in being a part of a movement, how would you describe this movement?

EC Impressionism I was a little influenced by, and I’m influenced, of course, by Matisse and all those people.

JW But if you’re part of a movement today, what would you call it?

EC Wait, let me see. (flipping pages) It says something about me here, the very last chapter. (reading aloud)

“In his painting Pink Wave, a single monster wave dominates the entire field. Red, black, and blue peek out beneath the overwhelming white-pink-gray sweep, on which two patches, green and black, surf. Inertia was completed while Clark was being filmed for an interview; there is a very exciting interaction between yin and yang waves, the lighter colored gray-pink-lemon swoop at the bottom with a brown and red mess looming above it. (The crew was astounded at the speed at which he moves across the canvas.) In the Locomotion and Pink Top paintings there [sic] both created vertically, with four or five stacked bandings. The pink, white, and blue bands in Pink Top are very loosely shaped and atmospheric, while Locomotion’s colors are firmer. However, they both tend to confine themselves within the painting’s perimeters, not seeming to speed through them. The color pink provides the warmth in both images, as it does in much of Clark’s work. It is to him what orange was to Cézanne and yellow to Van Gogh. Someone once said that you can judge a painter by how well he or she handles pink. That person was probably thinking of Matisse, but might just as well have been talking about Ed Clark, who uses pink more than anyone around and handles it just beautifully.”5

Whenever you take a word like pink . . . pink is a pretty color but once you put the broom through it, it’s no longer peaceful, because of the speed. The broom can make something else happen to color.

JW Extends it.

EC The movement.

JW Breaks through.

EC April knows a lot about me.

JW I think Ed Clark knows a lot about Ed Clark, but he’s not willing to say it.

EC When I was very young, we went up to Chicago and then we’d go back to Louisiana. It would take a long time on the train. And maybe that going as a little boy, and then coming back…April once said, “Maybe that thing just got into you about movement.” Movement, movement, movement. She could see something like that. April’s very special. I have to call her because I heard she was sick—

JW Yeah. Her daughter, Grace, tells me she’s not well. Grace claims that it’s the beginning of Alzheimer’s.

EC Alzheimer’s, wow. That’s terrible. No matter how bright you are—there was the President who got Alzheimer’s, Reagan, and then de Kooning. One thing about Alzheimer’s is you will stop working. I saw de Kooning two years before he had Alzheimer’s. He was just sharp as can be. That shit just rots you brain away. Oh, that’s too bad about April.

JW How do you want people to think about Ed Clark?

EC I want them to say I’m a great artist. I’m human: whether I am great or not, I’m just like a kid! I think they will know more about me.

JW You came out of second-generation Abstract Expressionism. How would you describe yourself today?

EC I’ve maybe got to invent a name for it. I don’t know what they’d call this. You see that painting there that’s beyond the roll—the round one?

JW Yes.

EC The French call that tache. That means stain. I’m not the first to do that. To use colors transparently, that’s called tache. Move that thing. (dragging something out of the way) This is one that that millionaire guy is buying. You know, it’s like Easter eggs. You let it get watery, then I drop hot water on it, it just does things like that. Most of them I reject. But that one and some of them here, that’s what the French call stain painting. But that’ll keep the hawk away from the lure awhile.

JW Before we leave, who represents you work today?

EC Right now, George [N’Namdi].

JW What’s your relationship to George N’Namdi?

EC The first show he put me in was because of Adger [Cowans], who’s from that area [the Midwest]. George comes into New York. He knew he was going to open a gallery. He came to my studio and some others, and some he didn’t take, and right away he took Al [Loving ] and me. I never went when he had the first show, in the gallery called Jess Olner, in Detroit. And he paid for us to come there. He had some kind of cheap place we could all get and I was on that first flight, and then the second flight was Al and . . . what’s the name, the painter that’s also in George’s gallery…She’s a good painter; she’s famous, and she makes money. She’s with George and she’s from Newark. Her father was the mayor of Newark or something like that [Nanette Carter].

JW How many dealers have you had in New York?

EC I never had a white one. I had James Yu and Brata. A lot of these others, I chose myself. I just went and rented out the space. And then George N’Nnamdi.

JW You ever work with June Kelly?

EC No, but June used to bring people over before she had the gallery. She never invited me and I never tried to kiss her butt to get in there. No, I didn’t show with June. But she showed me before she had a gallery, in some kind of way. I forget how that was.

JW Now you said that black art was a term that you didn’t like.

EC I never liked that. “Black art,” like we’re different. Different creatures. It sounds kind of racist to me. Like black art is different than . . . maybe it is. I know Mary Ann Gentry, she’s strong on that black art thing. Were you in that show that she curated and sent around?

JW No. So do you believe there’s such a thing as black art?

EC The mistake of my life was, I was showing in SoHo. I’d rented out the space. And it made money. Ornette Coleman bought a painting. Two or three people bought paintings. The last day I went to get the things under glass, they said, “The Museum of Modern Art had picked them up.” That’s very flattering. But I suspected that it was for a black show. I went to the Museum of Modern Art and there were about six paintings [of mine] there. They had picked them all up. They were framed and all that stuff. And I was angry. I didn’t curse them, but I took them out. I must have had a truck downstairs.

JW Let me understand this: the Museum of Modern Art picked up your paintings with the idea of buying them?

EC They saw the show in Soho, at 141 Prince Street, which is now Gallery Nine, and they just liked them. They picked them up because they thought it was good. I should have stopped there and not taken them out.

JW But how did you know the Museum of Modern Art picked them up?

EC Well, when I went to the gallery in Soho, they had somebody sitting there when I couldn’t be there, and he told me they picked them up. I wasn’t worried about that; I knew that was kosher.

JW But they didn’t tell you the reason they picked them up?

EC Because they thought they were great paintings. He didn’t even have to ask: everybody wants to be in the Museum. Including me. That was flattering, but I didn’t like the idea of it being “black” art. When I got there, I asked, “Is this show of black art?” He said, “Yeah.” With pride. He was not even an American but he meant that with pride, right? I’m going back to his mind.

JW This was a black person?

EC No, he was white.

JW Did the show ever happen?

EC No, because I took them out. I went to the Museum of Modern Art. You go upstairs and there they all were. And then the guy comes out. He’s very nice to me. I’m not saying he did anything wrong. It’s how I felt about it. I didn’t want to be in a show called “Black Art.” They’d never do that in France.

JW So the show never happened. Were there other people involved, that he wanted to show?

EC I guess it would be with other people. Give me that cardboard-cover book again [Ed Clark, Master Painter]. I’ll tell you the year. (flipping pages) In 1955 Galerie Creuse, Paris, American Embassy, Paris…Oh, so I showed in the American Embassy [1969]. Donald Judd showed me in his gallery [Donald Judd’s Loft, 1971]. He was determined to do something with me.

JW I remember that.

EC South Houston Gallery in New York, 1974. Sullivan Gallery, Ohio State University, 1976; Peg Alston Art, New York City, 1977. I don’t see it here. It was before Donald Judd. So it’s probably right around 1970.

JW So let’s go over it one more time so I can get the record straight. You had a show in SoHo, and you said that the Museum of Modern Art picked up some paintings, and took them to the Museum, with the purpose of doing a group show of black artists.

EC Yeah. That’s separating the races. I’m talking about that point in time. It’s bigger than me. It’s so big I can’t do nothing about it.

JW But you don’t remember the name of the person at the Museum of Modern Art?

EC No. He was somebody . . .

JW Would it have been Mr. Rubin? Mr. Rubin was there at that time.

EC No. I knew Rubin, he was one of the clients that would come into Janis Gallery. So it must have been the Department of Drawings, or something. There’s a section for that, right? But it was a black show. I never went to see it.

JW I never heard of that. Never knew anything about that.

EC But I’m proud to say it was a mistake. I should have shown! You know, I would have made money. But I was making money anyway.

JW Have you ever participated in a show under the label of “black art”?

EC Well, it got bigger than me, after a while. Every time I showed with Peg Alston, she never had white artists, and that was black art. My first sell-out show was with Peg Alston [1977].

JW Well, we’ve covered pretty much everything on my outline. Have we missed anything? What would Ed Clark add to this?

EC Well, you know, I don’t have Alzheimer’s yet, but I’m probably getting it. Might have missed a lot of things.

JW (laughter) I came here with the idea of getting the whole picture from Ed Clark. I’ve done my best to get him to talk.

EC Well, when you get to be eighty-five, and you’ve traveled like me, and had all kinds of experiences in Paris, and New York, the opening of the Brata Gallery…I did the first show there. And then that show, the shaped paintings, and all those artists I had met before in Paris. Al Held, and Sal Romano . . . and who else? George Sugarman. I wasn’t thinking of race. Somehow when they were in Paris they didn’t think of race either. But when they get back to America, after a while they begin to.

JW You’re reminding me of someone. Cy Twombly. Cy Twombly just died. A few weeks back.

EC Yeah, a good artist.

JW Cy Twombly wouldn’t talk about his works. He claimed that there was nothing to talk about.

EC He was white, right?

JW Yeah, he was white. A Southerner. Which brings us to one more thing that we did miss. You were born in the South.

EC Yeah.

JW America has produced a lot of artists from the South. Do you think that coming from the South makes a difference in your thinking about painting?

EC Oh yeah. Especially Louisiana. It’s something about Louisiana. In the swamps, and the trees, the melancholy Southern thing. I remember walking, living in New Orleans. They didn’t have electricity on the block, but the people had those swings on the porches. At night they’d have a Roman candle to keep the mosquitoes off. Things like that. Those are memorable things. That’s the South. They don’t have that up North. It doesn’t happen here. But those things…I remember. Wait, let me get a picture of my father. I’ll show you something. (turning pages.)

JW (aside) We’re going to pull it out of him. I still want him to speak about his paintings. I still want him to speak about his ideas in art. We got a little information about procedures and his use of the broom, which is good. We got some information about his use of color, especially the color pink. A little bit of information in terms of symbolic gestures. Sensuality, sexuality. A little bit about his connection to nature. I must admit, though, I’m not getting what I want. I’ll continue to press a little harder. It’s difficult for every artist to talk about their art. In my thinking, it’s just as Edward Clark said, “It’s a plastic language.” When you are asked to talk about art, it’s a translation process. One must be able to translate the plastic language into the spoken language. And he’s telling me that that’s what’s difficult. He can’t do the translation. We’ll continue to press. I think if he makes an attempt, some form of translation will take place.

EC That’s before I was born.

JW That’s your father?

EC Yeah, that’s my father. He looks white, right? Straight brown hair, not black hair.

JW He seems real dapper.

EC Yeah, he was vain. He dressed better. Everything looked like it’s tailor-made.

JW He’s dressed very much typical of 1940s style. He reminds me of my uncle, really. Double-breasted suit, tie, handkerchief tucked into his pocket, front pocket, nice shoes, beautiful hat—could be a Stetson.

EC He only wore the best shoes, and all that.

JW Clean dresser. He’s a real dapper, Ed.

EC No, I know that. Here, that’s in color, with Joan Mitchell.

JW Yes. You’re looking very buddy-buddy there. She has a cigarette in her hand, and a glass of wine. You have a glass of wine. Painting of yours in the background. I only met her briefly here in New York.

EC Oh, you did meet her, then?

JW Yeah. But briefly. At an opening, in New York.

EC Here I am with Beauford Delaney.

JW I never met Beauford. This photograph is taken in Paris?

EC Yeah. (flipping pages) This is me and David; we look like a little gay scene there, right? We were just horsing around.

JW Nice photo. Tell me some more about your father while you’re looking. Did you admire your father?

EC In the beginning, they say I loved him very much. And then when he would be hollering at my mother, I couldn’t believe — I’d never heard…. He said all kinds of words. Curses. “Motherfucker.” You know. I couldn’t believe that. After that I hated him. Every time he’d get near and he’d kiss her after that, I’d try to wipe his kisses off. But that wouldn’t have done anything in the least. (pages flipping)

JW What are you looking for?

EC Anything. I’m looking for that picture of me with watermelon, but I don’t see it here. You’ve decided to be mute on that, for whatever reason, it’s not an evil reason. But you will not bring me that picture.

JW Oh, I’m bringing it. I have it.

EC Just leave it here right now.

JW Oh, that was a beautiful time. Anything you would like to add before we call it a day?

EC Can you come tomorrow?

JW I would come back tomorrow if you promise me that you’re going to talk about concepts and ideas that you work with.

EC Okay.

JW Is that a deal? You want to shake hands on that?

EC Yeah.

Louisiana Red 2004. 67 x 72 inches, Acrylic on Canvas

JW For the record: we’re shaking hands. So, I’m coming back tomorrow, we’re going to spend an hour tomorrow, and it’s only, only going to be about Ed Clark’s thinking on his paintings. I don’t want to know what April Kingsley says, or Miss Feldman says—

EC When you put it that way, that gives me the night to think about it.

JW I want to hear Ed Clark. But I’m coming back tomorrow, eleven o’clock, we’re going to spend one hour, and we’re only going to talk about painting.

EC Good enough.

JW Gentleman’s agreement. Okay. This is Jack Whitten, signing out. We’re coming back tomorrow, and I’m not going to say anything. It’s only going to be Ed Clark talking about his painting.

February 24, 2012

JW We’re at Ed Clark’s studio, 4 West 22nd Street, New York City—

EC Twelfth floor.

JW The final session for BOMB. Last evening, before leaving, Edward Clark and I made a gentleman’s agreement. We shook hands, and we said that we were going to spend today talking about his ideas in his art and what he works with. And that’s where we start today. It’s an agreement, you remember?

EC Yeah. Let me get the art book. They quote me about four times, there. I’ll just read some of those quotes.

JW Okay. We’re looking good. Hopefully today, we’re going to get the information that I want. As I said, it’s been difficult. He’s been reluctant to open up and express himself in terms of his work. But we have gotten a lot of good information about background, interests, influences, things that he’s interested in, a lot of good information on side stories, experiences in traveling, quite a bit on processes and materials. So the main thing I’m looking for today is for Ed Clark to open up to us and let us enjoy his speaking in his own words about his work. The truth of the matter is, it’s the artist’s choice. They can keep their mouth closed and say it’s all in the painting, and we have to accept that. I’m hoping that Mr. Clark does not take this route, and that he will open up to us. (Ed returns) Okay, what have you got there, Ed? He’s leafing through the book Edward Clark: For the Sake of the Search.

EC I have to go through to find the statements. There are about six of them. (flipping through the book) This is where George Sugarman—“In 1950, the sculptor, George Sugarman, told me that I should come back to New York because there were things happening. I met George Sugarman in Paris.. ” For some reason I came to New York, even though I loved Paris so much

JW The main thing is that we’re sticking to our agreement. Right?

EC What’s that?

JW “What’s that?” he says.

EC I don’t know.

JW (imitating him) “I don’t know.” (laughter) Yeah, you’re from the South. That’s right. You’re a Southerner.

EC Well, I think that’s where they quote me, but where’s the English…(flipping pages)

JW It’s in French?

EC All men—“Toutes hommes de talent”—all men of talent . . .

Je concluerai en disant que l’art n’est pas matière à eu politiques; son importance s’élève bien au-dessus des différences raciales. Tout homme de talent, à l’ésprit noble, peut le produire. [I would end by saying that art is not subject to political games; its importance elevates it above any racial differences. All men of talent, of noble spirit, can make it.]6

JW Do you read French?

EC Enough to know if there’s a World War III—I speak it, but badly. Wait, I think this:

“In 1968, Clark began to use the ellipse form, because, in his words, ‘I began to feel something was wrong. Our eyes don’t see in rectangles. I was interested in an expanding image, and the best way to expand an image is the oval or ellipse. It seemed to me that the oval as a natural shape could best express movement extended beyond the limits of the canvas.’ He completed his first oval painting, titled The Big Egg, that same year.”7

Lawrence Campbell’s in there. It’s got a sentence from April [Kingsley], but you want it from me. (flipping pages)

JW Okay. If you don’t mind, allow me to read this statement by you. Is that okay with you?

EC Yeah, go on.

JW This is Edward Clark. It’s a statement in the book American Abstract Expressionisms of the 1950s: An Illustrated Survey. It has a lot of people in this show: Amino, Bazeotis, Biscoff, Bluhm, Bourgeois, Briggs, de Kooning, Diebenkorn. It’s a lot of people. Everybody that we know is in this book, and there are two beautiful reproductions of Edward Clark’s paintings. One is The City, 1953; and the other is Untitled, Shaped-Canvas, 1957]. And I would like to read Edward’s statement:

“Art has its own conception of beauty. The other day, at the Musée d’Orsay, I looked at some Van Gogh paintings and thought, How unattractive he painted the children, and some of the people. But how beautiful and contemporary his paintings were! What is beautiful in art is not necessarily what we experience when we see. For example: a beautiful woman, or flowers. African sculpture, in particular, is never pretty, but it is nearly always aesthetically beautiful. However, there are artists who have made great art with prettiness, for example, Botticelli’s Venus, and some of Renoir’s masterpieces. This leads me to conclude that all great artists can only do what they esteem to be right. No matter how it appears at first, it will always be beautiful.”

You remember writing that?

EC Yeah.

JW So, the platform is yours. I don’t want to talk. I want you to talk.

EC I don’t know. (laughter) But you asked me yesterday to say what am I thinking when I’m doing them.

JW Just, anything you want to express about that particular painting as an introduction to your thinking.

EC Now what is that? That’s my phone . . . (A long break in the conversation while Ed Clark goes to answer the phone.)

JW This is like pulling teeth. (Inaudible conversation from the next room…Ed Clark returns)

JW You were going to give us an introduction into this painting.

EC We should go look at that video. They’re flashing those things up there, like that. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Boom, boom. It’s only four minutes. That might make me say something.

JW That might make you say something? I’m willing to do anything to make you say something. If you think we should see the video.

EC The problem is it’s a visual vocabulary. Imagine you’re talking to Cezanne: “Why, would you tell me over there about that chateau by the mountain?” What’s he going to say, if it were back then? We understand it now, maybe. Picasso never talks about his work that I know of. You know the famous story. “What is that?” “That’s $10,000, lady.” I like that. But how do you put the Guernica into words? You can’t explain the Guernica. It’s very poetic . . . a woman dying and whatnot, and the lightbulb. It’s hard to explain a Jackson Pollock. But you take Jackson Pollock when he was out in the Hamptons, in that famous photograph, where he’s got the cigarette in his mouth, hanging down. He painted that picture all night long. It’s on the ground because of gravity, cause he’s splashing it and dripping it. When he stood it up it had Herculean power. How do you explain that? He wasn’t thinking, I’m gonna do this. But that’s how it turned out. It changed. It buried France. They had all those other artists. They were dying off. Now they’re all gone. Everybody, all those young French artists now want to get to New York. At one time everybody was running over to France. And especially after the war, a lot of guys who couldn’t have ever gone to France, because of the G.I. Bill, they could go. There’s Sam Francis, there’s Al Held, there’s others . . . They came. That’s seventy-five, a hundred and ten, dollars a month. You could live and get the art material. That made France very important, and a lot of them love the country. Have you seen the Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris?

The Circle 1968, 72-inch diameter, Acrylic on Canvas

JW Yeah.

EC He says it’s the greatest city in the world. And he’s a New Yorker. I couldn’t believe it. It was cold when I got there. You couldn’t get any heat. The war was over in 1945; I’m there in 1952, and I said, “This place, God damn . . . ” You have to get out of the cheap hotel room right away because the heat goes off, and you could always touch the radiator. It never was real hot. And so if you think you’re going to just lay there all day—there’s no heat. You need to get your ass out. I’d go on down to the Café Dome, where they had a potbelly stove. I was doing this to get some of that darn heat. I couldn’t get comfortable. And it’s funny how you do things like that. Once I was visiting my sister, when my grandmother died. I flew into Chicago. And the place was overheated, I thought, because I’d gotten used to Paris. I didn’t like Paris. I mean, I didn’t hate it. And then it was one spring day. All of a sudden it was spring, and I said, This city is so . . . something. I love it like a woman. It’s beautiful. I fell in love with it, like, where am I? I experienced all of that. I never was [one] to attack the French, either. They had their problems. They’re snobs. I had hard times there. But I loved it anyway.

I ran out of the G.I. Bill, and usually that’s the time to go back to the States. And if I was from New York, I probably would have gone back, but I didn’t want to go back to Chicago. New York City is the art world. That’s what I knew about. And so I just stayed in Paris. For five years, that time. And I loved it like you love a woman. All kinds of things happened to me. You never asked me this. I have never been in love with a white woman. However I was in love with one once. She happened to be Dutch. Sal Romano remembered seeing her. She was blond, and she was unbelievably beautiful. She was making money by modeling in the art school as a nude model. Everybody was after her. And so, when I started flirting with her, and she came to my place—you know, I’m bragging about my stuff—she said, “Are you a professional?” People called that apartment a chicken coop. It was a dirty old place. She startled everyone with me. She started washing the furniture; she started doing everything. I’m really in love with her. Some big guy, I think he happened to be Jewish—he was not a Frenchman, I think he was an Israeli guy—he told her, “You know, you’re with a black man.” I think he used the word Negro, but she did not care, one way or the other. And so, now I am in love.

And then something happened that I’ll regret until the day I die. One day, I had the equivalent of twenty dollars American money, in French francs. And I start looking for it. I looked everywhere for it. Everywhere. I couldn’t find it. And I said, “She has stolen my money.” The reason she was with me in the first place was that she had been to London, and she was in love with some East Indian, who was from a rich family, and his family didn’t want him to marry this girl, even though she was beautiful. That’s why she was in Paris in the first place. Her heart was broken. Now she’s with me. And I loved her then, and one day I just changed. I didn’t tell her; I didn’t tell her about the money. But she could sense it.

Then when some of her friends came over, they looked at everything. They could see she’s living in the ghetto, or whatever you want to call it. And at that time, I was so cold to her that they took her back to London. And I hope she had a nice life. But after she’s gone for about two weeks, I took one of my shirts, and inside the shirt—she didn’t ever wash it—was that twenty-dollar bill. It was there all along. That changed my life. Now if you’re religious, God works in strange ways. She would have been with me…and I’m thinking, Why? She was unbelievable. I had a motorcycle, and somebody’s got a little movie of me and her on this motorcycle. I couldn’t believe that. I could never be in love with her when I thought she had gotten my money. But she hadn’t gotten my money. It was there. It changed my life. It changed her life. I’ve been with French women. Close, but just fuck buddies, really. Not in love but I was in love with her. And I’ll always think of her. Was she beautiful. You meet Sal, he’ll tell you about her. All the guys were envious of me, ‘cause she looked at nobody but me.

JW Did she affect your paintings, how you were painting?

EC I don’t know. Out of five or six paintings, there’d be one that’d be famous. I was always painting. Sometimes I just didn’t have any paint. And then I just had to do nothing for a while. I remember, I’d stay in my bed, and there was no money to even go down and get a croissant. But I wasn’t going to go back to America, to Chicago, because I knew I was in a very special place. And then this dealer picked me up, Raymond Creuze, because of this art critic Michel Conil-Lacoste, who saw my work at the American Center, and he did something unusual. He said “a Negro of great talent.” And someone said, “Look he doesn’t say that much, that’s a very strong thing, the ‘great talent.’” They said, “You should call him.” So I did. They had the pneumatic then—they didn’t have a phone. And he sent something back. “I’d like to rendezvous with you.” At the Café Select. And that’s where Modigliani—he was dead when I used to go there—they used to have fun and say it’s the Jewish place. Only because of the owners. And also, they say, the father of Communism, Lenin, when he had to get out of Russia, he used to go there. I would see everybody there. Nothing special about it. There was Faulkner, one time—and that one,what’s his name, with a woman looking like she’s younger than him, much younger, sitting there in the Select. And in the Dome, across the street, was everybody, you know. I said, “What a city.” You know. What a city. And they were all alive. Everybody’s dead now. I mean, everybody’s dead. I just saw on TV this morning, that there’s only two people left from The Wizard of Oz, from 1939. There were at least thirteen hundred people in it—and only two are alive. People die. I don’t intend to go, but I’d better be prepared.

JW (laughter)

EC People die, right? You think it’s forever. But back to Paris. Talk about a square! When I first went there, all I could do was point. I went to a boulangerie, I pointed at the woman to give me the bread and she handed it to me by hand. Now they got a little wrapper on it. She just handed it to me, right out of the oven. And I thought, What am I going to do with this baguette? Eat it on the street? I didn’t know what to do. Everything was different. America’s a vibrant place—but I couldn’t believe there’d be another place in the world, that had nothing to do with America, that was still vibrant. That was France. It was like that. But I could’ve never been French, even if I learned it. You have to be a Frenchman. But they were very, very philosophical. Girls then had experienced the war. The French had surrendered to the Germans, and a lot of them went over to England during the war. But they all, because of the war, were very philosophical. They’d talk certain ways. And I remember once there was a beautiful French woman, Nicole. She was gorgeous. Where’s that picture? (flipping through papers) This is her. I painted her once. She was gorgeous.

JW (reading) Portrait of Nicole, 1952, twenty by twenty-five inches. And she was your girlfriend?

EC She told me that there was a guy there that was flirting with her. I didn’t think she knew how old he was. He was thirty-five. She says, “He’s a man, isn’t he?” You know, when I met my present wife, she was twenty-three and I was seventy-three. Fifty years difference. But back then I’m saying, What a minute, you know, that’s an old man. He was from Louisiana, a white guy. But she wasn’t going with him. Anyway, I fell in love with her and that’s another story. (flipping through photos) And that is my first wife there. She hated Paris. I painted her. She’s looking in the mirror. That’s the mirror there.

JW That’s Portrait of Muriel, 1952, twenty by twenty-five and a half inches.

EC I had given her this ring, and everybody was nice to her, but she wanted to go back to the States. So it didn’t work out. When I was young, I never thought I was a cute guy, but women really liked me. But I’m not a gigolo type. I’ve never taken no money from no woman. Some of my friends, they make a living out of that. They’re good lovers, and that’s the first thing when they get around a woman, is like, well, “What are you going to do for me?” A lot of brothers. None of the great artists, though. I mean, if they happen to be rich, they just happen to be rich. And all those brothers went up to Sweden. I used to think, Why’d they go up to Sweden? They lived in France, and that’s the capital of the art world, in my opinion, at that time. Certainly not Stockholm. But what’d they go up to Sweden for? I went to Sweden once. It was okay. I went to their big museum. What did they have in the museum? The ancient pictures were the Norwegian ones. They had nothing! You can think about it right now. What white artist, from Sweden, is famous? I’m sure there is none. But anyway, there was no reason to go there but the girls. Well, girls are girls. I prefer the French girls anyway. Little pouting lips and whatnot, they’re philosophical, and they’re freaks. All of them are a little bisexual, and I like that.

I love that about France. And the next thing I noticed is they wouldn’t play around. I took one of them to a movie once, and right away she pays her part. They’d go Dutch. In America, they’d be powdering their nose or something while you get your money out. And the French women would go right to bed with you. They’re not playing no games: if they liked you, they’d go to bed. It’s not like, “Well, it’s the first time . . .” With all of them, if you’re a good looking guy, you’d get all kinds of women. I loved it for that.

What a place it was. It’s still that way. When you go there, the city is still vibrant, but it’s not like in the ‘50s, where the artists were on the top. No one thought that would end. They had everybody! Nobody was famous who hadn’t lived in Paris. Kandinsky, all of them, had been to Paris at one time. Even though they started all these “isms,” they saw what was happening there, at the turn of the century and after. You could smell it. I loved that place, even the bad times.

I remember being there with Beauford Delaney. One time I passed the Café Dome, and there was some American who reminded me of Otto Preminger. But it wasn’t Otto. And he was buying paintings. He didn’t care about whether you had showed or not, if he liked them. All the Americans [artists] were around. It was unbelievable. He was buying them, in cash: one hundred, two hundred dollars. A hundred dollars then, you could live one month in Paris, if you had the GI Bill. You could pay your rent. You could go to the movies one time with a woman. So I thought of Beauford, who was my best friend. I went to his hotel and I said, “Come on, man, this guy, he’ll probably like your paintings.” Beauford took two small paintings, and we walked down to the Dome, and he was still there. All the guys were there. They said, “Oh, yeah, that’s Beauford.” No one brings up race. And the other guys were cutting, going the other way. They’ve been there a couple of hours. The American’s sitting at the table, and we sit down. He had a lot of paintings he’d bought. And he said, “Let’s see what you’ve got.” Beauford had two paintings. He looked, he said, “How much do you want?” I think it was two hundred dollars apiece. (Imitating the sound of gunfire) He bought them just like that. We’re sitting down, at the café, near the back. And the mistake of our lives…we should’ve left then. Well, he said, “What do you want to drink?” And Beauford liked Cognac, so he ordered a Cognac, and we’re sitting there, and he’s feeling good. The guy’s got the paintings. The money’s in Beauford’s pocket.

I’m feeling good, because I knew what I’d get out of it: we were to go to a restaurant—one called Carbaise. And they had gateau de riz. Not every café had that, rice pudding cake. I could just taste it. I knew that was where we’d go, later on at night. We’re sitting there, and Beauford’s feeling comfortable, and all of a sudden the waiter comes. In those days, they didn’t even have paper receipts. They had saucers stacked up, and they knew instantly how much the bill was. They trusted people enough not to steal the saucers. All of a sudden they come and ask for the bill—and the other people are gone. And when he went in his pocket, he didn’t have the money. And he said, “Oh, God, I’m sorry about this, but could you give me the money back?”

JW Oh my. (laughter)

EC Yeah. All we had to have done is say, when we got the money, “No, we’ve got things to do.” But we’re sitting there, drinking Cognac, because the man likes his work…It’s in that book up there: I’ll show you. The book says the artist never saw his money, or [got] his paintings back. But they exaggerated, because he did give him his paintings back. The book’s on anything that happened in Paris for two hundred years—when Tanner was there, whatever. They concentrated on black artists, where they were. On this, street, this street . . . They got me about twelve times. Gentry [Herbert], everybody. I’ll show you the book. You want me to go get it?

JW No, no, keep talking. You’re doing good.

EC Beauford was something else: you’d go over to Beauford’s place on Rue Delambre, and when you’d get there, you’d think, People love Beauford. They couldn’t get enough of him. All the Americans, the New Yorkers, would be there, visiting him. He was something else. He was a conversationalist. He knew how to talk. Actually, I remember one time on the street, I saw this couple. They’d been in France too long. He just gave them a word. He meant, “Maybe, should you go back.” He said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” He meant, “You’re not chosen. It’s not going to happen for you.” And it wasn’t going to happen for them. And some people, they die in there. They want to become Van Gogh-ish, or something like that.

JW Was Beauford gay?

EC Yeah, but he never hit on anybody. He was gay. I used to joke with Gentry, though. Gentry had been in Paris before me, and then he’d come back to New York, and then when he went over to Europe again, Beauford Delaney and he were on the same boat. They’d go out on the deck. I knew Beauford was gay—I said to Gentry, “Well, are you gay?” I said, “Did you tongue kiss?”

JW (laughter)

EC We knew Beauford was gay. In Paris we just assumed. He never hit on anybody. One time he was telling me about his life. When Beauford left New York, somebody named Dante had given him just enough money to get on the ship. And he always felt guilty about that. He was never to see him again. He couldn’t leave Paris once he got there, he didn’t have the money. He loved Paris. I remember one time he went to Luxembourg Gardens, and he didn’t know that certain seats with armrests and whatnot you have to pay for. They’ve changed this now. The little ladies would come up and they’d shoo him away. He said, “I don’t know what happened.” I said, “No, they’re supposed to do that.” Most of the women who had that job were widows from World War I. I said, “No, no no, it wasn’t personal. They didn’t mean, ‘Nigger, get out of here.’” They’re just doing their job. Then he knew that. But he wanted to see [Henry Ossawa] Tanner’s The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896) at the d’Orsay. And by that garden, there’s a little Musée de Luxembourg, that’s where, in the book; Tanner came to the States and died in the thirties.

There’s an interesting story about Tanner. Back in Paris he became very famous. He won a big prize and things like that [Knight of the Legion of Honor]. Then he comes back to Philadelphia, which is where he’s from. He’s big because he won some famous prize in Paris. And then when the paper came out the next day, there’s Tanner, who’s kind of light-skinned. You’ve seen pictures. They had a picture of a jet-black man. Not him at all. That’s to say, “We know you’re a nigger.” No, they wrote a nice story, but that was a black, black man. What can we say? He’s a brother. But that was the thing: “With all your airs, you’re just a nigger still.” Racism. That’s a true story too. But the French have colorblindness, as far as that kind of thing; it was great. And Tanner was famous enough that they came to interview him in Philadelphia. That’s where Barbara Chase Ribault, the sculptor, is from.

JW Did you know her?

EC Oh yeah. We’re friends. She’s got plenty of money. And she’s talented. She’s married to a man who has fifty buildings in Paris. Fifty! One time she wanted me to come to her studio. If she’d been younger, I would have really been after her. But I’m not that kind of guy. So she took me to her studio by the Jardin des Plantes. It’s a beautiful studio. Big studio. There were no seats. I’m the kind of guy, even when I was young, I want to sit down.

JW (laughter)

EC When I come there, it’s fabulous. She didn’t have any of her sculptures in the studio. She had tapestries. They’re two or three hundred years old. She’d have them right now, if you were there. It’s not showing her work, not showing contemporary work, but it shows taste. So, finally we’re talking, and she’s got some very good wine, because they’ve got money. She’s just sitting in a chair, and I’m sitting, and here comes her husband. And he immediately puts his arm over her shoulder. They’re both looking at me.

JW What was his name?

EC I don’t know. He’s famous. It wasn’t Ribault, because she was once married to Ribault, who was a famous photographer, who lived in that same building. When she was with Ribault, they went to China, when no American could go. And they met Chairman Mao. That’s also part of her life. The French were friendly with China. To us, the French were Communists. But anyway, in her studio, I’m still wondering, What’s this? She’s sitting, and here comes the punch line. She knew I knew Reginald Lewis, and she says, “Did you know in the Washington Mall, there is no black sculpture? Nothing by a black person?” It just happened again recently with that sculpture of Martin Luther King, that’s by a [Chinese] guy. You’ve seen it?

JW I’ve seen photographs of it.

Portrait of Muriel 1952, 20 x 25½ inches, Oil on Canvas

EC I like it. But the point is, she was talking. She was asking me if I could show her stuff to Lewis. I never did and then Lewis died. She never got her sculpture on the mall. I thought she was influenced by Mel Edwards. What I really like, when Mel showed at the Whitney, downstairs, he had that barbed wire thing on the wall, and from a distance it looked like silver. It looked like jewelry. And you get close, it’s barbed wire. And he’s done a lot of things like that. So she showed me a sculpture. Well, she’s very talented, but she never got it [the commission]. But I didn’t realize they didn’t have anything. By a black person. Nothing. Until this thing now of Martin Luther King that looks like he’s coming out of a wall. I like it, though, but some people don’t like it.What do you think of that piece?

JW Oh, I don’t care for it at all. I think it is just commercial.

EC We’re not going to argue about that. It would have been better if they’d gotten Gabriel Koren, even though she’s white. She’s the sculptor that does Martin Luther King and everybody else. She’s got the studio in Queens. She calls me “Maestro.” She’s Hungarian. She only loves black people. She will not do a sculpture of a white person. One time she was forced to because it was the history of a black slave woman, who became famous, and it was this white woman who helped her. And she says, “I don’t want to do white people.” I said, “Wait a…,you’re white.” I said, “ You can’t help it, you’re still white, right?” (laughter) Gabriel Koren. She’s European. And she’s trained that European way, like the nineteenth century. They had to be three years doing sculpture. Carving and everything like that. That’s like it used to be at the Beaux Arts, in France. (long pause)

JW So what’s your feeling about the painting now?

EC It’s okay. I’ve seen better by Ed Clark, you know. I’m very prolific, man. There are paintings everywhere here. But I know I’m going to sell that one as soon as they come here. I tell you, the Chinese are buying now. Well, they’ve been buying. And now this Chinese guy, he’s been here once. And he called up to tell through the grapevine that he’s coming, and that he’s going to buy a painting. Here’s the latest on him. I didn’t know he was that rich. He’s in Beijing, and he just bought a seven million dollar sports car. There can only be one or two cars that’s worth that much. That’s got to be a Ferrari or a Lamborghini. There is no other car. Rolls Royce is not a sports car. He is real rich.

JW What’s his name?

EC I got his name somewhere. He’ll be here next week. And he’s so excited, because we sent that video.

JW What does that pink mean to you in that painting?

EC A woman’s vagina, maybe. Unconsciously.

JW So you associate pink, your use of pink, with a woman’s vagina?

EC I don’t think I’m thinking of sex consciously. I’ll get those other books. Not this one. If you want it, then I’ll give you —

JW Ed’s going to look for another book that he wants me to look at. My strategy has changed a little bit. I feel it’s best just to let him talk, even if it means rambling from one subject to another. But that’s okay. In between the rambling, we are getting some information, which I think is good. So I say, let him talk. Give us a few seconds until he returns.

EC (Entering the room) I showed you this is the book with the streets of Paris. They’ll have anyone—it could be before Tanner, it could be 1850, and they know where they were. In the back of the book, look for any name . . . (turning pages) Clark, Edward. All those are something to do with me: page twelve, page twenty, et cetera. And they’ve got Chester Himes.

JW Who was Chester Himes?

EC He’s a great writer [detective novels, Harlem Renaissance, (1909-1984)]. And he got rich over there, with his books.

JW And you knew him?

EC Oh yeah. (flipping pages) Here, I just found this. This might interest you. This is a show I had with Adger [Cowans]. Did you come to the opening? It was up in Chelsea. That’s Bob Blackburn—

JW Oh, you knew Bob Blackburn?

EC Very well.

JW What did you do with Bob? Did you ever do printing?

EC I met him in Paris. Yeah, he taught me how to make prints. We were very close.

JW Who’s the other guy there in the middle?

EC That’s the great photographer, from Life magazine.

JW What’s his name?

EC You know, the most famous black photographer. He used to do Life magazine. He’s the most famous of all photographers. It’s really a household name. He also did a book, a movie…[Gordon Parks]. (turning pages) There’s Vincent Smith. We were very close. Very, very close. And you know all these people, don’t you?

JW Who would that be? Looks like Steve Cannon.

EC Yeah, that’s Steve Cannon.

JW And you knew Steve?

EC Yeah, sure. Vincent, Gentry, Richard Mayhew—

JW You knew Herbert Gentry?

EC Yeah, very well. Paris, that’s where we met—Herbert Gentry, Gordon Parks.

JW Gordon Parks. Yes, of course.

EC He’s the most famous one.

JW He was a friend of Adger Cowens, a mentor figure.

EC Yeah, yeah, Adger called him “Pops.”

JW Yeah, I knew that.

EC Here’s another show I was in, in East Hampton.

JW Tell me something about George N’Namdi. George is your dealer, right?

EC Look at this. (showing Jack a photograph)

JW And who is she?

EC A woman who worked for George in one of his galleries. I told her, “Don’t come here no more, nobody’s going to ever look at my paintings with you here.” That’s a compliment. And there’s Adger. It was a big show in East Hampton.

JW What’s the name of the gallery?

EC Here it is: Walk Tall Gallery.

JW Okay. I still see you are reluctant to talk about your work. Why do you find it so difficult?

EC It’s because, when you’re thinking a painting, it’s not about English, French or anything. An abstract painting is different than if you’re painting a portrait, the cheeks and the lips. An abstract painting, how do you talk about it? Obviously, there’s sophisticated people here in New York, they know. But you take some educated people and they just say, “Well, what’s that?” They don’t understand it. But most people, when they look at a work, they say it looks powerful, or present, or original. When I’m painting, I’m not thinking about that. I know who I am. I blow most people off the wall, in my own opinion, when I do painting. But I’m not thinking of that. I’m just doing my thing. That broom…in the invitation for the show in Detroit, it said, “The powerful stroke.” We were talking about the stroke the other day. Soulages or Hartung, they’d use a broom. But they didn’t use that push broom. All I know is, I’m just looking, How’s it going to be? It’s like the Rorschach test. Sometimes I see something I don’t like. You see something, a big black thing. I see something, a big black thing. And I think it’s an ink spot. And yours, you think it looks like a juicy dick. (laughter) They give the Rorschach test for psychology, to see, what do you think of this? And they start telling on themselves. “Oh, looks like a lady with her hand open.” Or with her legs open, or something. My paintings are done wet; it has to be on the floor because of gravity. And then it starts doing something that I didn’t have in mind. I told you before, that one, it painted itself. You can’t paint that. It’s acrylic. Even oil, but oil’s more dangerous right now.

JW What do you mean by “painted itself”?

EC It paints itself. I’ll explain that to you. Let me show the photograph of the painting I’m talking about. (standing up)

JW Before you leave—do you do a preliminary sketch for each painting?

EC No.

JW Never?

EC No. At one time I did, years ago, but now, never. It’s in my mind now. I’m an old master.

JW What’s your reasoning there for not doing a sketch?

EC I’ll show you the photograph (in Master Painter). An, A-N. That’s the family name [EC’s wife, Liping An, took the photograph on the book’s cover].

JW This is the painting on the cover [Creation, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 84 inches].

EC (rustling pages) That’s me in the studio. I’m painting outside in France. In the city of Avignon. (flipping pages) Now let me show you the painting I want to talk about. I think it’s in here. See this one?

JW What’s the title?

EC Louisiana Red [2004]. One could paint clouds, but this one, I let it paint itself. It’s on the floor, it starts doing . . . you can’t do that. I didn’t touch it. I mean, I poured it and watched it do this. And then I took the red, and I let it do…. But it was just doing it, and that felt right. Immediately, it sold for a lot of money. But I didn’t touch it. Not with the brush. I didn’t get that far. I just let it do what it’s going to do. Like dyeing Easter eggs. I didn’t touch it, but I still created it. I liked what I saw. And a lot of them are like that. Some of them take half a day to dry. Or I’ll wait all night, and I’ll see what happened to it.

JW You know, the Surrealists had a word for that. The Surrealists call it automatism.

EC I like Surrealism. Have you ever been surreal in your work? I don’t think so, knowing your work. I like Magritte. I used to think Dalí, who I met, was too commercial, but now I like him better. He’s the most famous. And I met Dalí. When I was in Janis Gallery. When I’m in Janis Gallery, a lot of celebrities came in. And one day, I’m in the back room, and someone says, “Hey, Dalí’s out there.” He was doing this (imitates curling a moustache) . . . And so I went out. They’d kind of closed the gallery for an hour or so. And he immediately didn’t do that to me. He started talking straight. But he was doing his thing.

JW Curling his moustache?

EC He’s being Dalí, like a movie star.

JW I only met him once, briefly.

EC I saw him when I first got to Paris. I went to the Sorbonne, and someone said, “He’s going to speak.” He’s in the Sorbonne, up on a stage. He was talking. He knows French. He had something on his head, and he had like a pork chop over his eye. That’s phallic, right? He was just speaking. But he’s doing his surreal thing. I like his May West and all of that. And when he started speaking to me in Janis Gallery—he was talking about Klein—he said, “I like Klein.” Not very good English, but he didn’t do this (curling an imaginary moustache). I wanted him to always do that, but he knows . . . That’s what a little bit of his work is, with that attitude. And he said, “I like Klein; I went to two shows before this.” We talked a long time. Did you know Ted Jones?

JW I’ve met him more than once.

EC Ted Jones knew Dali and wanted him to be the godfather of his baby. It didn’t happen.

JW Is there anything else you would like to add?

EC No, but we can talk. You got a rendezvous outside, that’s your business.

JW Don’t worry about me. I’m here totally for you.

EC I’m not worried about you. And I’m not in a rush. We can talk as long as you want.

JW But is there something else you would like to add? I still haven’t gotten what I wanted, but . . .

EC Yeah. To me, when you work like that, its automatic, and you let nature take its course

JW You haven’t mentioned your drawing at all. Do you draw a lot?

EC I used to. But now I don’t.

JW Why is that?

EC I used to figurative paint. At the Art Institute, if you look at the figure drawing classes, I’m drawing. That’s a serious school. The whole semester—first still life drawing and then figure drawing. And that’s before you paint. And the next year it’s still life painting and then figure painting. They don’t do that now.

JW Why is it that you don’t draw any more?

EC I guess I don’t see the need. But I used to. When I got to Paris, I was influenced by Cezanne ’cause he drew. He draws some very beautiful drawings. And the Renaissance, and da Vinci. It was beautiful. But I don’t. There’s a time for that. I used to. I have sketches of Lily, and whatnot.

JW But there isn’t a drawing for a painting?

EC No, no. But at one time, when I was in art school, there was.

JW Do you think the fact that you don’t draw has something to do with the fact that you’re an abstract painter?

EC Yeah, but I wasn’t abstract in art school. (laughter) I was also taking drawing. Sometimes I would draw on the canvas before I painted. I was doing it that way.

JW Let me know something. I’m very interested in this. Do you think it’s necessary for an abstract painter to draw?

EC No. I mean, say Cy Twombly, I don’t think he draws. I don’t know him, but I know people who know him. He just puts little spots. And then it can be a drawing another way, you know [with the paint]. Here, this will give you a little taste of . . . (moving around)

JW (both moving away from recorder, inaudible) Edward just showed me a beautiful drawing, small—it’s only about ten inches—that dates back to the 1950s, ’53, of his first wife. Beautiful, very much in a Cubist style. He explains himself by saying that, when he was doing figurative painting, he did a lot of drawing. Now that he’s doing abstraction, he doesn’t see the need to draw. He seems to imply that the drawing and the painting are one: there is no separation, which is an interesting thought. He depends a lot on automatism, and—I’ll have to ask him, not to put words in his mouth. Now, you depend a lot upon spontaneity. Does it have something to do with your connection to jazz?

EC When I was talking about that yesterday, about when I was commissioned to do this painting, Elevation [1992], for Reginald Lewis and it wasn’t going right, even though everybody liked it. I told Melanca, my daughter, I said, “It wasn’t right, it wasn’t right.” And then the next day, I came in here and I went into my dance. I mean, with the drum. I’m calling it the dance. My daughter kind of just smiled, and then when I did that dance, there was nothing . . . I knew when Reginald Lewis was coming over. The thing about Reginald Lewis, he’s a man who doesn’t have much time. He was in Europe, but then he’s got a private jet. He’s coming up when he wants. And all of a sudden I’m expecting him three days later, and he says, “Can I come over and see the painting?” That was on a Thursday . . . And he was smart enough to say, “I’ll come Friday.” To give me more time. And the painting was not going right. I’ve got pictures of it somewhere. Here. Here it is. It is in his Fifth Avenue apartment. Now everybody sees spiritual things. When I did it, it was almost like that, but I knew when I did my dance, it was finished. I just knew it was finished. You couldn’t change it. And then Reginald Lewis’s wife [Loida Lewis] saw something spiritual in this. They had a duplex, actually, right on Fifth Avenue. And the wife saw a cross in the painting. Well, I’m not religious. But you got to behave yourself because I’ll be down there before you, and you may think you’re going to Heaven, I’ll say, “No, bring him down here. He’s a naughty boy, too.” But she saw something spiritual in the painting. I knew when it was finished. Everybody was pleased with it, but I wasn’t. I’m all alone, and the way I put it, “I did my dance.” Do it, do it, do it, like that. And Loida loves that painting. She’s rich; it’ll never be shown.

JW Tell us a little bit more about doing your dance.

EC Well, I just used that [term] because I realized that…I don’t really, can’t really dance. But I meant that I’m just imagining myself with those strokes, so boom, boom, pouring. And I called it a dance.

JW It’s a very nice metaphor.

EC Yeah. Occasionally I know that everything’s going right. I’ve destroyed some paintings I wish I hadn’t. And so had de Kooning. I remember once, de Kooning—there’s a picture of it in one of the magazines, black and white. I don’t have that magazine, unfortunately. It’s an unbelievable picture, a figurative picture. But he destroyed it. He lost it. And I remember once he told that to Janis. He called up the gallery, because Janis would always ask, “Was he working?” ’Cause he’s very famous. And what Janis saw—he wouldn’t holler at de Kooning—what he saw was fantastic. But de Kooning told him, “I lost it. I went too far. It doesn’t exist no more.”

JW Reginald Lewis’s wife. Do you remember her name?

EC Loida. Loida Lewis.

JW And she saw a cross in that painting?

EC We took it there, and she wrote me that she saw a cross. If you blur your eyes, you see . . .

JW Did you agree with her?

EC No, I’m not thinking about Jesus. But she saw a cross. I mean, not enough to go say it’s a cross or it’s not. She’s spiritual anyway. She saw a cross. You could see it too.

JW Okay, Ed. You went into your dance, to finish that painting.

EC Yeah, I did my dance—and I knew it was finished. I’d been working on it for two weeks. It looked something like that, but it wasn’t ready. And Reginald Lewis surprised me, because I knew he was coming, but not that soon. I said, “I’ll have it tomorrow.” And he said another day. Two days. He’s smart enough to know that’s what I’d probably need. And I knew it was finished. He walked in here with his brother—who was later fired when Reginald died. Well, I knew I’d get some money no matter what. So I had other, older paintings out. When he walked in, he ignored everything. He just wanted to see this painting. “Oh, how’d you do it?” And the moment he saw Elevation . . . I always have to see them up. It was lying down. He just said, “I like it. How much do you want for it?” I told him. He didn’t say anything. It was a good price.

JW What was the price?

EC I don’t remember. Nowadays I get that for one painting, $50,000 or something. But he’s got all the money in the world, right? He’s rich, rich, rich, rich, rich. And that’s why that book is called Why Do White Guys Have All the Fun? If you go to his house in Paris, God damn, he’d have wine that was maybe three hundred years old. He was just enjoying life, because with wealth, you can do that. He was something else. And he didn’t have much when he started. I got the book on him. When he was young, he had a paper route. One time he couldn’t do the paper route, he had to do something else, so his mother did it for him. And he learned a lesson, he said. When she came back, he wanted the money. She said, “What do you mean, the money?” His own mother did. She said, “Did you do it? I did it. That’s my money.”

JW Okay, Clark, we’re running out of time here. That’s about the end of the tape.

EC Okay. But Reginald Lewis was a very special guy. He would say, “I’m a sucker for your work, it’s got a certain . . . ” He didn’t care who was famous or not famous. He had to like it. And I noticed, when I worked at Sidney Janis, back when I was doing that kind of thing, that all those people would come in there. They hadn’t studied art, but they were big millionaires. They liked that kind of work, Klein and whatnot. They could just relate to it. I could see that. They didn’t have to know anything.

JW Just a gut feeling.

EC Yeah. For Klein, and excellence. And they knew that. Nothing to do with me. But I noticed that. They didn’t have to think about it. It would just hit them, the strength of it. Especially Klein. But I’ll tell you one thing that I won’t write. I’ve told you this story. It’s around Christmas time, and nothing wrong with that, Janis ain’t no Christian, but Christmas time, at the end of the year, they would all try to get rid of some paintings, contribution. That’s kind of the junky ones. They pull them out, and maybe other colleges or other galleries in another part of the country would know that they’re cheaper, and then he could use that as a write-off. So here comes Alfred Barr. I used to see him all the time. He’s the one who was the first director at the Modern when it opened in the thirties. He wrote about Picasso, two or three times . . . now here’s Barr. And at this point, I’m the young man in the back room. Janis is sitting on the chair with the guy, while I’m standing up with the painting, maybe as big as that one behind there. And Klein has started using color for the first time in his life. And so he showed it to him. And he also showed him a de Kooning. Barr liked the Klein, but he thought [the color one was by] de Kooning, so he said, “I’d like to see the de Kooning again.” And Janis didn’t want to embarrass him, didn’t want to say, “No, that’s not a de Kooning, that’s a Klein.” He meant well for that. As it was, Barr didn’t pick that one, but Janis meant: Don’t say anything, cause he’s a learned man; he’s the director of a museum; he’s the most famous man in America, in that area. You don’t just say, “Hey man. You’re looking at him.” Anybody could have made that mistake, I’ve witnessed that, and Janis was a bright guy. He was super good.


One time, a rich woman from Texas came in. And there were tie-in things. A woman at the Museum of Modern Art sent [her over]. I knew she was coming. And there was a chauffeur, Al, sitting in the chair. Turned out that was her pilot; she came in a plane. But I didn’t know that. Now Janis is not going to show her de Kooning and all of that. ’Cause he also had other paintings, Matisse and things like that. He had bought a Matisse the summer before. His wife was furious because he paid a lot of money for it. And it was a work of genius but kind of dry, for Matisse. He didn’t try to show the woman anything very modern. So she’s there, she’s looking, he’s showing her all those kinds of paintings, and then he showed her the Matisse. And I’m wondering if anything is going to happen. It’s quiet, absolutely quiet. And she said, “Mr. Janis, do you think I should start buying paintings for the first time, and pay those kinds of prices?” And he said, right away, “In 1936, I bought something from Nobles Gallery”—which existed then—“and it’s worth millions now.” He was just telling her, “Don’t get into that.” He wasn’t lying. And she said, “Well…I’ll take that one, this one, that one . . .” And he must have made over a million dollars that day. She had several paintings. But he was smart enough not to get her with a de Kooning or a Pollock. He made a fortune. Every day he was selling them. Now, when I first got there, [Philip Guston] was being shown. I didn’t particularly like Guston. I’m not giving some critique. He would sell. And now, when I see his work, he’s a great artist. I like that stuff he’s doing, the kind of cartoon stuff. Even the big ones might look good. But at the time, I didn’t think that. But he was a nice guy. And one time he came in, late—and you’re never supposed to be late with Janis. He came in late, maybe an hour late. He had a studio over a firehouse. Actually it was illegal, but they were getting money for that. He said, “Just as I was leaving”—they knew he was an artist. They asked, “Could you make a sign for us?” So he painted a sign for them. And he’s telling me that, because that’s where he stayed. And he’s real nice. He’s laughing at that too. You got to do what you got to do, right?


JW Absolutely.


EC If they like you, they’re not going to say, “We’ve got a guy up there that doesn’t have a lease or nothing.” And then he and Rothko dropped out [of the gallery], but I had left the gallery then. And Chris Shelton took my job. I saw him on the street once, and he told me Guston wasn’t with Janis no more, but I could go see his stuff in some hotel. And that’s the first time I saw the cartoons.


JW That was at McKee.


EC That was the beginning. He was almost worried about what the crowd would think. I always liked those things.


JW I knew Guston. He was a good man. I liked him.


EC But he was also confident. Even before he was abstract, he was figurative anyway, back to the old-fashioned figure. So was Rothko. I’ve seen all their paintings. Rothko and I were friends. He knew I was an artist, and so one time he said, “Come to my place, I want to give you something.” He gave me all his stretchers. They’d be selling his paintings like hot cakes, very seductive. He’s genius anyway. But often people would come in . . . he [Rothko] had real cheap stretchers. And one time they could see they weren’t right, and immediately he said, we have the redwood [stretchers]. Redwood is expensive because it never warps. Because those trees are a thousand years old . . . But they didn’t say nothing, they’d take it. And in those days, if it was on the fifth floor, they’d put it on top of the elevator, no plastic or nothing. And then when I went away and came back, everything was in plastic and whatnot. But in those days, that’s the way it was.


JW So Rothko gave you his stretchers?


EC He gave me all of them. He didn’t need them no more. Just being nice to an artist. He gave me a bunch of six, seven stretchers about that big . . .


JW Fantastic.


EC And I had a car, and I put them on top. And they even had specks of color on them.


JW Is that when you had a studio down on the Bowery?


EC No. This studio was up in the fifties somewhere.


JW What year was that? Do you remember?


EC It had to be 1951 or about.


JW Yeah, early.


EC I worked there [at Janis] two years. He [Rothko] was very nice. And he didn’t like people much. And I remember there was one of the paintings that he liked, that other people didn’t like, but I knew he liked it a lot, right. And I told him, I said, “I know that’s one of your favorites.” But here’s another thing about him. You know how he painted?


JW We’ve got a few minutes left on here.


EC Yeah. You know how he painted? There was a guy, a famous photographer, that would come and do the photography for Janis Gallery. He was good. And he had a place in Washington Square. Anyway, I’ve forgotten his name. He didn’t like abstract. I’m just a young man. He said, “Take that crazy one,” he was talking about Rothko—“you know how he paints? Listen to me.” He says, “He takes maybe like a broom, but puts a rag on it.” And I’m getting that from him. That’s what he told me. It’s genius, anyway, but he just put a big rag on it and did it. Baker was the photographer’s name.


JW For some reason, I knew that Rothko used a lot of rags, but I didn’t know he attached them to a broom.


EC Anyway, I didn’t see that. This guy was telling me that. So I can’t really say, but I know he would know because he would go to the studio, and that’s what Rothko did. But artists, they can do anything.


JW I only met Rothko once, briefly. Al Held introduced me to him.


EC Rothko could be real nasty if he wanted to be. But he never messed with me. I met him the first time when he—you wouldn’t know, Earl Kerkam was an older man over in Paris. He died before—


JW How do you spell it? Earl?


EC Yeah, Kerkam, with an E. Earl Kerkam was over in Paris. He loved Paris. He was in Paris before the war. And he went back there. He liked to hang around the young artists. We were all young artists. So we’re with Earl Kerkam, and we all went to the Museum of Modern Art. Sal, me, and Kerkam. He was an old man then. He was in his seventies, and we were still in our twenties. And there was Rothko. We didn’t even know that. We sat down, and we’re talking to him. And he’s really nice. We met him like that. I thought of all the artists they had—Janis had the best artists. The only one he didn’t have that he wanted was Clifford Still, who wouldn’t have nothing to do with him. And he also was flirting around with Sam Francis, who refused to show with him. But other than that, there’s nobody he didn’t have: de Kooning, Klein, Motherwell, Rothko, Albers. And he treated Albers like he was bullshit. One time I’m there, it’s time to go home, they’re in the office, and I heard him hollering at Albers. “If you don’t like what’s happening here, you’re out.” I heard him, Albers’s an old man, German, and he’s with his wife, and she’s an invalid, and he was probably asking for more money, and he just walked out. But Janis could be a bastard.


JW Did you know Nassos Daphnis?


EC I think we lived in the same building on Ninth Avenue. He’s Greek.


JW Yeah. You knew Nassos?


EC We lived on Ninth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street. Yeah, I knew him. He’s good. And [Leo] Castelli would show him no matter what.


JW You know Nassos died.


EC I know that. I’ve got his obituary. But he was very good. Also, he was over in Paris. He lived in the same hotel where Beauford did at one time. The Hotel des Ecoles. Yeah, he did the Paris thing. A lot of people did the Paris thing, back in those days. He’s older than me. You met him?


JW Oh, I knew him. I knew Nassos well.


EC He was something. Did you know Knox Martin?


JW No. No, I didn’t know him.


EC Sal Romano and I, on Twenty-seventh Street and Sixth Avenue, we were on the top floor and Knox Martin was on the floor under us. He had a big ego. Artists, some do. You hear his name every now and then.


JW Okay. I think that’s about it, unless you have something else to add.


EC No, well, we’ll talk about it over the phone.


JW Thank you, Ed, very much.


EC Do me a favor.


JW Yes.


EC You bring that book up. It’s hard for me, at my age, to stoop down and get that heavy book.


JW Very good. Can I help you with something else?


EC Ah, well . . . I’m trying to think of some kind of corny joke. (laughter) No, man, nothing else.


JW Okay. Signing out.


1From Edward Clark: For the Sake of the Search, edited by Barbara Cavaliere and George R. N’Namdi, Belleville Lake Press, Belleville Lake, MI, c. 1997, from an interview with Edward Clark by Quincy Troupe, page 14.

2 From “Edward Clark, The Big Sweep,” in Edward Clark, Master Painter, by April Kingsely, G.R. N’Namdi Gallery, 2006, page 11.

3 From Edward Clark: For the Sake of the Search, edited by Barbara Cavaliere and George R. N’Namdi, Belleville Lake Press, Belleville Lake, MI c. 1997, interview with Quincy Troupe, page 20.

4 From Edward Clark: For the Sake of the Search, edited by Barbara Cavaliere and George R. N’Namdi, Belleville Lake Press, Belleville Lake, MI c. 1997, interview with Quincy Troupe, page 17.

5 From Ed Clark: Master Painter, published by G.R. N’Namdi Gallery, 2006, in “Edward Clark, The Big Sweep,” by April Kingsley, page 13.

6 From For the Sake of the Search, from, in “Un Musée pour Harlem,” by Ed Clark, Chroniques de l’Art Vivant, Paris, November, 1968, page 58.

7 From For the Sake of the Search, page 68.

Reviews of the 2014 Whitney Biennial



NY Culture

Stairmaster: Ephemeral Art at the Biennial

Charlemagne Palestine Brings a ‘Sonorous Alter’ to the Whitney

March 6, 2014 9:51 p.m. ET

Three curators — Stuart Comer, Michelle Grabner and Anthony Elms — chose the works included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, with each one taking a floor of the museum.

With nearly every inch of display space enlisted for the Whitney Biennial, which opens Friday at the Whitney Museum of American Art, one New York native went to work on the periphery.

“I’ve been coming to the museum since it was built, and I’ve always loved the staircase,” said Charlemagne Palestine, participating in his first biennial at the age of 66. “This particular kind of concrete has a fantastic resonance. It’s Taj Mahal-esque.”

For his installation in the Whitney’s stairwell, he sought to create what he called “a sonorous altar,” following visitors as they go up and down the museum’s floors. Twelve speakers, set up in corners of the stairwell, play all day. Within the din are the sounds of his singing voice, which he recorded while walking the stairs with a glass of cognac, as well as an electronic drone.

Mr. Palestine used 12 speakers adorned with stuffed animals in the hallway of the museum. Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

“If it works well and the sound is encompassing enough, when people come up the staircase they will be nicely disoriented, even hypnotized,” Mr. Palestine said.

There is a visual element too: Each speaker is adorned with some of the artist’s collection of stuffed animals, or “soft divinities,” as he calls them. Among the cast are a monkey, a rabbit, a bear and a droopy pink elephant.

How many plush animals does he own? “Ten thousand and growing,” Mr. Palestine said. “I’ve become a kind of orphanage.”

Most of the animals are back home in Brussels, where Mr. Palestine now lives, but some date back to his coming-of-age in New York. He grew up in Brooklyn and established himself as an artist in the 1960s and ’70s. His activities included theatrical performances and concerts whose boundaries would blur, often with an aggressive edge that could find him destroying piano strings in recital or filming a video (“Island Song”) for which he screamed and sang while racing a motorcycle.

“At the time, it was totally unheard of,” said Antonio Homem, director of the Sonnabend Gallery, which staged a recent show of Mr. Palestine’s early work in Chelsea. “He was such a perfect example that what was going on in art didn’t just have to do with painting or sculpting in traditional terms. There were many other possibilities.”

During his formative years, Mr. Palestine held down a job performing music high above the streets of Midtown, in the bell tower at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. “I started to play this crazy stuff when he asked me to try them out, and he found it great,” he said of the church’s retiring bell master, who hired him while he was still in high school. “Nobody approached bells like a monster except for me, which goes to how I work in general.”

Charlemagne Palestine created ‘a sonorous altar’ for the Whitney Biennial. Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

For his piece on the stairs at the Whitney, Mr. Palestine channeled part of his past, as well as the past of the Whitney. For the last biennial before the museum moves to a new site in the Meatpacking District, his installation strikes up a last dance with the building itself, which was designed by the famed Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer.

“I was trying to think about what kinds of voices I felt belonged in the Breuer building,” said Anthony Elms, one of the biennial’s three curators.

“He’s a really important maker for me, and for a lot of people—curators and artists,” he added. “He seems to be on lots of people’s minds.”

As one of several older artists in this year’s biennial, which takes history as one of its themes, Mr. Palestine said he’s happy for the attention granted to timely but fleeting work that for many years had been forgotten.

“Ephemeral is in again. It’s fabulous for somebody like me,” he said. “I like to make things, but my things can always transform.”

He’s no mere elder statesman, though.

“I’m a young emerging artist at 66,” he said. “I need at least another 25 years to do all the things I want to do. It’s always in process.”

Representing New York

Six other Whitney Biennial participants with New York ties:

Zoe Leonard

A nook on the museum’s fourth floor has been transformed into a giant “camera obscura,” with a small hole in a window that projects a ghostly image of the skyline onto the walls of a darkened room.

Jacolby Satterwhite

This artist’s hyperkinetic video work makes use of computer animation that, the catalog says, can teach a viewer “to be elsewhere and present at the same time.”

A tangle of thread by Sheila Hicks. Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

Sheila Hicks

A colorful tangle of thread stretches from floor to ceiling in a sculptural work by Sheila Hicks, who splits her time between Paris and New York and draws on studies of ancient textile design.

Ken Okiishi

The traditions of painting and pawing at touch screens come together in this artist’s work, which focuses on moments when creative methods and states of media begin to smear.


This publisher of philosophy and critical theory, now based in Los Angeles but long stationed in New York, is represented by an installation and readable works by Jean Baudrillard, Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus, Sylvère Lotringer and more.

A Dan Walsh painting. Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

Dan Walsh

Geometric paintings by Dan Walsh are striking in their simplicity, with shapes that align grid-like patterns with Tibetan mandalas.

—Andy Battaglia



Art Matters | The Whitney Biennial’s Last Upper East Side Hurrah

From left: Sterling Ruby's From left: Robert Wedemeyer; Devin Farrand. From left: Sterling Ruby’s “Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck,” 2013; Shio Kusaka, “(dinosaur 2),” 2013.

After almost a week of previews and vernissages, today 945 Madison Avenue opened its doors for the public to descend upon the last Whitney Biennial to take place on the Upper East Side. Two years from now, the Whitney Museum of American Art will have settled into its new building beside the High Line, and the days of several hundred people in “festive attire” snaking all the way down to Park Avenue as they wait to ooh, aah and roll their eyes at the latest and greatest in ostensibly American art will be a thing of the past. In the future when the museum is at capacity, all the excess people will be pushed into the Hudson River.

Tuesday was the premiere opening, and as the witching hour struck, shrapnel of artists, collectors and socialites blasted out of the building to umpteen dinners hosted around town. A party for the publishing collective Triple Canopy, which participated in the biennial as an artist, was held stumbling distance from the Breuer Building in the restaurant of the Carlyle Hotel. Gilded frames, venerable bartenders and bloody hamburgers set a fitting scene for New York’s now thoroughly multiborough contemporary art world to make a ceremonial goodbye to its ancestral home off Central Park.

Keith Mayerson's Keith Mayerson’s “My Family,” 2013.

This year’s exhibition is a bit schizophrenic by design. Instead of inviting curators from disparate fields and institutions to collaborate on producing one sprawling survey show, three curators — Stuart Comer, chief curator of the department of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art; Anthony Elms, associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, professor and chair of the painting and drawing department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — each organized their own exhibition on a single floor of the building. It is a parfait that has been met with mixed reviews, thus far. As the punctuation mark closing the museum’s nearly 50-year tenure on Madison Avenue, the show resonates as an ellipsis . . . not going out with a bang, nor confusion, nor definitiveness, but with fluidity and as a bridge to the future. There are new artists, new genres, new demographics and new regions emphasized here, all of which have long since been integral components of America art, but which have not necessarily been given adequate recognition as such.


New York
Group Exhibition
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue, 75th Street, New York, NY 10021
March 7, 2014 1:00 PM – 9:00 PM

In Conversation: First Impressions of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

by ArtSlant Team

ArtSlant editors Natalie Hegert, Joel Kuennen, and Charlie Schultz met up at Agra, an Indian restaurant on Lexington Avenue, to discuss the opening of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, its surprises, best in show, and disappointments. They touch on trends and themes of scale, archives, lists, dongs, and objectness—parsing the line between artwork and artifact.

Charlie Schultz: I guess I’ll start by saying I found this year’s iteration of the [Whitney] Biennial to be far less crowded than in past Biennials, which struck me as a surprise because I thought I read that there were more artists in this Biennial than in previous years.

[Indian music plays in the background…]

Natalie Hegert: I felt like the last edition was very spacious as well…This year I was very struck by this tendency for the curators to go from very large objects to these tiny details you had to study – little notebooks and small archival photographs and things like that – so my attention was constantly being drawn from these sort of monumental sculptures and large, abstract paintings to tiny little details.

Joel Kuennen: Yeah, on [Michelle] Grabner’s floor there are large abject works like Molly Zuckerman-Hartung and Sterling Ruby, and then going into these archive pieces which are presented in tables and behind glass draw an interesting parallel between fulfilling a cult of personality while working against a cult of personality by humanizing figures like David Foster Wallace, breaking away from the idea that these are sacred objects.

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung,  Notley, 2013,  Latex housepaint, enamel, and spray paint on dropcloth (hinged, in two attached parts),  96 x 132 inches;  Courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago / Photography by Tom Van Eynde


[Someone clanks a glass, drops a fork, papadums arrive, the waitstaff says something…]

N: Thank you.

C: Yeah, the shifts in scale are definitely prominent. There’s a lot of really small stuff! [everyone laughs]

N: A lot of things to read…

C: A lot of things in vitrines, which is a pretty standard way to display paraphernalia. There was a lot of paraphernalia on account of the various archives that were curated into the show.

J: Yeah.

C: I thought the archives were a really interesting aspect of this Biennial. I enjoyed all of them, and the way they played off one another. The rooms for Semiotext(e) and Triple Canopy bookended Stuart Comer’s floor. I spent a long time hovering over Joseph Grigely’s vitrines, and listening to the experimental recordings in Malachi Ritscher’s room.  

N: Joseph Grigely’s piece was the one that surprised me most, because I didn’t know what I was getting into until I started exploring around, and then that reveal, coming later, is what I found pretty interesting.

C and J: Mmmhmm.

J: Yeah, I found it interesting that a lot of the archive pieces were kind of rock star stuff, David Foster Wallace and Allan Sekula. They were paraphernalia that literati would be really tuned into. It’s kind of an odd mix in this show but signifies at least a concurrency of research and criticism within contemporary practice.

N: I was surprised at the selection of Allan Sekula’s work—the notebooks—I did not expect that.

J: But they’re funny, they’re like [laughing] sketches on an airplane. It’s a weird gesture.

They’ve got the in memoriam thing going on.

C: Very much in memoriam, which is in line with the idea of the archive. Both David Foster Wallace and Alan Sekula are deceased. They both have literary archives. You know a notebook is just a notebook until the writer is dead, then it becomes an artifact. And it was interesting to see so many artifacts intermixing with artwork, and where the line gets blurry between the two. Between DFW and Sekula, I’d say Sekula’s notebooks have much more of an artistic flair.

N: They did, they were very graphic.

C: I was really not sure how the curatorial conceit was going to work out. With three curators and each one doing their own floor I imagined it would have been more disjointed. It didn’t really feel that way. [both agree, mmhmm] I wonder how much of a role Jay Sanders and Elizabeth Sussman, the curatorial advisors, helped unify the visions of the three curators.

Jacolby Satterwhite, “Transit,” Video Still from Reifying Desire 6, 2014. HD digital video, color, 3-D animation; Courtesy of OHWOW, Los Angeles, and Mallorca Landings Gallery.


J: The conceit, I think, was to produce like-sentiments, to allow contemporary cultural themes expressed in American art to come out for themselves. But you also had this really interesting sense that each curator built their own Biennial. And I guess you get that feeling with [Stuart] Comer’s floor, like it is meant to be an all-inclusive floor to showcase a real variety of works, despite him specializing in performance and media work, he definitely brought in a lot of interesting painting.

N: There were some surprises on that floor, for sure.

[twangy Eastern music persists]

C: One thing I noticed on the fourth floor that seemed somewhat thematic, and I noticed it elsewhere on the other floors, was this predilection for inventories, these lists that people were making. There was a lot of visual repetition which is a consequence of listing anything, [N laughs] and I have actually have a list here of artists who made list-type pieces: David Foster Wallace’s notebooks showed lists of names, Ben Kinmont’s Shhh Archive was list oriented, Ken Lum’s Midway Shopping Plaza and Gretchen Bender’s melted vinyl piece both incorporated lists of names.

N: Weren’t the names in Bender’s piece movie titles?

J and C: Yeah, they were all movie titles.

C: Next on my list is Shio Kusaka’s stoneware piece that was made up of so many types of pottery. Stephen Berns, who was next to Kusaka, was showing photographs that had been exposed multiple times, sequentially, and those sequences were shown as a list.

J: And the Channa Horowitz, which what was that, like sonakinatography, it was her own time-marking system. Yeah, there was definitely a lot of play with systems.

C:  Peter Schuyff’s pencil piece, Sans Paper

J: Yeah yeah yeah yeah…

C: That was another. But yeah, archives and lists are of course related to systems and structures. An archive is a system and a list is a structure.

J: There was this theme of reiterating systems; attacking those systems, changing those systems and then, finally, a process of creating new systems. The best example of this was our collective favorite, the chess conference.  [everyone laughs]

C: Best in show goes to Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess.

J: Yes.

N: I don’t think I stayed and watched that long enough.

J: [laughing] it was like a forty-five minute piece.

N: I liked it, but I didn’t stay for very long.

J: I mean it was a great period piece that totally fulfilled its role of being a little bit jocular in its portrayal of a past moment that is still relevant. It interrogates the work of man to make a machine to beat man, all within a chess conference. It’s weird, like gender identities, human identities, computer identities, it’s all there.

C: Right.

J: And everything sort of just comes into collision. [everyone laughs]

N: We’ll have to compare…the portion of the film I saw was when they were doing a press conference or something. Were there other parts? [laughs]

C: Yeah, that’s what we watched. We saw the press conference. There was more, they go from the press conference to an actual convention.

N: Oh, okay.

J: And they joke that they have one female participant this year and “she’s welcome.”

C: She’s welcome.

N: I kind of wanted to see the computers battle it out. [all giggling]

C: Yeah, I mean whoever the protagonist was provided comic relief in so far as he would say what I was thinking, at least, which is that this is as boring as I can imagine, and I find the work of all my peers trite and boring, and all his peers look over and scowl.

J: He had a great fake name too, I forget what it was.

C: Papa George.

J: Papa George [all laugh]

J: And then there was the semiotext(e) archive, which was amazing.

C: Yeah, I liked that a lot.

J: It made me really want to be in that concert in 1996. [laughing]

C: Yeah! Made me want to sit in the semiotext(e) archives.

J: And then an amazing archive done by Triple Canopy, which was really cool, working with the idea of how artwork survives in the archive, and can exit in personal archives, deaccessions and beyond through reproduction. My favorite part were the three washbasin table stands, one from the period of the original artwork that stood as the fulcrum of the exhibition, and then they had a 3-D printed copy of it, and then they had the son of the family that owned the original work make a copy of it.

N: What did you guys think about the stairwell piece [by Charlemagne Palestine]? That really set the tone for the whole experience.

C: I liked that, for one I liked the playfulness of the puppets and the droning sound in the stairwell. It functioned really well in that space because there was a lot of acoustic resonance.

N: Well that is where it derives from; that was the artist recording himself walking up and down the stairs, making these sounds.

C: I didn’t realize that. So it’s very site-specific.

N: It made me want to join in, like “WOHHHHHH,” but I held back. I probably should have just gone for it.

J: It’s kind of nice being in the Whitney and being as loud and laughy as you want to be. It seemed like there was a different kind of respect for everything, more celebratory.

N: Well at the last Biennial I was struck by this tension between works that were meant to be interactive, and works that weren’t, but looked like they were, and how much strain that puts on museum personnel. I had another moment like that in, I think the second floor, where there’s just a record player in the middle of the room with a sign on it that says, “To start, do this…” But the cover was on, so I looked over to the museum guard and said, “May I?” and he’s like, “No, no. Don’t touch.” Rather dissatisfying really.

J: Later people were fucking with it.

N: I’m always curious about that disconnect.

J: There was another moment, the artist that did the Pussy Riot mannequins.

N: Lisa Anne Auerbach…

J: Yeah, she had this giant book.

C: The Megazine

N: I loved that.

J: And she was there, fussing with things, and the security guard in the corner was watching her very intently, and she’s like, “I’m going to flip the page.” Thirty people in the room stand back as she flips the page very slowly.

C: Probably what I found to be the most visceral and abrasive installation in the show was…

N: Bjarne Melgaard [all laughing]

C: He took that cake, again.

J: It’s his cake.

C: That to me was really stepping into another person’s world.

N: Well, especially when the first thing you encounter is a giant dong, just hanging there.

J: They are all dongs. The entire installation is dongs.

N: I really loved those carpets though. I kind of want one. It gave the room a very interesting feel. Sort of cozy but abject at the same time.

C: Sexualized mannequins.

N: I think those are real sex dolls.

J: Also the projections of the cult members on the wall. David Koresh talking to one of the members. And then the reaction shots of the cult members with these vacant looks.

N: And then the mass wedding…

J: People listening with insane looks on their faces. It develops a really weird mirror between you viewing in the room with the screens making up the walls. And then, of course, the chimpanzees eating and having sex.

N: It reminds me of a George Costanza moment, where he’s in bed with his girlfriend and simultaneously leaning over and taking a bite of hoagie.

J: Classic moment. And what was behind [the chimpanzees] again?

N: Was it a gay porn?

C: Mmmhmm. Power porn. Abrasive stuff.

N: But I didn’t see any explicit moments; I just saw the banter, the forced acting…

C: There were explicit moments.

N: The dialogue was so banal, like, “We just called you over here because we heard you were a slut.” [all laughs]  

Picking back up on the topic of the presence of penises in the Whitney; I thought it was actually quite pronounced. There were a lot.

J: Plethora of Dong.

C: I can only think of two dongs.

N: There was the Gary Indiana…

C: There’s probably twelve in that piece alone.

Keith Mayerson, My Family, 2013, Oil on linen, 56 x 70 in.; Copyright Keith Mayerson / Courtesy the artist and Derek Eller Gallery, NY / Photographer Tom Powel Imaging


N: That painter, Keith Myerson, with the salon-style paintings that looked rather traditional, but then very prominently placed there in the middle was a guy in a tree with a unmistakably erect penis.

J: I thought it was a tree limb.

N: There were others, too. Also there were many works that were thinking about shifting sexual identities, most representative of course is the Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst project. There was a lot of art centered on queer subjectivity, especially in that room. Was that Anthony Elms’ [floor]? Or Stuart Comer? Those two floors blended together for me. I felt like Michelle Grabner was the most distinct.

J: I feel like Elms got pulled into the others; it wasn’t as distinct as the Comer and Grabner.

N: Anthony had Elijah Burgher. There were some dongs in there too.

J: Dong, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong.

J: I feel like his [Elms] references are a little older too, pulling in contemporary art from the last ten, twenty years. Just overall, the work seemed to represent a bit more background and lead-up than just the cutting edge.

C: I know one of the keystone works on his floor was actually not on his floor. Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura.

N: I loved that. I thought that was a really fitting tribute to the building.

J: Just titled with the address.

C: It was sleek, it was simple and it was always changing and site-specific. On a cloudy day you’re not going to see much in there.

J: There’s another over-optical reference too on Grabner’s floor, the photographer, what’s her name?

N: Sarah Charlesworth.

C: I didn’t know she died last year. That was a sad thing to learn today. Those were beautiful prints. Very simple, and I like how she referenced Alfred Stieglitz’s great magazine with her title, Camera Work. It was a sly way to bring up an archive without including another artifact.

J: It really feels like visuality and the study of the visual is embedded in the contemporary art canon now. The camera obscura was a surprise, a pleasant one.

There was a lack of critical race art aside from Pedro Velez’ work stashed in the basement by the elevators.

Dawoud Bey, Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell (from The Birmingham Project), 2012, Archival pigment prints mounted on dibond, 40 x 64 in.; Copyright Dawoud Bey / Courtesy of the artist


C: Dawoud Bey…

J: It was subtle though; the three diptychs from his Birmingham Project, they are layered, beautiful pieces, forcing collisions of identity through time and place.  Race was present, but you didn’t see an interrogation.

N: What do you think of the inclusion of Donelle Woolford?

J: It raises my ire.

N: I’m never sure what to think about that.

J: I think the idea is ill-conceived. He certainly took many steps to make it as verifiable as possible, and it’s a long-ass project, and three different actresses play the black female artist, Donelle Woolford.

And it’s a dick joke.

N: More dongs.

J: Is this work saying that this work is what a black female artist makes? Dick jokes? Is that the joke?

N: It’s hard too, because most people will pass by that and not know anything about it, if you don’t take the time to read the wall text through. Only at the end does it say, oh by the way, Donnelle Woolford is a fictional character created by Joe Scanlan! But that is the trouble in presenting an artist’s work in a Biennial. You only get a glimpse at their practice, and it’s more about how things play off of each other.

J: She was also paired next to David Robbins, an artist that specifically deals with humor. He had his nice cattywampus bookshelf with a few copies of his Concrete Comedy book on it.

C: It was right across from the really hilarious and cartoony Laura Owens painting.

J: I don’t think that was the right spot for Donelle Woolford.

N: Is she doing a performance too? Just like 2012, they say you can’t experience all of the Biennial unless you see all of the performances. [laughs]  We didn’t see “My Barbarian,” did we?

J: We have to check out Tony Tasset (400,000 Artists).

N: I’m curious about that.

C: Are they in alphabetical order?

N: They are in alphabetical order.

C: Or order of importance. [laughs]

J: And that goes back to lists.

N: That’s true.

C: One of the other interesting things Anthony said was that he wanted the work to say “hello” to the building. I liked that idea of communion with the building, especially since the Whitney is leaving the building this year. Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura was perhaps the most blatant.

N: And Charlemagne Palestine…

C: Yes.

J: And Radamés “Juni” Figueroa in the courtyard.

C: Sheila Hick’s piece with the colored threads that looked like they were being disgorged from the ceiling, that was a successful installation.

N: There was a lot of interesting textiles too. I thought there were a lot of ceramics. Because I never think of ceramics.

Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck, 2013, Ceramic, 28 1/8 x 39 3/8 x 41 inches 71.4 x 100 x 104.1 cm; Copyright Sterling Ruby / Photographer: Robert Wedemeyer.


C: There were some good Sterling Ruby ceramics.

J: It took me a minute, but then I was like, okay. Again with the abject, they were holding discarded, broken shards. They were refired, reglazed, over and over, melted together. One of those pieces where the process becomes the work. That might be the key to abject work, to appreciate it for more than its horrible physical appearance.

C: And there were three of them, so again with this repetition, listing idea.

N: What did you think was undeserving, or did you find something boring?

C: What did you think about that room of Tony Greene paintings? That took me by surprise.

J: That was very strange. It was like they had a prior installation in there, and they forgot it.

N: That one just took me back to the Forrest Bess mini show, artist curating artist thing, but I felt that this presentation felt like kind of a knockoff. I wasn’t sure it was adding to [the Biennial].

C: That piece was technically curated by Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie. It seemed like a strange room to me.

J: The work was strange in the context of the Biennial too. It came from a decorative background. It definitely wasn’t as ostentatious as the rest of the work. I wonder if that’s a pretty reliable characteristic of the Biennial, a lot of audacious work.  A lot of work that shouts. I imagine subtle work doesn’t work well here.

C: You just miss it.

N: Yeah. I thought the most subtle work that I encountered was portraits by Paul P.

J: The blue watercolors. They were pretty but I don’t know why they were there.

N: Next to the Paul P works though, the Michel Auder voyeuristic video installation, I loved that piece. It came right after the Joseph Grigely collection of ephemera around Gregory Battcock, so I thought that was perfect, because you were first offered this glimpse into this man’s life, then you walk into another room and you’re looking into these windows at other peoples’ lives. I thought that was a really poetic arrangement.

C: That was good curating.

N: Last thoughts.

C: There were a lot of types of craft, which I think is very poignant. In our current reality where so much is virtual and everything seems digitized or ready to be digitized, the tangibility of these artifacts and archives and artworks seemed like it was a real concern.

N: The objectness.

C: Sure. [all laugh]

N: Over and Out.


Charlie Schultz, Natalie Hegert, Joel Kuennen


(Image on top: Zoe Leonard, Sketch for 945 Madison Avenue, 2014, IPhone photo, 3 x 4 in. (7.6 x 10.2 cm); Courtesy of the artist / Copyright Zoe Leonard.)



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Photography at the Whitney Biennial: Hidden in Plain Sight

Photo-spotting at the museum turns up photo-sculpture, photo-performance, and a view of Madison Avenue like you’ve never seen it

It’s been a long time since photography was considered a separate medium made by people who called themselves photographers—the medium has been thoroughly absorbed and blended with painting and sculpture, video and installation for several decades at least. But it can be fun to check in on photography in a show like the Whitney Biennial, which offers a broad look at rising trends and new directions in art. These seven artists from this year’s show, which spans three floors and was curated by three different people, prove that photography is hardly over—it’s just changed shape in one way or another, and lives on as a tool or a reference or a lens.

Stephen Berens
As a resident at the American Academy in Rome, Berens made multiple exposures of the same views of the city over the course of a summer, making pictures at different times of day for a project called 40 Views of Rome, 2005. For the series here, he combined the images into dark pictures where only slivers of ruins and silhouettes of the city’s ubiquitous stone pines are visible, making pictures as layered as Rome itself.

Stephen Berens  Top:August 4, 2005, Night, July 28, 2005, Night (Lightning), 2013, dye-based inkjet print. Bottom: August 4, 2005, Night, July 28, 2005, Night (Lightning), July 28, 2005, Night, August 7, 2005, Night, July 29, 2005, Middle of the Night, 2013, dye-based inkjet print. COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST. COURTESY THE ARTIST. ©STEPHEN BERENS.

Top: Stephen Berens, August 4, 2005, Night, July 28, 2005, Night (Lightning), 2013, dye-based inkjet print. Bottom: Stephen Berens, August 4, 2005, Night, July 28, 2005, Night (Lightning), July 28, 2005, Night, August 7, 2005, Night, July 29, 2005, Middle of the Night, 2013, dye-based inkjet print.


Dawoud Bey
Bey’s portraits from “The Birmingham Project” and his picture of Barack Obama might be the most straightforward photographs in the Biennial. Clear and sober, Bey uses the camera to record the solid surfaces of his subjects, and to hint at what is solid beneath that surface.


Dawoud Bey, Barack Obama, 2008, pigmented inkjet print.


Sarah Charlesworth
Photography itself is the subject of Charlesworth’s inverted and reversed diptych of a view camera with its bellows extended. The negative and positive images mimic the effects of the lens and the negative, making a self-referential picture that questions the act of looking, a longtime concern for the artist, who passed away unexpectedly last year.

Sarah Charlesworth, Camera Work, 2009, two chromogenic prints, each mounted and laminated with lacquer frames.  THE ESTATE OF SARAH CHARLESWORTH. COURTESY THE ESTATE OF SARAH CHARLESWORTH AND MACCARONE, NEW YORK. ©THE ESTATE OF SARAH CHARLESWORTH.

Sarah Charlesworth, Camera Work, 2009, two chromogenic prints, each mounted and laminated with lacquer frames.


Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst
Two rows of color photographs make up Drucker and Ernst’s glamorous Relationship, 2008-13. In the top row, a figure with long bleached-blond hair poses in heels or in a dark apartment; below, a person with short dark hair lounges in bed or wades in the ocean. The series documents the couple’s gender transitions, artist Drucker from male to female and filmmaker Ernst from female to male, in images that, like gender, walk the line between documentary and performance.


Installation view of Zackary Druckers and Rhys Ernst’s, Relationship, 2008-13.


Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft
The whimsical shapes in these rich silver gelatin prints by these artist collaborators call to mind Karl Blossfeldt’s early botanical photos, but there is something unconvincing about them, despite being printed on lush fiber paper. Based on sketches and descriptions of unidentified plants from a mysterious 16th-century text, the Voynich Botanical Studies look like plants imagined by children—they have leaves like little hands and tiny pineapples for flowers but were made using 3D software.

Left: Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 06r Jaro, 2014, gelatin silver prints. Middle: Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 23r Podzim,, 2014, gelatin silver prints. Right: Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 20v Podzim, 2014, gelatin silver prints.  COLLECTION OF THE ARTISTS AND KOENIG & CLINTON, NEW YORK. COURTESY THE ARTISTS AND KOENIG & CLINTON, NEW YORK. PHOTOGRAPHY BY ULRIK HELTOLFT.

Left: Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 06r Jaro, 2014, gelatin silver prints. Middle: Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 23r Podzim, 2014, gelatin silver prints. Right: Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 20v Podzim, 2014, gelatin silver prints.


Carol Jackson
Jackson’s photo-sculpture hybrids are ornate, crust-covered shapes that are sliced open to reveal a glossy photo center. Pandemonium, 2013, is a complex shape with a skin of what looks like ash-colored mud. Where the form has been bisected, an image of burning trees is revealed, suggesting a hot core to the cool piece.

Carol Jackson, Youthful Beast, 2013, wood, papier-mâché, acrylic, and inkjet print. COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST. COURTESY THE ARTIST. PHOTOGRAPH BY CLARE BRITT.

Carol Jackson, Youthful Beast, 2013, wood, papier-mâché, acrylic, and inkjet print.


Zoe Leonard
Leonard’s room-size camera obscura makes the case that photography is a relevant tool for looking at the Biennial. Through a palm-sized lens set in the building’s front window, Madison Avenue is projected upside down on the gallery walls, turning the museum itself into a camera.

Zoe Leonard, Sketch for 945 Madison Avenue, 2014. COURTESY THE ARTIST. ©ZOE LEONARD.

Zoe Leonard, 945 Madison Avenue (installation view), 2014, lens and darkened room.


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Insiders Are Not Outsiders: A 2014 Whitney Biennial Review

Posted: 03/07/2014 11:38 am EST Updated: 03/07/2014 8:59 pm EST

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Thirty years in the art world and I had never been to a Whitney Biennial. That was actually something worth bragging about and especially after having been to one I can unabashedly lament that I will never be able to say it again.

The Whitney Biennial carries immense weight in the art world. There is almost nothing in visual art that exists as a gauge, a standard, a benchmark or just a simple “this is more advanced than that.” No matter what artwork you are looking at, accomplished or ridiculous, there is always a nattering nabob who will remind you that any discussion of the work in terms of it being “good” or “bad” is taboo. One of the scant retorts available at all these days is to point out that the artist one is examining had been in a Whitney Biennial. To say “so what” to that is to risk a charge of philistinism. The fear of being asked, “Are you the biggest idiot ever?” is too great — nobody can dismiss inclusion in the Whitney Biennial as anything but an accomplishment. In the land of the jaded snob, extending one’s palm open near an artwork and saying “This artist was in the Whitney Biennial,” is as close as it gets to being a bearded wizard uttering “Behold!”

And yet trudging through a Biennial is a time-honored pulling back of the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz. The art world respects the Whitney Biennial artists and the market-gain they receive from inclusion, but badmouthing each Biennial is as predictable a ritual as champagne on New Year’s Eve; nobody can resist using critical pontification to masquerade their envy over not being included or not having their allies represented in a Whitney Biennial.

The 2014 Whitney Biennial is a pile of unadulterated shit. There is supposed to be a celebration because a lot of Los Angeles artists have been included, and indeed the show is less New York-centric than ever before. But it is not a show that represents the Los Angeles art scene as much as it represents Los Angeles art school insiders (art schools in Los Angeles ARE the establishment, the bubble that protects what status quo there even is connecting L.A. to the internationalist “big art” conformity machine). But that is no surprise — the Biennial is the ultimate art world insider exhibit. It is just that this exhibit sees so many insiders pretending to be outsiders. The language of outsider art is present in about half of the artworks (the other 50 percent are my two least favorite branches of conceptualism: dry conceptualism and conceptualism masquerading as rotten formalism). One could call it an outsider art show except that it is the ultimate insiders navigating the art world ladder of success with outsider visual strategies.


The trick to being an “insider outsider” is to make it look more obvious than a thrift store. There is macrame, knit sweaters, bric-a-brac chandeliers, sloppy ceramic and lots of wood scattered about the Whitney Biennial. There is an insidiousness lurking in the simpleton charm of this work. “Oh hey that looks funky…” is what the impulse thought of a viewer is when one encounters this work, but sadly, IT’S A TRAP! Most of this work has a tsk-tsk tongue-clicking pretension to being about something other than it is — you see, if the work were about interesting-looking art that incorporated an outsider aesthetic (or heaven forbid were made by an actual art outsider), then it would be accessible and engaging — something that is not taken kindly in the cold art world climate of rarifying the shit out of every human experience into academic-objective “re-presentations” of phenomena. So this is never outsider-informed art; it is outsider-embellished stances, analyses and deconstructions. The Mike Kelley impulse to soul-killingly crush any joy out of the visual language of the non-elites was the most insidious twist to the worship of irony in the late 20th century. It stands victorious (and resiliently unattacked) as the mainstream default approach to art-making practiced by the insiders atop the shit heap called contemporary art at 15 years and counting into the 21st century.

And speaking of Mike Kelley, the Laura Owens painting in this exhibit is so derivative of Mike that it reveals a new level of curatorial naiveté that has to be singled out. Owens is long out of ideas so you cannot shame the washed-up, but a curator’s first job is to spot a cheat. Just nasty.


The stark message about conceptual art in the 2014 Whitney Biennial is that the anything goes as long as it has an art history referent. Every time you turn around there is some terrible speck of nothing teetering on a curatorial insistence that it is art and justifying it by having some tepid construct about other art, artists, art criticism, art history or another construct unnamed by the academy as of yet but definitely involving the word art. The great Semiotext series is given a vast gallery for its archives and the curatorial impulse is to make its legacy as unappealing as a library trashcan — a feeble attempt at “artifying” the installation with silver wallpaper on one wall is a cowardly curatorial act of “Warholizing” an institution with no allegiance to something as presently mainstream as “The Factory.” Even when they dumb it down, the Biennial makes sure to do it obtusely — the silver wall of Semiotext pages is not half the embarrassment as is the including of David Foster Wallace journals as “artworks” by the late author — most of them are exhibited closed or open to indecipherable pages, totally uninteresting after the connection with the author. Celebrity stands in here as a substitute for curatorial rigor, hiding behind the glamor of their names and nothing else.


Amidst the hubbub there are plenty of forgettable paintings, installations, videos that would be elevated if they were simply relegated to YouTube and too much sculpture that vacillates between appearing to be a mainstream object performing an art function or an art object performing a functional function. The aesthetic of the day is either proto-minimalism with some clever twist to make it commentary or outsider integrity as an alias for downright sloppiness. And of course, no major art exhibit these days is incomplete with out the myriad twaddle taking place “outside the institution’s walls”. The Whitney brochure for the show was chock full of detritus that will be screening on inconvenient dates and times, almost as a reflex to ensure the Biennial can never really be experienced completely, and thus, can never be ripped apart in its entirety. Well fuck it, I cannot wait. This is a gargantuan turd that, if the art world need to be re-plumbed in its entirety to flush, so be it, call the goddamned plumber immediately or just give up, set the whole institutional art world on fire and at least we can get some nice marshmallows out of the deal.


There were four artworks in the show that made me think. Artworks that stayed with me… that made me take to google for all of 20 minutes to ponder.

All four of these artworks had death, in one form or another, as their central theme. Some were weirdly, perhaps unintentionally, poetic but the curators made sure to kill as much of that potential as possible. The four pieces were:

•The “art group” Public Collectors present a synopses of Malachi Ritscher, a musician and music-compiler who took his own life via self-immolation in Chicago in 2006 to protest the U.S. war in Iraq.

•The late Gretchen Bender had a 1988 artwork “People In Pain” completely refabricated as an artwork by Phillip Vanderhyden. The original artwork, exhibited in the 1989 museum show “A Forest of Signs” had totally disintegrated.

•Joseph Grigely discovered a caché of personal effects from art critic Gregory Battock, hidden in a studio space for decades. Battock was murdered, stabbed to death on Christmas Day in 1980 while vacationing in Puerto Rico in a crime that was never solved. Battock had an interesting life and a career in the art world that intersected with many art world luminaries.

•A “sub-curated” gallery presented a few paintings by the late Tony Greene. Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie had been classmates of the artist in the early 1990s at graduate school. Greene passed away from AIDS complications years ago.

Each of these has an unavoidably serious topic as the pretext for the art installation. Grigley and Public Collectors have scraps from their subjects arranged in vitrines. Whether by curatorial choice or necessity, the overall effect here is about as far from maudlin and sentimental as one gets when the subject is the dearly departed. Perhaps there are among us those who would like to be remembered through unsentimental museum wall text, but both of these subjects were screaming for a documentary film or even a coffee table book to better tell the story, to acquaint us, to celebrate a random human life with whom we might connect. Nope, the Whitney made sure to freeze dry all the passion and let didactic assumptions reign free.

The Bender/Vanderhyden artwork was more complex. In her curatorial walk-thru on March 7, curator Michelle Grabner explained that the Whitney was resistant to crediting Vanderhyden; the institution houses its own restoration department and they never get credited as being artists. Grabner apparently fought the good fight and in doing so she has sent the message loud and clear to aspiring artists: be the foot-servants of those who showed in the museums a quarter century ago to cut in line on your way up the carer ladder. And on top of that, Bender’s “People In Pain” is a snide, elitist thumping of popular culture and one of the ugliest large works of art ever executed.

The paintings of Tony Greene, also almost a quarter-century old, were included by curator Stuart Comer. On his March 7 curators walk-thru he poignantly expressed that a generation of artists died and that their voices would never be heard and that it was important to include one from then who, absent that terrible plague, would conceivably be making art and engaged in the art community alongside all of the Biennial participants today. The amount of space devoted here is generous and the delicate paintings show a range, discipline and sensitivity way beyond almost any other artist in the entire show. The second greatest tragedy of Tony Greene’s passing after his death itself is that had he lived he would certainly be omitted from a Biennial (and an art world) that privileges the smarmy over the poetic, the academic over the delicate and critical distance over beauty.

So those are the choices — die or sell-out. Whether you’re a painter or whether you’re a sculptor, if you’re staying alive with an earnestness, buddy you’re nowhere by the look of the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

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by Kevin McGarry

March 7, 2014

Whitney Biennial 2014

The most streamlined mythology of the past two decades of the Whitney Biennial goes something like this: 1993 represented the Big Bang of art and identity politics, and since then, the curve has bobbed up and down like a sine wave, going above and below the axis of overthought mediocrity towards an ever more platitudinous parody of itself. It is, after all, the biennial that everyone… loves to hate. Shoot me now. Framing it this way can be as mind numbing as discussing the weather, and yet, it is nearly as inescapable.

Perhaps drawing from its upper Manhattan terroir, the Whitney Biennial is an inimitable, enduringly anachronistic, and extremely self-referential institution. Each edition rehashes the questions “What is contemporary?” and “What is American?”—often to post-rational ends. Convoluted curatorial conceit is the most dangerous pitfall threatening state-of-the-art-world survey shows today. The best biennial I’ve seen in the past couple of years was Luiz Pérez-Oramas, André Severo, and Tobi Maier’s 2012 30th São Paulo Biennial about, simply, “poetics”—a theme so loose and extensible that the exhibition wore it as a heartening halo rather than a pretentious noose. In this respect, the 2014 Whitney Biennial does not fail. Well, actually, it does, but only in execution; the conception of its structure and thematics do not doom or significantly distract from the works contained therein. Assembled by three outside curators—Stuart Comer of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Anthony Elms of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, and Michelle Grabner of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—it is not rhetorically proposed as three discrete shows; it is actually (actuality is always refreshing!) three discrete shows spread across three levels of the Whitney Museum’s 945 Madison Avenue building.

The second floor, curated by Elms, is exhaustingly under-stimulating. On first glance, Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan’s Image of Limited Good (2014), a sculptural tableau of suitcases filled with a resin-like substance and purple tracings of retro airline logos pinned to the wall, looks promising, but—pardon the pun—unpacking the piece is a joyless pursuit. It would work better at an art fair, as would Charline von Heyl’s Folk Tales (2013), a grid of black-and-white collages, which is not awkward like some of the other works on this floor, but by no means as absorbing as her work usually is. Transgressive hero Gary Indiana’s untitled contribution seems dated and confused. It’s comprised of a diptych pairing a collection of headshots and nude candid photographs of incarcerated men of color with a large, inelegantly installed, semi-circular LED curtain looping footage of jellyfish, which, according to the text, are anatomically symbolic of… the panopticon. The effect of the piece is incomprehensible (in this room it might not actually be possible to get far enough away from the curtain to view its moving images as such, instead of as a crumpled field of large diodes); it superficially juxtaposes cultural issues from the 1980s with presentation technologies that are modern, but look terrible. Rebecca Morris’s paintings, Untitled (#14-13) (2013) and Untitled (#15-13) (2013), given the company, stand out, and respite can also be found in the two cinemas made to house films by Michel Auder, Steve Reinke with Jessie Mott, and the Los Angeles-based collective My Barbarian, but in terms of this chapter of the Biennial having a compelling story or discernable position, there is none.

Moving up one level and several notches in quality, Comer’s third floor contains the highest concentration of expected names. This is by no means a dig: why not represent the most consistent and influential American artists in the Whitney Biennial, particularly if they haven’t been invited before? At the pinnacle of buzzy and undeniably good is the singular and prolific force that is Bjarne Melgaard. His room recalls the Korova Milk Bar (from A Clockwork Orange), populated by silicon sex mannequins with blond weaves and raccoon eyes, posed alternately on haute, club kid furniture you might find in a fancy, edgy French person’s apartment and on the wholesome braided carpets you might find in a Maine farmhouse. The Gesamkunstwerk, entitled Think I’m Gonna Have A Baby (2014), includes projections of found clips depicting interchangeable violence between animals and people respectively, and a monitor with a staged, raunchy confessional dialogue between two gay lovers who seem to hate one another. The wall text identifies the dissolution of humanity into a circus of cruelty as its subject, but this declaration is, frankly, not even necessary, because the work is writ so large, scary, and engrossing.

Shaped like the islands of Manhattan, Hawaii, and Kauai, Ei Arakawa’s hats for two and three people, are, by contrast, totally benign, but much crazier. Arakawa’s mutable and often inscrutable practice has been hitting for a while now—another New York-based artist, like Melgaard, whose industrious imagination has flourished during the past years in a corporatized city that has been sapped of its creative life force. It’s not immediately clear if Ken Okiishi’s vertical, wall-mounted flatscreens, each titled gesture/data (2013), partially painted over with impressionistic brushstrokes are important, but they look fresh; and the floor-to-ceiling salon hanging of Keith Mayerson paintings, casting autobiographical moments alongside renditions of iconic American people and symbols, gives the underappreciated painter his due. On a different register, a room near the back of floor three—Afterlife: a constellation (2014), organized as a work of art, at Comer’s invitation, by Group Material cofounder Julie Ault—interweaves intergenerational referents and inspirations into a tautology unbound by the unities of time and place. To name but a few, filmmaker Matt Wolf’s slideshow, which includes a narration that touches on his adolescent discovery of the late David Wojnarowicz, is placed next to Wojnarowicz’s own Calendar (1989). To its left is Closed (1984–85), a painting by late Lower East Side artist Martin Wong, who is an ongoing subject of inquiry for Danh Vo. And in turn, Vo’s piece, snowfall/northern Sierras 1847 (2013), which echoes Alfred A. Hart’s photograph Stumps cut by Donner Party (c. 1868), is placed on the other side of the room near a text by Ault about Wong and Wojnarowicz. But the most transcendent inclusion on this floor has got to be Lebanese-born Etel Adnan, the eighty-nine-year-old writer, poet, and here, painter, whose canvases depict emotional landscapes told in simple compositions of four or five hard-edged hues, and whose two epic poems outstretched in accordion books go from earth to space to death to life and back in an unbroken, linear circle.

None of the three shows are sparse, but Grabner’s fourth floor jams the most works in of all. Even more so than in Comer’s exhibition, the two most captivating works are made by popular, market-anointed artists. Sterling Ruby, working in his best medium—ceramics— puts forth three Vulcan maws from his “Basin Theology” series (2013–14), full of glossy, broken archaeologies. Behind those is one big painting, As-yet-untitled (2014) by Laura Owens, which both eschews verbal description and has a lot of fun with words; the text “When you come to the end of your rope, make a knot, and hang on” accompanies a 1980s children’s illustration of a boy and his dog swinging by rope across a teal void, within and beneath a meticulously layered vortex of painting posing as digital effects, posing as painting. Many other big, colorful, abstract paintings by women fill this main room: Jacqueline Humphries, Louise Fishman, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Dona Nelson, and Amy Sillman. The largest canvas, Gaylen Gerber’s undated Backdrop/Untitled, is flat grey and inconspicuously stretched around the entire wall outside the elevator. It is itself a surface for other works to be hung on; presently it’s Trevor Shimizu’s untitled ritualistic figurative compositions but on April 15, as the wall label tells us, it will be replaced by Sherrie Levine’s Thin Stripe: 10 (1986) and David Hammons’s Untitled (2010). Placed at the end of the most natural path through the fourth floor, Zoe Leonard’s 945 Madison Avenue (2014) is all about depriving the viewer of light. It’s a huge camera obscura refracting the quotidian windows of Madison Avenue onto its walls. As an elegy to the building on the occasion of its last biennial, it’s a much too obvious, precious note to end on—something that could have been devised by a PR assistant as readily as by a great photographer like Leonard. Overall, there is a bit too much going on here for Grabner’s show to coalesce a striking identity, but there’s a harmonious enough fluidity to how it all intermingles, probably owing to the personal and pedagogical connections among the artists and to the curator, who is an artist herself.

Something about that lends itself to the overarching Biennial’s greatest success, whose most contemporary experiment deals with framing a curator as a locus of collaborations and conversations, rather than the steward of conceptual frameworks that enslave art. Grabner’s show is not about the Midwest, but there is a preponderance of artists from Chicago and the surrounding region (even a Dawoud Bey photographic portrait of the Chicagoan American president, Barack Obama (2008), is hung above her curatorial statement). Comer’s exhibition doesn’t stake itself as a queer show, and by no means exclusively contains queer artists, but he and most of the ones that I was struck by and mentioned above publicly identify as queer (as do I). Perhaps Elms’s show suffers because it lacks an expansive, lived impetus. But ultimately, at the risk of being boring, I must conclude the same as usual… the Biennial essentially falls flat. Though multifaceted, it’s hard to imagine a truly textured object with only three sides. That the three exhibitions fully commit to their autonomy is a good thing, but unfortunately, the aggregate effect that arises from their congress feels jumbled and piecemeal. The experiment as a whole fails, and while it shouldn’t go in the vault as our recollection of 2014, it is a step forward because, suspended in the loftiest, Sisyphean heights of democratized irreality, testing its own form is exactly what the Whitney Biennial should always endeavor to do.

Kevin McGarry is a writer and curator based in Los Angeles and New York.

Bjarne Melgaard, Think I’m Gonna Have A Baby, 2014.

1Bjarne Melgaard, Think I’m Gonna Have A Baby, 2014.

Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan, Image of Limited Good, 2014.

2Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan, Image of Limited Good, 2014.

Charline von Heyl, Folk Tales, 2013.

3Charline von Heyl, Folk Tales, 2013.

Gary Indiana, Untitled (detail), 2014.

4Gary Indiana, Untitled (detail), 2014.

My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Universal Declaration of Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in the Creative Impulse, 2013.

5My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Universal Declaration of Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in the Creative Impulse, 2013.

View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

6View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

Ken Okiishi, gesture/data, 2013.

7Ken Okiishi, gesture/data, 2013.

View of the Whitney Biennial 2014 with works by Keith Mayerson, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

8View of the Whitney Biennial 2014 with works by Keith Mayerson, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

View of Julie Ault, Afterlife: a constellation at the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

9View of Julie Ault, Afterlife: a constellation at the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

Etel Adnan, Five Senses for One Death, 1969.

10Etel Adnan, Five Senses for One Death, 1969.

View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

11View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

12View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

Zoe Leonard, 945 Madison Avenue, 2014.

13Zoe Leonard, 945 Madison Avenue, 2014.

  • 1Bjarne Melgaard, Think I’m Gonna Have A Baby, 2014. Mixed media with video and holographic projections, dimensions variable. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
  • 2Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan, Image of Limited Good, 2014. Campaign tables, hectograph duplicators, carbon ink, suitcases and briefcase, depression glass, gold-plated swizzle sticks, disassembled greeting card rack, hectograph prints on interleaving tissue, hinges, and blueprint rack. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
  • 3Charline von Heyl, Folk Tales, 2013. Acrylic, ink, wax, charcoal, and collage on paper, 36 parts, 24 x 19 inches each. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
  • 4Gary Indiana, Untitled (detail), 2014. Video projection, four text panels, grid of 25 digital C-prints on archival hot press matte paper, and LED curtain, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo by Bill Orcutt.
  • 5My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Universal Declaration of Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in the Creative Impulse, 2013. Still from video, color, sound, 30:00 minutes. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles. © My Barbarian.
  • 6View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
  • 7Ken Okiishi, gesture/data, 2013. Oil on flatscreen, VHS transferred to .mp4, color, sound, 35 1/3 x 21 x 3 7/10 inches. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York. © Ken Okiishi.
  • 8View of the Whitney Biennial 2014 with works by Keith Mayerson, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
  • 9View of Julie Ault, Afterlife: a constellation at the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.
  • 10Etel Adnan, Five Senses for One Death, 1969. Ink and watercolor on paper, 11 x 255 inches. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York. Photo by Chris Austen.
  • 11View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
  • 12View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
  • 13Zoe Leonard, 945 Madison Avenue, 2014. Lens and darkened room, 210 x 300 x 632 inches. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Murray Guy, New York; and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

Review: 2014 Whitney Biennial

The Biennial tries something new, but winds up being the same old thing

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Right off the bat, the 2014 Whitney Biennial raises a question: Is it an exercise in out-of-the box thinking? Or does it represent a tacit admission that the Whitney is no longer institutionally capable of mounting its signature show? The answer is probably both. Read on for our full review of this year’s museum-wide exhibition with our own slideshow gallery of highlights, then scroll down for a sneak peak of the gallery itself.

Photograph: om Powel Imaging

Keith Mayerson, My Family, 2013

Instead of the usual buildingwide bacchanalia of zeitgeisty goodness we’ve come to know and love (or love to hate), the proceedings are broken into three more or less discrete exhibitions. Each is mostly confined to its own floor, and organized by a different outside curator. Handling the duties are Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA; Anthony Elms, associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, who is an artist and professor in the painting and drawing department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago. Asking why they got the job as opposed to other people is a bit like wondering why certain Ping-Pong balls pop up during Lotto drawings.In some cases, one curator’s selection winds up on the floor of another (or in a Whitney common area, such as its lobby or moat), but each floor remains distinctly the expression of a single point of view.Somehow it works, or at least it does so enough of the time to make this Biennial seem better than most. I know: faint praise! Still, this edition should be remembered for its inclusion of paintings in pretty decent numbers, as well as its emphasis on semiforgotten careers and artists from outside New York.This separate-floor arrangement, of course, makes it easier to heap praise or to assign blame, depending on your tastes. For me, the Westminster trophy for Best in Show indubitably goes to fourth floor, helmed by Grabner. Apparently the first practicing artist involved in shaping a Biennial, she brings an artistic eye to installing art, a talent that curators were routinely expected to apply before the practice became professionalized. In her own work, she’s something of a formalist—a dirty word in certain quarters—but the attention she pays to the relationships between forms turns out to be a virtue.Many of her selections are worth a shout-out, but those off the top of my head includes Gretchen Bender’s black crumpled cenotaph, listing backlighted movie titles form the ’80s; Joel Otterson’s psychedelic harem tent; Amy Sillman’s prismatic abstractions; and Joshua Mosley’s charming Claymation video of an early-20th-century tennis match. The last is hung within a stretch of rooms putting an emphasis on quietude, both visually and conceptually. It starts with one of Anthony Elms’s picks: Zoe Leonard’s spooky and sublime camera obscura installation. Set within a spacious portion of the floor, the piece consists of a large lens board covering one of the Whitney’s “eyebrow” windows overlooking Madison Avenue. On the opposite wall, the lens throws an upside-down projection of the buildings across the street, with the dimmed, blurry image being pretty much the same scale as its subject. From there you proceed into the gallery containing the aforementioned video, along with Stephen Berens’s layered photos of Rome, and a long shelf filled with Shio Kusaka’s exquisite pottery. This part of the exhibit is best summed up by the title of Ben Kinmont’s text-driven tableau in the next room: Shh. Down the corridor you’ll also find Jennifer Bornstein’s video of naked women performing modern dance routines, and Peter Schuyff’s case full of corkscrewing pencils.

“Nobody calls the Biennial the Oscars of the art world anymore, but in some ways, the comparison is more apt than ever.”

I wish I could say the rest of Biennial was as strong as the fourth floor, but it isn’t. I liked Ken Okiishi’s painted flatscreens on floor three, along with Bjarne Melgaard’s crazy, hypersexualized whorehouse of horrors off to the left of Okiishi’s wall. Melgaard is precisely the sort of art star who’s benefited from the market’s premium on sensationalism, but give the man his due: He’s good at what he does.

Ultimately, the 2014 Biennial is somewhat square, even provincial, and that may be okay for now. Because truthfully, the formula is impervious to change. You could scour the planet and probably find enough artists to mount a truly mind-blowing survey every other year. But that supposes the Biennial is just a show when it’s really not. It’s a brand, and like any brand, genuine risk makes its shareholders nervous. The Whitney’s forthcoming MePa home will only raise the stakes in this sense, making a ground-up rethink less likely.

Nobody calls the Biennial the Oscars of the art world anymore, but in some ways, the comparison is more apt than ever. Like the Oscars, the Biennial is an exercise in self-love, demanding attention it doesn’t quite deserve, but you pay it heed anyway. On that score, 2014 is the Ellen DeGeneres edition: safe, genial, with just enough jokes that land to distract you from the ones that fall flat.

Explore the Biennial layout for yourself

Photograph: Lauren Spinelli


Continue reading the main story Slide Show

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2014 Whitney Biennial

2014 Whitney Biennial

Credit Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

For its 2014 Biennial, the last before taking the plunge downtown, the Whitney went a little wild with the recipe. It picked three curators from outside the museum and outside New York. (One just recently arrived.) It gave each of them free rein on a floor in the museum’s Breuer building to work solo, with no cross talk required, though, of course, there was some, and some space sharing, too.

The result is a large, three-tiered cake of a show, mostly vanilla, but laced with threads of darker, sharper flavor, and with a lot of frosting on top.

For a long time, almost any biennial concoction the Whitney came up with was critically squashed. That tradition seems to have ended with the 2002 show, when the attacks were so ferocious that a lot of people began to back off.

And the shape of the art world was starting to change. It was growing hugely bigger. There was just more of everything: more artists, more galleries, more things. Postmodern pluralism, which for two decades had made conservatives crazy, was turning out to be their best friend. It diluted political thinking and encouraged easy-on-the-eye luxe. Much of this year’s Biennial fits without resistance into the city’s concurrent art fair week. That’s the way things are.

Within this anodyne context, the show’s organizers — Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art; Anthony Elms, an artist and associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, also an artist and professor of painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — have made some interesting choices, pulled in some new faces and shaped three quite different shows.

If you want to go straight for frosting, head to Ms. Grabner’s installation on the fourth floor, which has by far the most artists — about half the show’s total count of just over 100 — along with the biggest objects and the brightest colors. In an interview, Ms. Grabner said forthrightly that she did not take her primary mission to be the tracking down of young talent. She mostly chose artists in mid- or mid-late career, many of them women. Good idea.

Several are painters — Louise Fishman, Jacqueline Humphries, Dona Nelson, Amy Sillman, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung — who work in variations on gestural abstraction. Their work is hung together in one gallery, which may not have been the best move. In the enclosed space, so many energy-generating pictures short-circuit one another a bit.

Still, it’s an impressive display of formal chops, though I come to it with a handicap. I find Abstract Expressionism, a historical style referenced here, overrated and pretentious, a bore. Why would anyone want to bother with it, except maybe to do some constructive damage, which is the option that Ms. Nelson and Ms. Zuckerman-Hartung, in interestingly unalike ways, seem to take: Ms. Zuckerman-Hartung slices up the canvas (or, in her case, a dropcloth); Ms. Nelson messes up the surface with applications of ratty-looking, driplike skeins of paint-soaked cheesecloth.

In general, Modernism — recycled, retooled, whatever — hangs like a mist over the fourth floor, particularly over ceramics that might as easily date from 70 years ago as from today. So it’s tonic to encounter an inky storm cloud of a vinyl-and-neon wall piece called “People in Pain,” made in 1988 by Gretchen Bender (1951-2004) and restored (“remade” is the term on the wall label) by Philip Vanderhyden this year.

A cheerful Pop sign sculpture by Ken Lum embedded with references to the Vietnam War is half obscured by overcrowding. But three smallish paintings by the Chicagoan Philip Hanson, quoting Blake and Dickinson, are lovingly displayed. They’re directly across from a case of handwritten notes made by the novelist David Foster Wallace for a book left unfinished at the time of his 2008 suicide.

Their presence seems to come out of nowhere, but it’s smart, a wake-up injection of not-art (or maybe-art) into an installation heavy with art with a capital A. Dawoud Bey’s studio portrait of Barack Obama placed, with perfectly inscrutable intent, right up front serves a similar purpose.

Painting and language are also basic ingredients of Mr. Comer’s smaller, sparer third-floor show. And right off the bat, he introduces us to a virtuoso of both: the Lebanese-American writer and painter Etel Adnan, now 89, whose accordion-fold notebooks, dating to the 1960s, combine diarylike accounts of violence and near-abstract poetry with horizontally extendable watercolor landscapes.

Mr. Comer also gives us a chance to revisit the California artist Channa Horwitz (1932-2013), who made a memorable impression at the recent Venice Biennale with ultrarefined geometric drawings that suggest stitch work and genetic coding, and functioned as a form of dance or performance notation.

A lot of what Mr. Comer’s installation is about is the phenomenon of mixing, how everyone’s doing everything. Morgan Fisher makes film, paintings and sculptures that are also architecture. Kevin Beasley’s sculptures are products of his performance. The irrepressible Jacolby Satterwhite combines vogueing, martial arts and contemporary dance in video animations in which he is the main performer.

Within Mr. Comer’s installation, as in the Biennial as a whole, artists are curators. At his invitation, the painter Richard Hawkins and the photographer Catherine Opie have organized a mini-retrospective of paintings-on-photographs by an art school classmate, Tony Greene, who died of AIDS in 1990 at 35. Tributes to the dead — there are several in this Biennial, including, by default, one to Terry Adkins, who died just weeks ago — have a ripple effect: Most of Greene’s lavish, petite paintings are, in essence, valentines and prayers sent out to friends disappeared.

They are also, of course, inherently political statements, and in a Biennial damningly mum about politics, it is bracing to find work that isn’t. Photographs of, and by, Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, a transgender couple, put queer consciousness on the front burner, and work by the California photographer Fred Lonidier stands as a beacon of dedicated activism. Starting in the 1970s, Mr. Lonidier documented the lives of immigrant laborers on both sides of the United States/Mexican border. Rather than exhibit his pictures in galleries, he showed them in shopping malls, union halls and tractor-trailers. He got in trouble, got censored, but kept keeping on. God bless him.

The bottommost layer of the biennial cake, Mr. Elms’s installation on the second floor, is the thinnest in numbers and, at first bite, the least sweet. But it has some of the work I liked best. A piece at the entrance by Jimmie Durham — Native American by descent, in self-exile from the United States since 1987 — was a good omen. His abstract but roughly humanoid sculpture called “Choose Any Three” is made of stacked wood chips inscribed with names: Vanzetti, E. Zapata; Crazy Horse; Ho Chi Minh, Cristóbal Colón, Johnny Colón, Kay Starr, Malcolm X, etc. Mix and match and create your own political meaning for the piece.

This is also sort of the general method underlying Mr. Elms’s show, which reveals itself slowly. You spot an LP playing on a turntable, but there’s no sound. You listen closer, and maybe there is: a kind of audible vacuum, moving air. The recording was made on Sept. 11 and 12, 2001, by Matt Hanner, a member of the collective Academy Records. He lived under a flight path near a Chicago airport. When planes were grounded after the news of the Sept. 11 attacks, he taped the extraordinary silence.

An installation by Public Collectors, a Chicago group founded by Marc Fischer in 2007, is also about preserving sounds: hundreds of live experimental music performances taped over many years by Malachi Ritscher, a Chicago jazz fanatic and political activist who publicly immolated himself in 2006 as a protest against the war in Iraq. Thanks to Public Collectors, which functions as a custodian of cultural materials that no one, including museums, wants, Ritscher’s life’s work survives, including the briefcases in which he carried equipment, which are here.

The Biennial contribution from Joseph Grigely is a similar act of salvage. Some 20 years ago, in an abandoned factory in Jersey City, he found a cache of manuscripts and photographs that had once belonged to Gregory Battcock, the art critic and artist. Battcock, a ubiquitous and influential figure in the New York art world during the 1960s and ’70s, was murdered in Puerto Rico in 1980. After years of research, Mr. Grigely has pieced together an archive of this complex and personable writer’s life. The selection in the show is riveting.

And the archive isn’t all reading; there are plenty of visuals, as there are throughout Mr. Elms’s low-fat exhibition. You have to return to the fourth floor, to a space he borrowed from Ms. Grabner, to see Zoe Leonard’s crepuscular camera obscura view of the street outside the Whitney.

But back down on 2, he’s offering a dreamboat of a video called “The Beautiful One Has Come,” by Dave McKenzie; a suite of tiny collage-poems by Susan Howe; Elijah Burgher’s colored pencil drawing of three nude males, posed in front of Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s 15th-century treatment of the same theme; and a handful of pocket-size notebooks with cartoonlike watercolors by the Conceptualist Allan Sekula.

The notebooks were a surprise to me, and they are certainly of interest. But their inclusion points to a major flaw in this biennial. Sekula, who died last year, was one of the most incisive, persistent and underrated political artists America produced after World War II. For some four decades, through texts and photographs, he critically documented the everyday realities of American classism and economic inequality. He worked within the art world: He was a revered teacher but stayed clear of its fads and foolishness. His major life’s work is fundamentally un-art-fair art.

But his notebook drawings have relatively little to do with his major work, and everything to do, at least in the distorting context of this show, with the present market taste for cash-and-carry neatness, craftsiness-as-quality and political content as a kind of sweet-and-sour flavor enhancer. Despite some good work assembled for this Biennial by three bright curators, I left feeling pretty much the way I do when I leave an art fair, full but empty, tired of dessert, hungry for a sustained and sustaining meal.



  • 3/5/2014 at 9:00 AM

Seeing Out Loud: There’s a Smart Show Struggling to Get Out of This Big, Bland Whitney Biennial

Sterling Ruby’s ceramic sculptures are the best thing in the show.

If you want to get the most out of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, start on the fourth floor and spend most of your time there. This portion of the exhibition — there are three, each with its own curator — was organized by the Chicago artist-gallerist Michelle Grabner, and includes the show’s visual and material high point: a central gallery crammed with colorful painting, sculpture, and handmade objects as well as ceramics and textiles. It’s wildly overfilled, radiating heat and energy. The prehistoric-like wrecked giant ceramic ashtray-objects of Sterling Ruby are maybe my favorite objects in the show; I love the chaotically woven two-sided paintings of Dona Nelson, the glimmering chain-metal beaded-curtain adorned with antique tools by Joel Otterson, the material-poetry of the collaboration between Amy Sillman and Pam Lins. There are more than a few duds, and the usual buddy-buddy inclusions of friends and former students — everyone does that, not just Grabner — but if you wander through the rest of this floor, you’ll find other artists well worth looking at.

And, apart from scattered pockets in the rest of the show, it’s the last blast of visual and material juice that you’ll get in this optically starved, aesthetically buttoned-up, pedantic biennial.

Much of the rest of the show is a nebulous tasting-menu mess that exudes an inert elegiac air. I kept hearing myself think, I see dead art: Work that looks and behaves like it is supposed to look and behave but that doesn’t make us see differently, that doesn’t rethink form, reimage structure, or explore material, color, or new orders. You’ll spend way too much time here reading long wall labels that explain what the work is supposed to be about. Never mind that Oscar Wilde said something like, “The moment that you think you know a work of art, it is dead to you.” This reading-to-see is an extension of our highly educated class of artists and curators, an urge to ape the look of art, play by the rules, and be accepted by institutions. The result is a generic, noncommittal, straitlaced show.

There’s something else. About 40 percent of the individual artists in this show are older or deceased. The average age of the artists in Grabner’s salon-gallery is around 55. On the second floor (organized by Anthony Elms), the average age is around 50. Now, let me stipulate that newness, nowness, and nextness have nothing to do with age, or with the age at which an artist emerges. I wouldn’t have a job if the art world weren’t intensely cross-generational and layered. (An artist can catch fire for the first time at age 90.) Yet such emphasis on older practitioners makes this biennial come off as a dodge, as if the curators were scared of making a wrong call. Or they haven’t spent enough time in the trenches (as opposed to flying around the world participating in symposiums with like-minded curators), and have lost touch with what might be going on beyond what they already know. Right off the second-floor elevator entrance is a sculpture by Jimmie Durham, who was born in 1940. It was made in 1989! I’ve been told that it is the last work he exhibited in New York before he decamped to Europe. I like Durham’s work enough but there’s no reason he should be taking up this biennial slot — let alone with this work. Ditto the lovely notebooks by the late filmmaker Allan Sekula.

Careful correctness abounds. Hot young artists and market favorites and spectacles have been shunned. The show is peppered with collectives and collaborations. It isn’t New York–centric, and it loves artists who’ve been in other biennials or who’ve already had museum surveys. Success is okay as long as it’s not too financial or big. Rudolf Stingel created a mind-blowing installation in Venice last summer, but he’d never be included in a show like this. Nor would more unpredictable excellent younger talents like Andra Ursuta, Josh Kline, or Lucy Dodd. The show cries out for one of William Powhida’s gigantic art-world-Babylon murals, maybe downstairs in the restaurant. The curators are so determined to stay pure, to avoid acknowledging the machinations of commerce, that the show is completely disconnected from the entire world.

Stuart Comer, who curates media and performance art at MoMA, opens his third-floor show with Dash Manley’s trailer-scale walk-in wood and metal frame with large prints or something inside. Nearby is a large ridiculous video of the artist reenacting some scene from an early American film. The work is here because it checks all the boxes: It takes up a lot of space, is momentarily engaging, has video, references film, and comes with elaborate explanatory wall text. Whole Lower East Side galleries could fit in the space this washout takes up. Nearby is a very large gallery devoted to Semiotext(e), the publishers who introduced French poststructuralist theory to the U.S. I’ll just say that I saw ten artists in galleries last month who would’ve been better and more relevant. Grrrrrr. Sigh.

The curators are also infatuated with the current institutional tic of display-mania: artists who act as curators, anthropologists, and archivists, mining eccentric informational territories. I adore this sort of idiosyncratic  exploration. Yet so much of that art begins with fabulous raw information and then does barely anything to transform it. Here, Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan have “appropriated” the extraordinary collection of anthropologist George M. Foster, who in the 1960s gathered and annotated airline menus. Magical material! You just want to look at it! And then Snobeck and Sullivan turn it into a dead display of suitcases and prints supposedly about “disseminating subversive information” and how “immutable social systems might be re-engineered.” Ben Kinmont falls just as flat by asking museum visitors to send him a note with the time and date of a conversation they have at home. He will then make annotated records of the time and date of the first 100 notes. Absolutely by-the-book bland informational-conceptualism. These artists are unwilling or incapable of presenting information whole to yield its inherent power, or they fuss it up, turning everything into artsy little displays.

Though not everything. There’s a very good small show trapped in the body of this very big, bad Biennial. Exemplary in this regard, Zoe Leonard has turned one of the largest single galleries in the museum into a beautiful empty camera obscura, using the Whitney’s distinctive prismatic window as a lens. Here we see the world projected upside-down into the darkened space; traffic runs on the ceiling; building façades reach to the floor. In this reverberating quiet, one of the Whitney’s final uses of its unusual architecture before it moves downtown, we see the place where the real meets the power of the abstract.

*This article appears in the March 10, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.


This Is Not a Survey: An Incomplete Review of the Whitney Biennial

06/03/14 5:30 PM EST
This Is Not a Survey: An Incomplete Review of the Whitney Biennial
Guests entering the Whitney Biennial 2014 press preview

(Courtesy Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)

The wall text for the 2014 edition of the Whitney Biennial opens with a defensive admonition: “The field of contemporary art is far too vast for one exhibition to encompass,” it reads, disclaiming the idea that the the biennial is actually a comprehensive survey of current practice, as most people seem to think it is. In that same spirit, let’s admit that the Whitney Biennial itself is far too vast for one so-called review to encompass—lest it become nothing more than a list of names and dates, an archive of the stuff that’s been crammed into and across three floors, a courtyard, and a lobby gallery.

This biennial is the brainchild of three curators, from three different places—Anthony Elms (Philadelphia, and formerly Chicago), Stuart Comer (New York by way of London), and Michelle Grabner (Chicago and Wisconsin)—and the floors have roughly been divvied up among them, with a few exceptions. One might expect this to give the Biennial a schizophrenic character, but it more or less holds together, with some nice call-outs and resonances from floor to floor.

Let’s start with the weird backbone of the exhibition, and the reason why you should avoid the elevator in favor of the stairs: A 12-channel sound installation by Charlemagne Palestine, emitting from a series of speakers that have been decorated, a la Mike Kelley, with an array of abject stuffed bears and elephants and strands of bedraggled scarves. The piece (which was recorded by the artist in the museum space itself) is a mantra of unease, a bed of haunted synth-like sounds humming and dying and punctuated with the occasional affected human voice. Palestine’s inclusion here (he was Elms’s choice) colors much of what you see on other floors. It’s not mood music, per se, since this Biennial’s flavor isn’t exactly Nightmarish Doom, but it does have an outsized influence on the way you experience the show.

For instance: Head up to the fourth floor, Michelle Grabner‘s domain, where the introductory wall text is paired with a straightforward, albeit intense, portrait of Barack Obama taken by Dawoud Bey. The Commander-in-Chief’s gaze is complicated by the fact that, while you’re looking at him, you’re also awash in the stairwell’s audio, and that droning miasma of sound suddenly makes Barack look like the sort of hard-assed Machievelli who could, well, order a fleet of drones to hit a country we’re not technically at war with.

But let’s start back downstairs, or at least try to make some necessarily reductive, broad-stroke characterizations about what this biennial means and how it reflects the temperaments of its respective curators. What do they care about, and why does it matter? Elms is a bibliophile, a lover of the archival and collectable, and all of that is clear from the second floor—which, and we can argue about this, is probably the smartest one here. I’d venture that everything on this level, including the sculptures and paintings, has to do with language in various forms: language that communicates, or fails to; language that is bent or broken or impotent.

The link is sometimes obvious, as in Susan Howe‘s Tom Tit Tot, 22 letterpress prints that take found writing and twist it into concrete poetics. These prints, arrayed in a vitrine, share a room with Elijah Burgher‘s excellent colored pencil drawings incorporating written spells (sigils) and a hanging acrylic-on-fabric piece that also reads like imaginary hieroglyphics. Even Charline von Heyl‘s grid of 36 drawings—incorporating appropriated images of Russian and Polish folk art, spray paint, graphite, and other media—takes on the appearance of a typographical chart, itemizing letters from a distant past or an unknown future. And  the Carol Jackson sculptures spread throughout the space—some on pedestals, some hanging from the walls—are like graffiti forms pouncing into three dimensions: a bit cheesy in a Frank-Stella-in-the-’80s way, but boldly confident in their alien funkiness.

Other rooms in this floor-covering expansion of Elms’s brain feature archives a bit like masoleums, extolling the underappreciated dead. One corner nook organized by the collective Public Collectors is dedicated to Malachi Ritscher, a Chicago audiophile known for obsessively recording live concerts, jazz and otherwise, and also for protesting the Iraq War until  2006, when he committed suicide by lighting himself on fire in a very public place while carrying an anti-war placard. I didn’t know any of this; did you know any of this? Part of the point is that you probably didn’t, and that an American man can self-immolate without becoming any sort of folk hero. But here he is in the Whitney Museum, his posters and suitcases and recording devices and Butthole Surfers’ set lists arrayed like holy objects, which is certainly a beautiful homage, but also a bit sad.

In an adjacent room, Joseph Grigely presents a dissection of the life of a deceased painter-cum-critic, The Gregory Battcock Archive. It brings together printed matter, photographs, postcards, and other materials in vitrines, as well as some posters on the wall. There’s an art review from the New York Free Press, circa 1969, the prose all bebop beatnik bounce. On the wall there’s an actual abstract painting—supposedly the only remaining work by Battcock—that is pretty bad in its generic mushiness. Is this the archive as homage, celebration, or simple oddity?

Stuart Comer’s third floor is the most self-consciously hip in this biennial, and the one most interested in tapping into new media. There’s a room-sized installation by Bjarne Melgaard—now best known for making a chair sculpture that Dasha Zhukova pissed everyone off by sitting on—featuring female mannequins, digitally-printed penis pillows, and videos of animals. (It’s colorful and energetic but somehow flat and subdued, like a Ryan Trecartin environment that’s had all the kinetic life sucked out of it.) There’s a piece by Ken Okiishi: five Samsung televisions playing generic programs, turned on their side, their screens daubed with oil paint. A Fred Lonidier work—a 1976 piece that could have been made yesterday—is a wall hung with t-shirts, their fronts custom-printed with images and news announcements related to the GAF Corporation. (The shirts get larger as it goes, from child-size to a Men’s Large, perhaps a nod to the way in which we grow up with companies, our lives colonized by their narratives.)

And an entire room is given over to ephemera from the publishing house semiotext(e)—including a fancy, silvery wallpaper that collages images, posters, announcements, and the like. Several semiotext(e) titles are propped on little shelves, as if we’re in a highbrow gift shop. (Semiotext(e) is trending right now! Fun fact: Head over to Zach Feuer right now and you can see sculptures by Brad Troemel that vacuum-seal the imprint’s monochromatically-covered mini-volumes into color field arrangements augmented by faux-dredlocks.)

Elsewhere on the floor Comer’s focus becomes a bit more diffuse. There’s a whole area that seems weirdly nostalgic for the mid-’80s—David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong, a book by Martin Beck focused on the playlist for a party held in 1984. Which is fine, the Biennial isn’t a survey of our contemporary moment, and these throwbacks are paired with work by Danh Vo and others, but: Why? Meanwhile, Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst‘s photographic series Relationship, 2008-13, is one of the biennial’s true stand-outs—it tracks the pair’s criss-crossing gender transformations (male to female, female to male), and is beautifully composed, funny (some Sarah Lucas-y humor, wherein eggs stand for balls and bratwursts become penises), and unabashadedly sweet and sentimental. The only misstep is in hanging the series in the same room as A.L. Steiner‘s playfully subversive documentary images, which are close enough in style and attitude that the nearby hanging creates a sort of ghetto of photographic queerness.

Comer does include a fair amount of painting as well. Keith Mayerson‘s dozens of canvases, hung chockablock, are notable for having absolutely no defining signature style whatsoever. There are paintings of shipwrecks; of Elvis; of Tin Tin; of Times Square; of James Dean hanging out in a tree, masturbating. Individually, they’re not much; together, they’re a statement about taste (bad and good) and an obsessive work ethic.

Up to the fourth floor, which is helmed by Michelle Grabner, who touts her mission as being about “curriculum building.” That reeks of school, but Grabner’s true M.O. is to focus craft: ceramics, textile, and enough color to stun an elephant. The focus here is more on things: Ricky Swallow‘s patinated bronze sculptures, which resemble delicate little folded-cardboard constructions; Sheila Hicks‘s drooping masses of rainbow materials; Sterling Ruby‘s Lucio Fontana-aping ceramics, like oversized horrorshow ashtrays. Everything is pretty bright and immediate and there’s a mini-focus on women abstract painters: Amy Sillman, Jacqueline Humphreys, Laura Owens, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Suzanne McClelland (plus Rebecca Morris downstairs). Philip Hanson‘s paintings turn quotations from William Blake or Emily Dickinson into hippy spirals that are pretty unbearable, but they’re notable as a reminder of Elijah Burgher’s New Age vibe on the second floor, minus whatever ironic distance that younger practitioner might have. As a curator, Grabner wants to grab you by the shoulders and say: Handmade still matters—like Karl Haendel‘s intricate, realistic graphite drawings, hung in a very Baldessarian arrangement, or Shio Kusaka‘s stoneware and porcelain vessels, decorated with tear patterns or dinosaurs.

What does the 2014 Whitney Biennial mean? Who knows, really. If we had the time or inclination we could offer some conjectures about the ever-expanding field of painting (Dashiell Manley, Dona Nelson); Americans’ obsessions with early-20th century European experimental theater (Shana LutkerMy Barbarian); self-portraiture recast as space-age camp (Jacolby Satterwhite); video-as-voyeurism (Michel Auder filming people through apartment windows, Dave McKenzie filming an unaware Henry Kissinger); or the ironic importation of the tropics into bone-cold New York City (Radames “Juni” Figueroa‘s cozy, heated hut out in the Whitney’s courtyard).

But trying to draw too many cross-connections in an exhibition of 103 artists seems just plain silly, and arbitrary. So why not end in an arbitrary place? If there’s one weird object in the entire biennial to dwell on, perhaps it can be a notebook in a vitrine of effects from David Foster Wallace, who hung himself in 2008. Its cover features two blue-eyed kittens rolling around on a bed of roses, beneath the heading Cuddly Cuties. Heartbreaking in its simplicity and aura of posthumous awfulness, it’s a fitting place to stop—before you descend that staircase of dread and rejoin the wider world.




Whitney Biennial 2014: Where Have All the Politics Gone?

Lisa Anne Auerbach, "American Megazine #2" (2014), inkjet prints and staples, twenty pages (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Lisa Anne Auerbach, “American Megazine #2″ (2014), inkjet prints and staples, 24 pages (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

The 2014 Whitney Biennial has many things: oversized ceramics, big abstract and figurative paintings, experimental jazz, videos of people having sex, and bead curtains. What it doesn’t have all that much of is politics. For the most part, the art in this year’s biennial faces inward, reflecting on itself and sometimes the larger world in safe and comfortable ways. You won’t be too put out, turned off, or riled up. You’ll probably just have a good time.

Charlemagne Palestine's 12-channel sound installation "hauntteddd!! n huntteddd!! n daunttlesss!! n shuntteddd!!" (2014) fills the Whitney's stairwell. (click to enlarge)

Charlemagne Palestine’s 12-channel sound installation “hauntteddd!! n huntteddd!! n daunttlesss!! n shuntteddd!!” (2014) fills the Whitney’s stairwell. (click to enlarge)

There is some excellent work in the show. Sterling Ruby’s large, ritualistic ceramic bowls are fabulous. Zoe Leonard’s room-size camera obscura is delightful. Sculptors Alma Allen and Carol Jackson offer brain-bending formal innovations, and I felt as though I could have sat and listened to Charlemagne Palestine’s droning, mesmerizing staircase sound installation for an hour. Paintings by an under-appreciated Chicago Imagist (Philip Hanson), a sound piece made from field recordings of Chicago on September 11 and 12, 2001, when air travel was suspended (Academy Records/Matt Hanner), a gigantic magazine with text culled entirely from psychic consultations (Lisa Anne Auerbach) — there’s plenty to like. But that’s just the issue: the biennial is overly neat and likeable, scarcely messy or funny or challenging.

Carol Jackson, "Pandemonium" (2013), wood, acrylic, papier mâché, and inkjet print

Carol Jackson, “Pandemonium” (2013), wood, acrylic, papier mâché, and inkjet print

Is that a disastrous thing? No. Is it a shortcoming? Absolutely. All art need not be political, but a show that disregards politics in the United States in 2014 is a delusion — not simply because of the state of the country and the world, but also because of the state of art itself. Social practice is experiencing a moment of profound attention and criticality. Artists of color are being included more than ever in the mainstream, yet often still in a segregated way, which many of them question. Within the art world itself, certain practitioners have taken up residence at the border between institutional acceptance and an outsider stance, carving out space for satire and critique. By and large, none of that is in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

I’m inclined to think that this omission stems at least in part from the exhibition’s lack of diversity. It’s telling that one of the strongest, most openly political showings comes from Dawoud Bey, whose two diptychs were curated by Michelle Grabner on the fourth floor. (Bey’s photograph of President Obama also hangs, lonely, at the entrance to the floor.) Bey recently spent seven years visiting Birmingham, Alabama, where, in 1963, white supremacists bombed an African-American church, killing four girls, and shot two African-American boys to death. His research led to The Birmingham Project, a series of black-and-white photo diptychs that pair portraits of African-American youths the same ages as the victims with those of African-American adults the ages the victims would have been in 2012. The gazes of the subjects are both inviting and unsettling.

Dawoud Bey's prints from "The Birmingham Project" (2012) hanging behind Peter Schuyff's carved pencils

Dawoud Bey’s prints from “The Birmingham Project” (2012) hanging behind Peter Schuyff’s carved pencils

Probably the only other artist as explicitly political as Bey is Fred Lonidier, an artist and longtime union activist who focuses on labor issues in his work. Lonidier’s contribution, curated by Stuart Comer on the third floor, consists of a 1976 piece called “GAF Snapshirts” — T-shirts obtained by the artist from a manufacturer called GAF and then custom printed with notes and images from his research into the company — and a 2003 work titled “‘NAFTA…’ Returns to Tijuana/‘TLC…’ Regresa a Tijuana,” two photos relating to a project that Lonidier undertook exploring the conditions at a light assembly plant in Tijuana, Mexico. The works (especially the T-shirts) are eye-catching, but even with their accompanying wall text seem to suffer from a lack of context.

Fred Lonidier, "GAF Snapshirts” (1976) (photo by Hrag Vartanian)

Fred Lonidier, “GAF Snapshirts” (1976), 32 photo- and text-printed T-shirts (photo by Hrag Vartanian)

Also on Comer’s floor is the much-discussed 2012 documentary film Leviathan, made by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. Shot on tiny waterproof cameras, some attached to nets and people, others thrown into the sea, the 87-minute-long film explores industrial fishing in an unprecedented way, through dark, disorienting images and almost entirely without words. Although its origins at the Harvard lab explicitly position the work as “ethnographic,” critics have pointed out its almost de facto politics. At the Whitney, plunging underwater with Leviathan feels like bursting through the museum’s walls to let in the world outside.

Ken Lum, "Midway Shopping Plaza" (2014), powder-coated aluminum and enameled plexiglass (click to enlarge)

Ken Lum, “Midway Shopping Plaza” (2014), powder-coated aluminum and enameled plexiglass (click to enlarge)

Other artists in the show come to politics, as many of us do, by way of identity. Ken Lum’s towering “Midway Shopping Plaza” (2014, fourth floor/Grabner) is a witty amalgam of tacky signs for Vietnamese-owned shops, except all of the names relate to the Vietnam War. Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s Relationship series (2008–13, third floor/Comer) consists of photographs of the two transgender artists in the process of transitioning in opposite directions, a fascinating subject, although the pictures are a bit generic. A.L. Steiner (also third floor/Comer) exhibits her film “More Real Than Reality Itself” (2014) within an all-over installation of photos, “Cost-benefit analysis” (2014), both of which attempt to use the artist’s body and autobiography as a starting point for mining questions of radicalness and activism. It’s one of the few pieces in the biennial that pulls you in with a seductive complexity.

AL Steiner, "Cost-benefit analysis" (2014), pigmented inkjet prints, photocopies, and paint; "More Real Than Reality Itself" (2014), multichannel video installation, color, sound, 54 min

A.L. Steiner, “Cost-benefit analysis” (2014), pigmented inkjet prints, photocopies, and paint; “More Real Than Reality Itself” (2014), multichannel video installation, color, sound, 54 min

Part of the problem of politically minded art in a setting like the Whitney Biennial is that its surroundings are unfavorable. In a show of such scale, viewers often gravitate to larger, flashier works and don’t have the energy or time to do the reading required to understand projects such as Lonidiers’. (Why linger on wall text when you could walk fewer than 10 feet to the Bjarne Melgaard room, which the artist has tricked out with plush, trippy furniture and oversexed female mannequins?) In this biennial, too, a fair amount of the political work is from the past, making it feel less relevant to the present day. (Catherine Opie and Richard Hawkins have curated a room of appealingly strange paintings by Tony Greene, who died of complications from AIDS in 1990 and whom Hawkins calls “the first one out of all of us making work specifically about HIV.”) On top of that, some of the older work is presented in a pristine archival format, which makes it seem even more sealed-off and distant. (A room by Public Collectors on the Anthony Elms-curated second floor presents the archive of Malachi Ritscher, a Chicago experimental jazz enthusiast and activist. It contains mostly music recordings and memorabilia arrayed neatly in glass cases, above which one well-composed photograph of Ritscher protesting hangs on the wall.)

Public Collectors' Malachi Ritscher archive

Public Collectors’ Malachi Ritscher archive

There is much more to come in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, as the performances, videos, and other time-based works are unveiled. Who knows what political ideas may yet unfold. But right now the exhibition’s three floors offer a kind of cozy art cocoon — a sentiment not nearly as distanced from the art fairs as some observers would like to think.

The 2014 Whitney Biennial opens to the public on Friday, March 7, and continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 25.


Your Guide To The Artists Of The 2014 Whitney Biennial

Posted: 03/06/2014 8:43 am EST Updated: 03/06/2014 8:59 am EST

The 77th Whitney Biennial opens Friday, transforming the Madison Avenue museum into a dizzying and somewhat overwhelming sketch of the contemporary art world, as well as a prediction of its future. This year’s crop of 103 participants features artists and collectives ranging from age 28 to 89, hailing from everywhere from Kingston, Jamaica to Berlin, Germany.

Offering everything from sound installations to arts and crafts, this year’s Biennial promises to be “one of the broadest and most diverse takes on art in the United States that the Whitney has offered in many years,” according to chief curator Donna De Salvo. This year’s art fest is divided into three separate floors, each designated by a different curator — MoMA’s Stuart Comer, ICA Philadelphia curator Anthony Elms, and Chicago-based artist and professor Michelle Grabner. While each curator brings a different perspective to the mix, all are focused on including artistic perspectives not grounded in New York.

How are you ever going to navigate 103 of the most exciting artists of today (and tomorrow)? We’ve picked out ten artist’s we’re particularly excited for to give you a taste of what’s out there. For the other 93, you’ll have to make your way to the Whitney. Behold, 10 Whitney Biennial artists we can’t wait to see.

1. Pedro Vélez.Born 1973 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Lives and works in Chicago, IL, and Milwaukee, WI.


White Privilege in Art CriticismWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
Apocalypse Now. Watched with my dad when I was a kid and it fucked me up.

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
Handmade posters and banners about white privilege in art criticism and American (USA!) society in general.
2. Victoria Fu. Born 1978 in Santa Monica, CA. Lives and works in San Diego, CA, and Los Angeles, CA.


Belle CaptiveWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
Pamela M. Lee took our “Feminist Legacies in Contemporary Art” class to a space that is now CCA Wattis Center. It was all very new to me, and when I encountered Adrian Piper’s “Cornered,” a video monitor pinned by an overturned table, it was like her video image could see right through me. Piper, looking directly at the camera, was addressing me — a feeling both alienating and intimate — collapsing her present with mine. I obviously haven’t soon forgotten the power of her words, her gaze, her moment.

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
My roots lie in narrative cinema, and I feel very much wedged between the experimental analog films that were heavy influences on me as a student, and more recently the rabbit hole we have all fallen through — namely, the internet, virtuality and the digital touchscreen. At its very base, my work is an expression of these elements, combining both original 16mm film and appropriated, lo-res clips from the internet. I’ll be installing a moving image installation in the Lobby Gallery in early May. The multi-projection piece from the Belle Captive series plays with our actual space, cinematic projected space and computer screen space.
3. Louise Fishman. Born 1939 in Philadelphia, PA. Lives and works in New York, NY.


Crossing the RubiconWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
On a personal level, a painting by my paternal aunt, Razel Kapustin, of starving children. I was nine or 10 years old at the time. Secondly, paintings in the Philadelphia Museum and at the Barnes Foundation by Chaim Soutine.

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
There are two of my paintings in the Whitney Biennial: “Crossing the Rubicon” and “Ristretto.” Both were inspired by residencies in Venice, courtesy of the Emily Harvey Foundation in 2011 and in 2013. The paintings reflect the transformative power of water, light, and the formidable Titians, Tintorettos, Veroneses, etc., as well as the exquisite Murano glass of the early to mid-20th century.

Who else’s work are you most excited for at the Biennial?
Without question, the paintings of Dona Nelson.
4. A.L. Steiner. Born 1967 in Miami, FL. Lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.


More Real Than Reality Itself, 2014, digital videoBriefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
Documentary realness.

What is your biggest distraction from working?
5&6. Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. Drucker: Born 1983 in Syracuse, NY. Ernst: Born 1982 in Pomona, CA. Live and work in Los Angeles, CA.


Relationship, #____What was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
ZD: Arian Piper’s Cornered – one of my all-time favorites.
RE: Superstar by Todd Haynes

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
ZD & RE: “Relationship” is a photographic series we created that documents our five plus years together. It’s 46 images on view on the 3rd floor and the work shows our evolution as people, as a couple, and throughout our gender transitions. “She Gone Rogue” is a 22-minute fantastical narrative film starring Flawless Sabrina, Holly Woodlawn and Vaginal Davis. It will play in the lobby gallery from March 26 to April 13.

Flawless Sabrina will be doing tarot readings at her apartment across the street from the museum as an auxiliary event connected to the Biennial and also to “She Gone Rogue.” Additionally, we are staging a live TV Talk show in the museum lower lobby on April 4 for the public programming portion of the Biennial.
7. Alma Allen. Born 1970 in Heber City, UT. Lives and works in Joshua Tree, CA


What was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
The Clyfford Still paintings at SFMOMA.

What is your biggest distraction from working?
My best distraction from working is my daughter Frieda.
8. Lisa Anne Auerbach. Born 1967 in Ann Arbor, MI. Lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.


Let the Dream Write ItselfWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
The majesty of King Tut’s first visit to the U.S. in 1977, followed soon after by Steve Martin’s song abut the ancient ruler demonstrated that humor could be both a celebration and a critique. As a child, I was also quite mystified by John McCracken’s red plank at the Art Institute of Chicago and delighted by the grotesqueness of Ivan Albright.

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
A large knitted banner, three knitted outfits, and Issue #2 of an oversized zine called American Megazine.

What is your biggest distraction from working?
Distraction is part of work.

Who else’s work are you most excited for at the Biennial?
Keith Mayerson. We’ve known one another for 25 years and we’re both thrilled to be showing in the same room together.
9. Keith Mayerson. Born 1966 in Cincinnati, OH. Lives and works in New York, NY.


Abraham LincolnWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
When I was first out of college and living in New York in the early ’90s I saw one of the first Mike Kelley shows with the stuffed animals on the blankets, and it was a revelation, a post post modernism. Duchamp-like-readymades, but with warmth, narrative, and emotion, that addressed their context within art history, but also left room for transcendence and the ineffable. After seeing the show I wanted, in the hubris of my youth, to start an art movement called NeoIntegrity, and went to grad school in Southern California to be an artist.

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
“My American Dream” is a salon-style installation of 42 paintings created primarily over the last 10 years (although a few others from the beginning decade of my career also slipped in), that is an open-ended, non-linear narrative of my own life with my husband and family, embedded in a comic-like arrangement of images from cultural and political histories of civil rights and personal agency that helped make our country great and gave me inspiration.

What is your biggest distraction from working?
I love teaching, but perhaps this isn’t a distraction as much as its an extension of my own work as an artist — art is about teaching, and in the still rarefied world of fine art, its incredibly edifying to help others help themselves in finding their voice in their work, hopefully also bringing their work to the world to make it a better place.

Who else’s work are you most excited for at the Biennial?
Lisa Anne Auerbach, who serendipitously is my Biennial roommate, is an old friend — she was going out with my best friend Dan Knapp, and we all worked in his mother’s house in Colorado on our art together to go to grad school in Southern California, and although we went to different schools, would all hang out together in LA in the early ’90s, and its an incredible wonder that we are now sharing the same room. Her work and sensibility is fantastic, and we are fellow travelers in our art in many respects.
10. Miguel Gutierrez. Born 1971 in Flushing, NY. Lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.


Photo by Eric McNattWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
It was probably seeing “West Side Story” on television. Or maybe it was seeing the nearly naked dancers at the Folies Bergere in Paris when I was 12. I can’t remember.

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
“Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/” is a duet for dancer Mickey Mahar and myself. It’s the first of a three part series of queer pieces looking at artist burnout, mid career artist status dramas, how to queer the present and the future, and the labor of dancing.

What is your biggest distraction from working?
Answering emails like these. Endless insecurity. Facebook. Porn.

The Whitney Biennial runs from March 7 until May 25, 2014 at the Whitney Museum in New York.



On View

The 2014 Whitney Biennial Disappoints, With Misfires, Omissions, Only Glimmers of Greatness

'Threshold' (2013) by Walsh. (Photo by Steven Probert, courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery)

‘Threshold’ (2013) by Walsh. (Photo by Steven Probert, courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery)

From the moment that the Whitney Museum revealed that the 2014 biennial would have three curators, each organizing a show on a separate floor, I’ve been worrying. The decision sounded like an abdication of responsibility, a downgrading of the museum’s trademark show, and a recipe for a colossal disaster.

I was wrong. This year’s biennial is not a disaster, but neither is it anything close to a success. It is deeply dissatisfying—a wunderkammer-like, all-over-the-place show that offers some remarkable pleasures and far too many enervating frustrations. It pulls you in not three, but dozens of different directions, plenty of which are dead ends. The quality of the art is dramatically uneven, the tone uncertain. Some work agilely somersaults forward. Too much is frighteningly adrift. There are baffling omissions.

The thrill of the biennial has always been its attempt to capture the moment, presenting the public a view on art today. This three-part approach amounts to a dodge, an attempt to please too many constituencies that will instead please no one. With 103 participants—twice the number in 2012’s excellent, poetic edition, which was organized by Jay Sanders and Elisabeth Sussman, Whitney curators who advised this year’s triumvirate—the overstuffed biennial is back, shortchanging artists.

'Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell (from The Birmingham Project)' (2012) by Bey. (Courtesy the artist)

‘Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell (from The Birmingham Project)’ (2012) by Bey. (Courtesy the artist)

In a sense, though, it feels like an honest description of today’s art world, which is deeply riven, between money and the museum, pop culture and the underground, and marked by competing visions. The biennial captures—or is perhaps just caught up in—this fraught, tense moment, but is unable to make anything fruitful out of it.

You sense that tension from the moment you enter the show and hear Sergei Tcherepnin’s clever sound piece, made with transducers attached to the lights in the lobby of the Breuer building. It crackles and clicks and squeals—discomfiting noise made by the creaks and vibrations of the institution itself.

Climb the stairwell and you find speaker after speaker letting out harsh, buzzy drones, occasionally interrupted by frightful chanting. It’s the work of experimental music doyen Charlemagne Palestine, who spent time in the stairwell recording it (his customary glass of cognac in hand, a placard notes), evoking the artistic ghosts who haunt it, and the backdrop of history against which artists must now act.

Keep climbing. I recommend, while your eyes are still fresh, starting on the action-packed fourth floor, which belongs to the painter and professor Michelle Grabner, who is based in Chicago, runs alternative spaces in Oak Park, Ill., and Little Wolf, Wisc., and is responsible for about half the show’s participants. It’s a barnburner of an expressionist painting display, rich with women artists, and an inclusive, rollicking celebration of craft.

'Untitled' (2013) by Allen. (Courtesy the artist)

‘Untitled’ (2013) by Allen. (Courtesy the artist)

It’s mayhem up there!  Thick streams of fabric in pungent colors spill down from the ceiling, the work of artist Sheila Hicks, who is 80 this year, not far from three large, brash ceramic urns, oozing with lava, by Sterling Ruby. The excellent New Yorker Dona Nelson has two large paintings that she’s dyed wildly and stitched with rambling string. They jut from the wall, so you can savor both sides of them. They dazzle, as do two precise geometric abstractions by Dan Walsh.

Ms. Grabner comes dangerously close to overcrowding her show. These works are breathing, but barely. With 36 artists on the floor (more are elsewhere), there’s only room for a single, superb painting by Laura Owens, an Angeleno who is easily one of today’s most exciting painters, making magic out of a spliced cartoon, grids and marks, which she subtly tangles Photoshop-style on her canvases. With two or three more (at least), you could get a sense of her range (ditto for the strong, sparkling Jacqueline Humphries), but instead they have to share the floor with a bevy of weak abstractions, by Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Suzanne McClelland and Tony Lewis.

Potentially daring moments always feel close at hand, if only they could have been fleshed out. There are a few beautiful portraits that address the legacy of racial violence by Dawoud Bey (plus, speaking of tension, one of President Obama), two elegant works by the late, great Pictures Generation artist Sarah Charlesworth, a lone Gretchen Bender (lovingly remade by Phillip Vanderhyden). The stop-motion animation of an two men playing a form of proto-tennis, by Joshua Mosley, is a gem, but it’s only three minutes long. Again and again you will yearn for more.

Those who regularly mourn the lack of ravishment in biennials will at least be heartened by Ms. Grabner’s celebration of the hard-won and handmade, in a long shelf of some 70 humble ceramics by Shio Kusaka that ooze dedication, plus Ken Price-worthy walnut and marble forms by Alma Allen and slow-burn ceramics from veteran John Mason.

'Five Senses for One Death' (1969) by Adnan. (Photo by Chris Austen, courtesy the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts)

‘Five Senses for One Death’ (1969) by Adnan. (Photo by Chris Austen, courtesy the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts)

The visual punch decreases with each floor, reaching a kind of steady state on floor three, in the hands of Stuart Comer, a former Tate curator who recently became head of performance and media art at the Museum of Modern Art. He delivers the strongest section, with 23 artists, gamely mixing media and championing multi-taskers, beginning with a decisive palate cleanser in the form of 89-year-old Lebanese-born polymath Etel Adnan, whose ingenious scrolls (admixtures of painting and text) and spare canvases of the view from her Bay Area window set the tone, radiating a warmth that is intimate and personal.

Secrets are being shared on floor three; bodies are morphing, writhing and posing. Keith Mayerson has hung, salon-style, a sublime and idiosyncratic vision of Americana, with Abraham Lincoln, Superman, James Dean (masturbating in a tree) and more. Jacolby Satterwhite, who is among the youngest artists here, has a bewitching video in which he hurtles in costume through interstellar space, time and identities. Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst document, in heartrending photos, their sex changes, male to female and female to male. Bjarne Melgaard steals the show with a madcap, hellish lounge-lair filled with lugubrious sofas, absurd projections, vacuums, sex dolls, penis dolls and a holographic monitor of monkeys mating. It all apparently has to do with our overheating, out-of-control age—the anthropocene—and it does not suggest things are going to turn out so well.

'Transit,' video still from 'Reifying Desire 6' (2014) by Satterwhite. (Courtesy Monya Rowe Gallery and Mallorca Landings Gallery)

‘Transit,’ video still from ‘Reifying Desire 6′ (2014) by Satterwhite. (Courtesy OHWOW, Los Angeles, and Mallorca Landings Gallery)

Mr. Melgaard is one of the few real New York stars here. Even if biennials are no longer as much about who’s in and who’s out in any given year, it’s shocking that not one artist from the exciting, fast-emerging gangs who have been featured in recent shows at MoMA PS1—and even the 2013 Lyon Biennale—is here.

Bland conceptual-architectural works, the bane of curatorial-intensive biennials, put a drag on things in Mr. Comer’s section, particularly from Morgan Fisher and Yve Laris Cohen, who parrot institutional critiques that we’ve heard about for decades. Meanwhile, bland paintings by Dashiell Manley, which are displayed in an inconceivably large faux storage space, figure in an equally bland stop-motion video (it’s time to kill off the painting-as-prop trope).

Thankfully, these whiffs are balanced out by Mr. Comer’s thoughtful, elegiac attention to history. He has intricate geometric drawings by the late Channa Horwitz, open-ended scores for other mediums, and gives a room to Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie to organize a show of the deliriously camp but seriously refined paintings of Tony Greene, who died in of AIDS in 1990, and another to curator Julie Ault, who features works and ephemera from her friends and collaborators, like the late Martin Wong and Matt Wolf, who recalls in an audio slide show how, as a teen in the 1990s, he typed “gay” and “art” into a search engine, and discovered David Wojnarowciz, another AIDS casualty, who was a redoubtable artist and activist. What more can we hope for from artists? (Not to mention our search engines?)

'Folk Tales' (2013) by von Heyl. (Photo by Jason Mandella, courtesy the artist and Petzel)

‘Folk Tales’ (2013) by von Heyl. (Photo by Jason Mandella, courtesy the artist and Petzel)

Anthony Elms, a curator at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, is asking something like that on the second floor, where visual delectation plummets almost to zero, saved only by two exuberant paintings by Rebecca Morris. (Even Charline von Heyl, typically a showstopper, delivers underwhelming black-and-white collages.)

A mournful tone prevails. There are stretches of white wall, empty spaces on the floor. Poet Susan Howe’s texts, lining one vitrine, are bare fragments, wasting away. Joseph Grigely includes archival materials from the late, murdered art critic Gregory Battock—iconoclastic articles and accounts of his sexual escapades (the remarkable backstory is worth reading in the biennial’s treasure-filled, if overstuffed, catalogue, to which—full disclosure—I contributed an interview). Marc Fischer, who runs a Chicago group called Public Collectors, stages a miniature memorial to Chicagoan Malachi Ritscher with iPods stocked with experimental music concerts that Ritscher taped in the Windy City from the 1980s until his 2006 death by self-immolation, protesting the Iraq War.

There are some fine moments—Michel Auder’s hypnotic, noir-filled video room (nighttime cityscapes, peeks through windows), Paul P.’s handsome desk and quiet drawings, truly odd, alluring sculptures by Carol Jackson and works by the late Terry Adkins, rods lined with cymbals that map the structure of birdcalls, all the while recalling medieval devices for violence—but they’re undercut by dry or slight works by Dave McKenzie, Gary Indiana and Allan Sekula.

Mr. Elms has vital ideas to share, like his positing an expansive definition of the artist that embraces anyone whose activities (collecting, archiving, cruising) take on aesthetic and ethical import through their care and devotion, but I kept wishing I could just read about it in a book.

'Untitled (#01-13)' (2013) by Morris. (Photo by Lee Thompson, courtesy the artist Galerie Barbara Weiss)

‘Untitled (#01-13)’ (2013) by Morris. (Photo by Lee Thompson, courtesy the artist Galerie Barbara Weiss)

More of the biennial will be unveiled in the coming weeks, with what looks like a potentially strong (and commendably manageable) video and performance program, including dance from Taisha Paggett, music from Pauline Oliveros and a new opera from the severely under-rated Robert Ashley, who passed away just days ago.

In the meantime, you can head downtown to find a monumental sculpture by Tony Tasset (part of Ms. Grabner’s section) along the Hudson on West 17th Street. It’s tiled with colored panels, engraved with almost 400,000 alphabetized names of artists from the 20th and 21st centuries. Mr. Tasset has discussed it as a way of removing hierarchy, of celebrating everyone equally. That’s of course diametrically opposed to the idea of a biennial, and so I was pretty much expecting to hate it, as a smug, self-satisfied display of overwrought conceptualism. And yet, searching through it, hunting for the names of artists who have meant a great deal to me, I found it to be a moving exercise, my eyes coasting across thousands of unknown artists and coming across other favorites along the way. It offered some consolation—a reminder that over time artists get sifted out of obscurity, that history gets reimagined. This year’s biennial may be a disappointment, but thousands of artists are hard at work, waiting in the wings. The 2016 biennial is not so far away.

(Through May 25, 2014)



ART MARCH 6, 2014

Whitney Biennial: The Most Narcissistic of all New York Art World Events

Does anybody actually remember the Whitney Biennial of two or ten or twenty years ago? I doubt many museumgoers remember any of them very clearly, if indeed they remember them at all. You don’t have to take my word for this. In the catalogue of the 2012 Biennial no less an authority than the Whitney’s very own director, Adam D. Weinberg, observes that “memories are relatively short.” So before I even walk into the 2014 Biennial, which is opening to the public this weekend, I thought I would try and refresh my memory about Biennials past, by pulling out of a closet the thirty years worth of Biennial catalogues that I have salted away.

Collection of the artist. Copyright Stephen Lacy
Academy Records’s still from The Bower, 2011-13.

The first thing to be said about the Biennial, which began in 1932, is how astonishing it is that after all these years people still care. Year after year, the critics and sundry cognoscenti conclude that the show is a mess of one kind or another. One year it seems to be a better sort of mess, another year worse, but there is something about the nature of the mess that keeps people coming. As Weinberg observes in the 2012 catalogue, there is a fascination in watching each new set of curators “wipe the slate clean” and “do something that contrasts with the previous one. It’s amazing that even in a short, two-year period, people want to put the prior one behind.” That remark brings us to the enduring electricity of these exhausting events. At least in the last thirty years, it’s become the out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new show, which sometimes involves recycling the old things as new things; after all, how much in the world is ever really new? The Biennial is the most purely narcissistic of all New York art world events, an orgy of navel-gazing that can leave a bad feeling—a sense of unease, if not disgust.  

There’s a but-enough-about-me-let’s-talk-about-me slant to a great many of the Whitney catalogues. “How can the Whitney Biennial remain relevant?” the curators asked in 2006. And in 2010, the curators explained that “if the curators of the 1993 Biennial were called to curate the 2006 Biennial, they would have shaped a completely different exhibition than the one they curated thirteen years before.” Jump to the 1993 Biennial and you find David A. Ross, the director of the museum at the time, announcing that the museum is “depart[ing] slightly from the organizing principles that have guided these exhibitions in the past two decades.” Four years later, Lisa Phillips, a Whitney curator, is announcing that the museum is “breaking with precedent,” while the Biennial after that is accompanied by a declaration that the six curators from across the country who have been assigned to organize the show will bring “fresh thinking … to a time-honored but ever-contentious exercise.”  So is it any wonder that when you open the catalogue of the 2014 Biennial you find that “the museum has taken this process of experimentation a step further?” A step, by the way, that sounds an awful lot like steps taken at one time or another in the past, “with two in-house curators acting in the role of advisors and three external curators asked to organize the exhibition.” The Biennial has been reorganized so many times that it’s a miracle it hasn’t been reorganized out of existence.

Although they nearly always contain work of some consequence, the overwhelming impression is of anxiety and hysteria.

The Whitney Biennials are restless, unwieldy, banal, belligerent, sporadically engaging, and at times just plain batty. Although they nearly always contain work of some consequence, the overwhelming impression is of anxiety and hysteria, a show that no matter how much it reaches beyond Manhattan tends to reflect the very worst of New York, the city’s vanity and one-upmanship and frenzied zeitgeist readings. It’s a show that demands a reaction, that demands to be new every time. The fever begins with the catalogues themselves, which for at least the past thirty years have been engineered for obsessive distinctiveness. No two are the same size or shape or color, and hardly any one of them can be said to be well designed. 2006 is thick and chunky, “designed and bound so that it can be pulled apart to create ninety-nine posters designed by the Biennial artists.” 2004, big and square and bound in grey velour, is accompanied by a box full of bumper stickers, decals, and assorted pamphlets and goodies by the artists in the show. 2002 sports a bright red CD on its cover, which suggests a high-tech bellybutton.

Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York. Photo by Jason Mandella
Charline von Heyl’s Folk Tales, 2013. Acrylic, ink, wax, and charcoal and collage on paper.

Back in 1995, when Klaus Kertess organized the Biennial, he titled his introductory essay “Postcards from Babel,” and that will do very nicely as a title for any Biennial of the past twenty years. Kertess, a man of refined sensibilities, thought to include an old-timer, the Abstract Expressionist painter Milton Resnick, in a lineup that emphasized recent stars such as Matthew Barney, Stan Douglas, Carroll Dunham, and Cindy Sherman. Something-old-something-new is a reliable Biennial trope, with this year’s sentimental favorite probably being the eighty-year-old fabric artist Sheila Hicks, whose finest work is very fine indeed. Kertess hoped that there was some kind of mysterious metaphoric language—a language that emphasized “visual plasticity, ambiguity, and multivalence”—that might knit together the Babel of the Biennial. But my exceedingly vague memories of Kertess’s Biennial—refreshed with a look at “War Stories,” an essay I wrote at the time and included in my book Eyewitness—suggests that finally Kertess didn’t do much better than any other curator before or since. I will, though, take Kertess’s hipster aestheticism in 1995 over the emphasis on “the geopolitical, the psychosocial, and the body’s politic” of the 1993 Biennial.

Courtesy of the artist
Alma Allen’s Untitled, 2013. Marble sculpture on an oak pedestal.

As for the 2014 Biennial, isn’t it a fact that everybody is approaching the show with the expectation that it’s going to be Babel all over again? Perhaps a somewhat different brand of Babel, but Babel nevertheless. Because this is the last Biennial to be held in the Whitney building designed by Marcel Breuer on Madison Avenue—the museum moves to new quarters in the Meatpacking District in 2015—there may even be more narcissism and navel-gazing than in some Biennials past. The self-reflexiveness begins with the mottled textures on the cover of the 2014 catalogue. I had no idea that there was some particular significance to these patterns, until I read the catalogue introduction by curators Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner, in which the patterns are said to “come from rubbings of the surfaces of the Breuer building.” This building, much maligned as an upside-down ziggurat when it first opened in 1966, is now regarded by some as an idiosyncratic architectural masterstroke. The “rubbings” from the building’s uneven surfaces (I am quoting the curators) become “a motif meant to ground the reader of the wide-ranging content in the physical facts of the exhibition experience”—a motif that appears not only on the cover but on decorative pages within the catalogue.

Anybody who has followed the Whitney’s furious battle to remodel or reconfigure or entirely reject the Breuer building will be amused by this sudden burst of sentiment. The building is being treated as if it were an old gravestone in a New England cemetery—an object of veneration. The Whitney gang hasn’t even left Madison Avenue and they’re repackaging the building for nostalgia value. That’s certainly in line with the Biennial mentality, which holds that only when you are safely speeding into the future can you afford to look back. As for the curators who are in charge this year, they’re stuck in exactly the same place as every Biennial curator has been for the past thirty years, excited to be “rethink[ing] how American art is understood, articulated, and debated.” One of these eons, the curators might try thinking instead of rethinking.



An Opinionated Guide To The 2014 Whitney Biennial

Matt Hammer’s Tomorrow is Still Above You (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

Didn’t Gothamist already post about this?
Yes, we did, in fact! The excellent preview by Ben Miller would be a strong introduction if you stopped reading now. But you already clicked and the money is in the bank, so read on for a fuller picture of the show.

Fine. What is the Whitney Biennial?
The Whitney Biennial is a once-every-two-years (“biennial”) exhibition presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art (“Whitney”) of mostly new and emerging contemporary American artists. The Whitney has been putting on large group exhibitions for nearly 100 years, but the biennial format only began in 1973. It is first and foremost an exercise in curation, and this year the Whitney invited outside curators to put together the show, culminating in its distinct format and (sometimes) unique results.

Is it fascist?
Well, that depends on how you feel about museums. (At the Frick they force you to WEAR your overcoat if you decide not to check it!) But seriously, though the Biennial is mostly uncontroversial in a larger, more general sense, it is routinely the target of familiar and valid criticisms from within and without the art world. As recently as 2012 a parody Biennial website mocked the exhibition’s corporate ties.

The most notable (and sustained) criticisms were made by the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous feminist art collective formed in 1985 in New York City, active through the late 1990s, and still working today, who in 1987 protested the Biennial to draw attention to the dearth of female and minority artists in the showcase. “The Guerrilla Girls Review The Whitney” was held at the non-profit Clocktower gallery, where the group denounced the systemic disenfranchisement of women in the history of the Biennial up until that point (for the seven exhibitions from 1973-1987, the number of women of color in the Biennial was a “statistically insignificant 0.3%”). In 1987, women were a mere 27% of artists in the Biennial.

Guerrilla Girls Poster via

2014’s Biennial is still not immune to these criticisms: by one early estimate, roughly 30% are women and 7% are black. Is it a coincidence that this year’s only female curator assembled the most diverse collection? Should I disclose that I am a white male now or later?

So? What’s the big deal?
However you slice it, it’s just one of the biggest art-world events in one of the biggest centers of the art-world in one of the most famous museums in one of the biggest cities in the United States. The Whitney Biennial exists, and you most certainly will be hearing about it.

This year’s Biennial is taking on a slightly different format: three curators from outside the Whitney were invited to organize their own show on one of the museum’s three main floors. Anthony Elms, Stuart Comer, and Michelle Grabner took over the second, third, and fourth floors respectively. Elms is an associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia (read a nice Q&A with him here), Comer is the Media and Performance Art Curator at the MoMa, and Grabner is an artist and professor at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Let’s get to it, then!
There is a lot to get through: 103 artists and groups make up the 3.5-ish floor exhibition, so this will mostly highlight the pieces I liked the most and try to provide a sense of the three distinct floors. Am I qualified to do so? No, but neither are art historians, because art history is saturated with hired bullshit.

The Second Floor
Each level opens with a curator’s statement summarizing their approach to their exhibition floor. Elm’s guiding question for the second floor was the