Poll Positions

Linda Yablonsky on artists and the presidential primaries

New York

Left: Dealer Matthew Marks with artist Jasper Johns. Right: Critics Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Jasper Johns was in such animated conversation with Matthew Marks on Friday night, at the Chelsea dealer’s opening of “Jasper Johns: Drawings 1997–2007,” that I wondered whether the two were talking politics—like everyone else. All weekend before Super Tuesday, presidential primary day in New York and twenty-three other states, no matter who was opening what show at which gallery, people who never seem to venture beyond the art world were stumping for candidates and getting in deep.

To sing Barack Obama’s praises, Jerry Saltz was taking prisoners. “The Clintons just bring chaos,” he said at the Johns show, sounding more like Kenneth Starr than even Hilton Kramer. Saltz was surprised to hear I felt so torn between Obama and Hillary Clinton that I had joined the swollen ranks of the undecided. (Not my usual position.) He asked where I stood on Johns. Choosing to keep my powder dry, I related what had happened a few moments before, when I caught the seventy-seven-year-old artist smiling so broadly it prompted me to ask whether he had always enjoyed his openings this much. Not really, he responded, then reversed himself. “I like other people’s openings,” he joked. “But I probably enjoy my own a bit more.”

Maybe it’s more fun than I realized to be represented by Marks. Over at his West Twenty-fourth Street gallery, Nayland Blake was front and center at his own show’s reception, laughing uproariously. Perhaps he was amused to find himself surrounded by hirsute henchmen, though Blake’s voluminous salt-and-pepper beard is magnificent enough to be presidential itself. His politics were all wrapped up in his work. “Isn’t that the best antiwar statement you have seen anywhere?” marveled novelist Lynne Tillman at one of Blake’s new sculptures, a plywood stool flying a blood-red pennant from a tall pole embedded in its seat, with a black, sausagelike metaphor for a wasted body sagging limply from pole to floor.

Left: Artists Kara Walker and Leonardo Drew. Right: Artist Nayland Blake.

It had some kind of correspondence with the Matthew Ronay sculptures I saw at Andrea Rosen Gallery a few minutes later. A spiritual crisis, Ronay said, was partly responsible for the big change in his work, from small, toylike objects to human-size, oddly churchlike tableaux. Pharynx, a freestanding Gothic arch and wood “pulpit” dressed in a woven black leather skirt, couldn’t be an antiwar statement, could it? About what can get caught in the throat? “Everything here has to do with Joseph Campbell,” Ronay said, his big brown eyes burning bright. “I love Joseph Campbell.” Did anyone know that Ronay was a mystic? Since committing to the life of the spirit, he said, he has been one happy artist.

Even more spirited, perhaps, was the ongoing Obama-Clinton debates at the dinner Sikkema Jenkins & Co. hosted that night in a second-floor salon at the Carlyle Hotel, following the close of Kara Walker’s show at the Whitney Museum. Only Carlo Bronzini Vender seemed more interested in talking about art, perhaps because he cannot vote in an American election. He regaled curator Chrissie Iles with his top-ten list of the greatest artists of the past two thousand years. Actually, I’m not sure there were even ten, not after he skipped from Duchamp to Hirst. Warhol did not make the cut. Strangely, considering the company we were in, Walker didn’t, either.

For her part, Walker seemed happy just to know her retrospective was behind her, though it reopens in a few weeks at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. “This was the hard part,” she said, meaning New York. As if to congratulate her, collector Nancy Portnoy gave her an OBAMA '08 button. Leonardo Drew was going for Obama, too, but sometime Walker collaborator Paula Wilson was for Hillary. I asked Wangechi Mutu whom she would choose. “I can’t vote,” she said. “I’m not from here.”

Left: Artist Wangechi Mutu. Right: Artist Matthew Ritchie.

That didn’t stop British-born artist Matthew Ritchie from commanding the floor the next afternoon at Mitchell-Innes and Nash, where the husband-and-wife artist team of Susan Jennings and Alexander Ross, with Janice Caswell, had organized a pro-Obama rally in three days’ time. On a program advertising the New Museum’s Laura Hoptman, Saltz, and New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl, among others, as speakers, Ritchie read from a pro-art statement by novelist Michael Chabon, inserting pro-Obama remarks of his own.

“I don't expect him not to make mistakes," Ritchie said. “I expect him to make new ones.” The seventy-five or so people sitting on the floor cheered at whatever the hell that meant. Unlike Lucy Mitchell-Innes, another British transplant who became a US citizen in time for the 2004 election, Ritchie is ineligible to vote. “I can give money, though,” he said. (He donated twenty-three hundred dollars, the campaign limit.)

Saltz compared Clinton to MoMA (the status quo) and Obama to the New Museum (the challenger). It makes me nervous to see art-world friends and colleagues speak of a politician in messianic terms. Still, it was heartening to see art critics and curators trade on their “celebrity,” as it were, to promote their candidate. The more people spoke up for Obama, the more I wanted to vote for Hillary just to keep the race going, to keep people talking and asking questions instead of sermonizing. Maybe painting never died, but the art of public discourse sure did. It has been nothing short of exciting to see it come back. It’s the exchange of ideas and values, not an individual candidate, that could really elevate the level of discussion.

At least that’s what I thought till I got to Leslie Tonkonow’s gallery for a panel on Christopher Eamon’s “Accidental Modernism” show, with Eamon and art historians Yve-Alain Bois and Klaus Ottman (Tonkonow’s other half). Interestingly, about the same number of people showed up for this exercise in semantics as for the Obama rally, and it, too, was a kind of contest: intention versus chance. I was happy—this was my only relief from political swashbuckling all weekend. But the only illumination came when Ottman and Bois were talking about Ann Craven’s moon-painting palettes, entered into the show as “accidental” art. They didn’t know she was in the room. “So are they unintentional artworks?” Bois asked. She thought about this for a moment. “That’s a good question,” she said. In the end, it was decided, what makes an object art has less to do with the kind of artist who made it than whether or not it spoke to the viewer.

Left: Dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes. Right: Collector Carlo Bronzini Vender.

I kept thinking of the playwright Edward Albee, whom I had found studying the Chris Martin paintings on the wall at Mitchell-Innes and Nash as the rally was breaking up. Was he supporting Obama? Not usually at a loss for words, he looked at me blankly. Hadn’t he come for the Obama event? “Not at all,” he said. “I came to see the art.”

Left: Writer Edward Albee. Right: Artists Adam McEwen and Ann Craven.

Left: Artist Susan Jennings. Right: Artists Amy Sillman and Jutta Koether.

Left: Artist Matthew Ronay. Right: Dealer Andrea Rosen and artist Sean Landers.

Left: Whitney Museum chief curator Donna De Salvo and Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden. Right: Dealer Brent Sikkema.

Left: New Museum curator Laura Hoptman. Right: Broadway producer Margo Lion.

Left: Dealer Leslie Tonkonow. Right: Artist Klara Liden.