• performance April 20, 2018

    She's Lost Control

    A COLLEAGUE ONCE QUIPPED that the imposing, concrete building of the Volksbühne Berlin looked like it was ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics. “A superhero headquarters for all the dads,” she joked, playfully pointing to the fact that the German theater has traditionally been a home to showcase the work of cisgendered, heterosexual, white, “bad boy” auteurs. While the artistic provocations of the Volksbühne were once confined to the stage, the controversy associated with the theater recently bled out beyond the the playing space. The institution’s director, Chris Dercon, abruptly resigned in

  • John Elderfield

    IN MARCH JOHN ELDERFIELD was appointed chief curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He succeeds Kirk Varnedoe, who left the post (often called the most powerful in the art world) to join the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2001 [see Artforum, January 2002]. Elderfield has held various curatorial positions at the museum since 1975; his most recent, chief curator at large, will now be occupied by another long-time MoMA curator, Kynaston McShine. Fourth in a line of staunch modernists—Varnedoe’s predecessors

  • James Rosenquist

    As an art student at the University of Minnesota, James Rosenquist found work painting grain elevators and storage tanks. He also learned the billboard painter’s trade and later, as a Pop artist, made art of images scaled up to the hypervisibility of the signage along America’s highways and in its big cities. Soon after his first show at New York’s Green Gallery, in 1962, Rosenquist emerged as the sole practitioner of what might be called the Times Square sublime—in contrast to the abstract sublime of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.

    Organized by Walter Hopps and Sarah Bancroft, the Houston

  • Leon Polk Smith

    LEON POLK SMITH was born in what was then known as Indian Territory and a year later, in 1907, as Oklahoma. Both his parents were part Cherokee, and many of their neighbors were Chickasaws and Choctaws. Smith was to speak with warmth about the Native American stories, songs, and rituals he learned as a child. His heritage would put him at odds neither with contemporary America nor with Modernism; in fact the spirituality of the Native Americans, he felt, attuned him to the present and its possibilities.

    Attending Oklahoma State College as a young man, Smith passed an open door that showed him an

  • New World Order

    NEAR THE BEGINNING OF “Willem de Kooning: Paintings” are the pictures of seated women the artist painted in the early ’40s. Made with delicate, muscular lines and hot colors, these images show the artist’s elegance, his knack for the flattening and slippage of forms, and the high-flash sexiness that de Kooning, a Calvinist born in 1904, was happy to call “vulgar” but that nowadays looks like standard urban allure.1 The stylistic sources of these imaginary portraits were no mystery, especially not to him. In the catalogue of the show, which debuted earlier this year at the National Gallery of


    JEFF KOONS HAS DISPLACED much from the larger world to the world of art—objects and the forms of objects, images, and genres of narrative. Among his displaced objects are basketballs and vacuum cleaners. The forms he has displaced include that of a toy rabbit, which was made of inflatable plastic when he found it. To present this form in the art world, he cast it in stainless steel. Having found other forms in kitsch statuettes of various sorts, he has had them reproduced with meticulous care, often at enormous size. Thus a small ceramic figure of a bathing woman becomes larger than life. With


    FASHION IS EPHEMERAL. Those who are concerned with fashion have a motive to deny this, to say, no, you don’t understand: of course it is true that clothes are different every year, for it is only through change that standards can be maintained; only shifting restlessly, alert to the world’s alterations, can the ideal of timeless elegance manifest itself in the new season, now, at this instant. Those who are concerned with fashion also have reason to agree that it is ephemeral, to say, yes, how could it be otherwise: of course clothes have a fresh look each year, for only by renewing itself can


    TO HAVE AN EFFECT, art must find an audience. To find an audience, it generally not only makes its peace with art-world institutions but actively collaborates with them. By collaborating with the most powerful institutions in its immediate neighborhood, art compromises its attack on the institutions of the larger society.

    Critics often praise art for offering a critique of institutions, especially those of the commercial media, and it’s true that artists have labored to supply the criticism that institutions so obviously need. They have also tried to circumvent the necessity of collaboration with


    “THE DANDY,” WROTE THE English belle-lettrist Cyril Connolly, “is but the larval form of a bore.”1 He registered this opinion in 1960, after England had weathered two world wars and, four years earlier, had watched its last grand imperial gesture end in fiasco at Suez. Connolly believed that an England bereft of empire must now make itself felt in the world chiefly as a civilizing example; a new sort of authority would have to be claimed, a gracious prestige that excessive affectation would undermine. In the political circumstances of Britain in 1960, to charge the dandy with incipient tediousness

  • James Bishop: Remembering How to See

    IN RECENT SEASONS, JAMES BISHOP has painted on smallish pieces of paper, usually eight inches by ten, though he sometimes works on a sheet eight inches square. Never does the image look squared away: faint blues and luminous grays arrange themselves to suggest architectural ascension, a structured upwardness. Pencil lines reinforce these suggestions with stepped and peaked forms—terse hieroglyphs for house or tower. This vertical tendency (for it refuses to become a definite policy) is new in Bishop’s art. From the late ’60s to the early ’80s he built nearly all his images from the halves and

  • The Adventure of the Third Essay

    This is the third of a series of articles on sight. The first, “Bagpipes on the Shore,” was published in October 1986; the second, “I Like the Free World,” in February 1987.

    AN UNKNOWN PARTY HAS KIDNAPPED the Duke of Holdernesse’s only son. At the desperate urgings of the boy’s headmaster, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson rush north from London to “the cold bracing atmosphere of the Peak country”—the “Hallamshire” uplands where the crime took place. After a preliminary reconnaissance of the grounds where the boy was last seen, Holmes examines “a large ordnance map of the neighbourhood.” Placing a


    This is the second in a series of articles on sight. The first, “Bagpipes on the Shore,” was published in October 1986.

    STEREOTYPE CAN’T MAKE UP its mind about Brazil. The paintings of Frans Post exhibit analogous uncertainties. In 1637 Count Johann Maurits of Nassau-Siegen, newly appointed governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil, included Post in the contingent of artists and scientists he brought with him to the New World. Post left seven years later. In country, he saw Brazil as an underfurnished immensity, a new world with the look of a nonworld. Back in the Netherlands, he remembered Brazil


    TOURISM IS A MONUMENT’S best preservative. In 1722, Jonathan Richardson reported to the London public that for ten hours he had lingered in the Florentine Tribuna, unable to take his eyes off the Venus de’ Medici. Decades later, British tourists still felt obliged to let the statue overwhelm their sensibilities. In his travel journal the historian Edward Gibbon said this Venus belongs “among the small number of objects able to surpass one’s most fervent hopes. From the cradle I had heard tell of the Venus de’ Medici; books, conversation, prints and models have put it before my eyes a thousand

  • The Big Fight.

    MODERN LIFE HAS TAKEN an odd turn in the last few years. We are Post-Moderns now. That, anyway, is the claim made by some. Among those declaring the end of Modern times are journalists who use “Post-Modern” to signify their professionalism, their command of current trends and buzzwords. Others are theorists who argue that modern life, modernity, and Modernism are all over, that we’ve entered a new cultural period. These thinkers include certain philosophers, critics, artists, and architects, though it is not always clear what “Post-Modern” means to each. So far it is a nebulous, incoherent

  • Close encounters with unidentified flying zeitgeists.

    FROM OUTPOSTS BEYOND THE borders of the art world, observers often accuse art and artists of being fashionable. The charge is old and the defense familiar: what you call a fashion, we call a trend. Trends aren’t just the latest buzz. They’re significant. Read them right and you discover the true nature of the present. You get a glimpse of the future. Trends are patterns to be analyzed, codes to be broken.

    Jean-François Champollion looked like a hero to the Romantics because he deciphered the Rosetta Stone’s Egyptian hieroglyphics. Seeing endless hieroglyphics in the textures of ordinary forms

  • After the loss of Challenger, the cost of instant replay.

    ON FIRST VIEWING, THE IMAGE of the exploding space shuttle Challenger looked ungraspably awful. But instant replay soon turned first viewing into second viewing, then third, and fourth. Repeated over and over, the record of a terrifying malfunction became, with appalling speed, a static emblem. Repetition carried over from television to the covers of magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and The Economist, which all showed the explosive cloud. Here and abroad, newspapers had already run the same image in edition after edition.

    By the time schoolteacher/astronaut Christa McAuliffe’s face appeared on

  • How Scale Works.

    FOR EVERYONE TO HAVE a computer, or at least to contemplate getting one, the scale of the object had to shrink from room size to the dimensions of a smallish television set. Now that the computer has been shrunk some more, you can carry it like a briefcase.

    Function dictates dimensions, but not without leaving room for thoroughly nonfunctional considerations. Ads for the Apple computer define it as “cute,” an unstated contrast to their competitor IBM’s “Personal Computer” campaign. Guess which computer looks—and, optical effects aside, actually is—larger. And there is no functional advantage to

  • the Manet tapes and more recent dupes.

    MOVIE MARQUEES ONCE READ, “Paul Newman Is Hud.” Today, the art marquee might as well read, ”Is Mike Bidlo Jackson Pollock?" Bidlo signals clearly enough that he’s nothing of the sort, but his Pollock impersonation is sharp enough to offer a warning—something’s up: some of us are still unable to abandon the faith that life travels in some chartable direction, so we try to run the historical tape in reverse.

    Around 1979 the art world rewound its tape to bring us back to the figure, to narrative, to painting. Those were the early days of the “Italian Invasion,” the ”German Invasion’: the American

  • AIDS. The buried allegory.

    Our fear of AIDS mimics the most ancient fears of cholera, bubonic plague, yellow fever. Plague panic feels justified, and simplifies our morality. Judgments arrive with the speed of terrified reflex—judgments about oneself, about others, about the future. That’s how the image of a plague permits us, encourages us, to react. Hope turns to medicine, not as a branch of science but as a latter-day source of miracles. Every lab worker becomes a potential San Gennaro, the saint who rescued Naples from the p]ague of 1656.

    The plague metaphor offers yet another sign that medieval, even pre-historical

  • Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris

    Thomas E. Crow, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), 292 pages, 150 black and white and 8 color illustrations.

    Art history struggles to ignore all issues but those raised by iconography, form, and artists’ biography The struggle usually succeeds. As practiced in universities and museums, respectable art history still has little to say about the cultural, social, and economic situations for art. Thus Thomas E. Crow’s Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris does not count as a work of art history, for it talks in