Hi Concept


Left: MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach with MoMA associate director Kathy Halbreich. Right: Artist Sturtevant with Walker Art Center curator Peter Eleey. (All photos: David Velasco)

THE BODY HAD BEEN BURIED and the time capsules unearthed by the time I arrived in Minneapolis last weekend for the opening of “The Quick and the Dead,” Peter Eleey’s intelligent and elusive exhibition of conceptual art at the Walker Art Center. The show is flush with paradoxes and brainy feints and lunges; things are rarely what they seem. “It’s a big book to be read closely,” said one of the artists, Mark Manders.

The Walker is the perfect place for such a difficult show; indeed, many attendees will already be equipped with an instinctive theoretical compass. This is a city, after all, whose residents are educated in a highly cultivated form of dissembling: Minnesota Nice. (Its coastal variant is Passive Aggressive.) Minnesota Nice dovetailed with good old regular nice throughout Friday’s opening reception and dinner, and the pair somehow added up to a pervasive, lambent cheer. Occasionally, the niceness would swell into its lesser-known superlative form, Minnesota Effusive, as when Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs strode into a gallery and announced, “This is the best show I’ve seen in years!”

I thought it was good, too: handsomely installed, with a number of exceptional works, some old, some new. As I walked through the exhibition, a few pieces stood out as too self-consciously profound for my taste (“long on dead, short on quick,” reported one critic while eyeing a taxidermied owl), and though there was plenty of room for irony, there was little for its inbred sister, sass. But I particularly liked Trisha Donnelly’s pair of peculiar sphinxes decorated with pillows and nautical lights and Michael Sailstorfer’s clever 16-mm loop of a shed caught exploding in medias res. The aforementioned “body”—a skeleton courtesy Kiki Smith, who got it from David Wojnarowicz—buried on the Walker grounds by Kris Martin, was another winner, as was Steven Pippin’s anachronistic Fax 69. Great works by Louise Lawler and Robert Barry bookend the exhibition at its entrances. Barry’s otherwise grumpy mien cracked a bit when talking about the show. “I hope it works out for Peter.”

Left: Joel Wachs, president of the Warhol Foundation. Right: Artists Robert Barry and Susan Philipsz.

According to a brief primer printed in the elegant dinner invite, “The Quick and the Dead” explores “the romantic legacy of conceptual art.” This is a topic also treated, somewhat more didactically, in Jörg Heiser’s 2007 exhibition “Romantic Conceptualism,” though Eleey’s preference here for James Lee Byars over Bas Jan Ader and George Brecht over Yoko Ono perhaps speaks to a more refined (or less “populist”) set of curatorial concerns. This is a project that Eleey has been honing for some time. “It’s ‘Strange Powers’ grown up,” extolled 303 Gallery director Mari Spirito, who pointed to the 2006 show he cocurated with Laura Hoptman for Creative Time.

After a brief reception in the galleries, a couple hundred of us repaired to the upstairs lounge for the museum’s official dinner (a vegetarian affair—likely a fiscal rather than ethical decision). Remarks were brief and jocular. (Walker director Olga Viso: “I’d like to thank the people who made the exhibition possible, as well as those who made Peter possible. Could Peter’s parents please stand up?”) Eleey, wearing a smart suit and a chicly incongruous pair of size-12 women’s silver Comme des Garçons loafers, was basking in the hoopla’s glow. “It’s like a big party for me!” he beamed. Sharing the bill was former Walker director Kathy Halbreich, who was celebrating a certain birthday. (Don’t ask me which one, but it seemed important.) Servers brought out a cake with candles, and the room broke into caterwauling song.

Near midnight, a handful of us took a shuttle around the corner to the Pasolini-esque Basilica of Saint Mary, where organist Christopher Stroh reprised John Cage’s Organ²/ASLSP—a saturnine tune, the length of which is left up to the player. (Stroh only went on for an hour, but some Cage apostles in Germany are slated to play it for 639 years.) Eleey, artists Pierre Huyghe and Susan Philipsz, dealers Tanya Bonakdar, Spirito, Rodney Hill, and Jane Hait, the Walker’s Andria Hickey, UMMA curator Jacob Proctor, and I all sat in our pews in solemn, dutiful observance of the Art—for about ten minutes, after which we began chatting among ourselves. Some sanctimonious teenagers a few aisles up shushed us. “This deserves a Facebook status update,” whispered Proctor blithely. He began to fiddle with his phone.

Left: Wallspace Gallery director Jane Hait. Right: Dia director Philippe Vergne.

The next day, after a pleasant brunch (a veritable United Nations of Nice) at the home of collectors Lisa and Pat Denzer, I drove back to the museum to catch Sturtevant’s talk. With a bit of time to spare, Hait and I ventured out to see Huyghe’s Cage-inspired wind chimes in the sculpture garden. An uncanny ambient hum resonates amid the euphonious clinks. We were both at a loss for words, until Hait propounded that it was “super-intense, in a weird way,” which still seems the most apt summation.

I entered the lecture hall and sat down with Donnelly and writer Bruce Hainley, who, along with Sturtevant, had early on secured their position as the weekend’s Heathers; every time I saw them, I knew I was in the right place. Bruce is writing a book on Sturtevant that will no doubt be hott.

The witty grand dame kicked it off with a reading of two prior, published interviews, the delivery of which roiled the audience to laughter. (Interviewer: “What was the first piece of art that really mattered to you?” Sturtevant: “I don’t think it was art.”) After two erudite papers on more esoteric topics—“Modes of Thought” and “The Transgression of Visual Desire”—she turned to the audience for questions. The discourse, strained due to sound problems, at one point verged on the pedantic, with Sturtevant proposing that one flustered inquirer, who asked about the philosopher Irigaray (“I can barely hear you. Are you saying revigorize?” Sturtevant asked), should “try reading Foucault and Deleuze.” This may be the land of Garrison Keillor and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but it’s also home to the august University of Minnesota Press, and telling a roomful of Minnesotans at a Walker lecture to “read these thinkers first without trying to understand, then try reading again,” is a bit like encouraging Oprah to check out Toni Morrison.

By the end, though, the audience was again on Sturtevant’s side as she recounted a meeting (“years ago”) with Warhol outside an exhibition of his “Oxidation” paintings.

“So, Elaine,” went Warhol, “why don’t you do one of my piss paintings?”

“But Andy, I don’t have the right equipment.”

“Well, Bianca did one,” he helpfully noted.

“Shit,” Sturtevant said. “I didn’t know she had a prick.”

Warhol turned red, or so the story goes; everyone else laughed at the point scored. The lesson here: Sturtevant always has the last word, and she is anything but nice.

David Velasco

Left: 303 Gallery director Mari Spirito with Midway Contemporary Art director John Rasmussen. Right: Walker Art Center trustee Patrick Denzer, Walker Art Center director Olga Viso, and artist Cameron Gainer.

Left: Artist Mark Manders. Right: Collector Lisa Denzer with artist Michael Sailstorfer.

Left: Walker Art Center trustee Peter Remes. Right: Organist Christopher Stroh.

Left: A performer in a Bruce Nauman piece. Right: Writer Jason Baker and artist Jay Heikes at a benefit for Midway Contemporary Art.