College Try


Left: Barkley Hendricks, corecipient of the CAA Artist Award for Distinguished Body of Work, and Susan Hendricks. Right: Art historian Griselda Pollock, winner of CAA’s Distinguished Feminist Award. (Photos: Bradley Marks)

“RIGHT NOW.” The words began, and were then woven into, a short but stirring presentation by a young academic who kicked off the Contemporary Art Historians panel toward the end of the multiday marathon (with some sessions this year going until 10 PM––really?) that is the College Art Association’s annual conference. By this point—the afternoon of day three at the Hyatt Regency beneath Wacker Drive in Chicago—absentees, pinch hitters, late additions, and substitute readers were old hat: So many people had been thwarted by snow on the East Coast that I had already adopted a “listen now, identify later” approach to panel going. The CAH’s session is always a big draw at CAA, with the highest chance for brainy “Oh no she didn’t!” moments, and energetic pop songs playing while people take their seats. (Those savvy, iPhone-equipped academics who’d bothered to download Shazam would have been able to identify the tunes.)

The man at the lectern told us that “we need to defamiliarize” the seriousness that “goes hand in hand with trying to be academic-businessmen.” I was impressed by his message and mesmerizing delivery. The confidence of this call to arms reminded me why I go to the conference. (A neighbor whispered that he was from the University of Chicago.) After three days during which artists, curators, art historians, and educators danced around their roles, I welcomed the cocksure manifesto he professed. It wasn’t until later that evening that Stacey Allan, editress of newly formed Los Angeles publication East of Borneo, told me that the opening act was delivered by 2010 Whitney Biennial participant Theaster Gates. An artist!

After Gates’s words, and with the knowledge that panelist Caroline Jones was among the many snowed out, I didn’t have the will to stick it out in the big ballroom; better to savor the moment. Checking my text messages outside, I found an enthusiastic “Passed!!!!” from former CAA president Nicola Courtright, currently my colleague at Amherst College. She was referring to the CAA membership ballot initiative to allow its board to appoint certain members with much-needed credentials to aid in fund-raising, etc., bringing the institution into the twenty-first century.

Left: Art historian Steven Nelson and Paul Jaskot, art historian and CAA board president. Right: Prentice Hall’s Sarah Touborg with art historian Richard Shiff, winner of CAA’s Distinguished Teaching of Art History Award. (Photos: Bradley Marks)

One of the most ubiquitous participants at the conference this year was Chicago-based artist Michelle Grabner, who chairs the painting department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, runs the Suburban Gallery with Brad Killam (where I will show next May), and cocurated the show “Picturing the Studio,” now on view at her college’s Sullivan Gallery. Grabner’s contributions here included a reading of her commissioned (but conspicuously unpublished) skeptical piece about Chicago’s social-practice purveyors Temporary Services, a panel titled “Opt Out of Obscurity” (which I, inspired, opted out of), and a gathering in which twelve New York, Chicago, and LA–based painters (or their representatives) spoke without the aid of visual reproductions about their beloved medium. Strong women artists were in full effect on this panel, and among the most poignant contributions was Rebecca Morris’s rumination on the problem of midcareer studio mind games. “How do you pull off the ninth solo show?” she challenged. “The fucking fifteenth?”

Hans Peter Sundquist, who runs the Chicago gallery Julius Caesar with, among others, the impressive Molly Zuckerman-Hartung (“both ambition and failure are embarrassing now”), came up from the audience to perform brilliantly a 98 percent vowel script (think Old MacDonald via Andrea Fraser) on behalf of Jon Pestoni. “Relaxed old dude” Thomas Lawson reminded us that “competition [used to be] among ideas, not scorecards of biennials.” Hear hear. Anoka Faruqee, sharp and with an eye toward context, spoke of “restraint and trickery,” accidents, mistakes, and failures, while Scott Reeder had me in stitches, particularly with his fictive title for a painting: Cops Ascending a Staircase. (There were more, and they were all funny.) At the conclusion of the two-and-a-half-hour Saturday-morning session, all were invited to attend the four-venue exhibition “ON PTG,” featuring actual works––hence the lack of slide showing––of all of the artists on the panel.

I arrived solo to the second of four shows (which opened in stages from 5 PM until 10 PM that evening at Shane Campbell’s newish gallery on Chicago Avenue), where I began to see people I recognized. I gathered a crew of Angelenos––Michael Ovitz’s curator Nu Nguyen; LAXART curator Aram Moshayedi, who delivered a fantastic LA-pride paper on Womanhouse on Friday evening; artist Shana Lutker, former staffer of the defunct and sorely missed Chicago-based publication New Art Examiner and current managing editor of X-Tra––and we piled into my borrowed, snowy convertible to drive to the final two sections of the exhibition at Rowley Kennerk gallery and Western Exhibitions. People seemed happy to see the work by the artists from the panel but at the same time looked either sick of the conference or actually, physically ill. Around 9:30 PM, I defected north to my parents’ apartment, turned on the Olympics, and read about Amy Bishop’s reaction to tenure denial on the Internet, suddenly glad I wasn’t there to look for a job.

Sara Greenberger Rafferty

Left: The “Painting” panel at the CAA 2010 Annual Conference. Right: Curator Nu Nguyen. (Photos: Sara Greenberger Rafferty)