Stalking Distinction

Sarah Thornton at the 100th annual College Art Association

Left: Pablo Helguera, director of adult and academic programs at the Museum of Modern Art, with artist Suzanne Lacy and Liverpool Biennial artistic director Sally Tallant. Right: Artist Sheryl Oring. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)

AT THE LOS ANGELES CONVENTION CENTER, amid an ocean of gray walls and gray suits, Sheryl Oring sat in an understated beehive and little black dress working on a crimson 1950s typewriter. Behind her, a Mondrianesque banner asked one of my favorite questions: What is the role of the artist? Oring’s research was part of a performance done at the invitation of the College Art Association (CAA), whose one hundredth annual conference needed some color. Last Wednesday and Thursday (the first two days of the four-day event), a hundred people dictated their diverse answers. “An artist is to existence what a farmer is to soil,” said one of her informants. “The role of the artist is to check email, Facebook, blog, tweet, Facebook (again), and text,” explained another.

A CAA conference is a perfect place to explore such problems, particularly when it is held in the City of Angels, aka the holy land of adjunct artists, the Mecca of MFA programs, the Medina of cheap studio space. “What should an artist do?” was just one of a blitz of questions that underpinned another CAA sideshow, titled “Re/Locating Learning.” The “teach in” brought students from Otis College of Art and Design’s MFA in public practice into contact with knowledgeable passersby. Suzanne Lacy, a tremendously generous artist-mentor and winner of a 2012 lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Caucus for Art, described the event, which she had helped organize while on sabbatical, as “half performance, half pedagogy.” Her co-organizers had adopted other slogans. Pablo Helguera, from the education department of MoMA, called it a “transparent classroom,” while Sally Tallant, artistic director of the Liverpool Biennial, punched the air and proclaimed, “Occupy art history!”

Once an alliance of art historians, CAA has integrated more artists, designers, and other practitioners over the past few decades. This year, the distinguished lifetime achievement award for writing went to Allan Sekula, better known as an artist, who, at the award ceremony, thanked his art-historian wife for making him a better man and a better writer. Afterward he admitted, “I like to think that I am working somewhere around the edges of the officially sanctioned definition of an artist. In the context of modernism, being an artist has always had a creative and destructive relationship to boundaries and categories.”

Left: Critic David Antin and artist Eleanor Antin. Right: Art historian Sally Stein and artist Allan Sekula.

Boundary blurring was the order of the day. David Antin won the Frank Jewett Mather Award for his book Radical Coherency. I had the pleasure of sitting next to his inimitable artist wife, Eleanor, who whispered as he mounted the podium, “David is the greatest speaker since Socrates.” Indeed, Antin’s five-minute improvised “talk poem” was startling and beautiful. He suggested that critics, like artists, should cultivate “not knowing” even to the point of being unable to distinguish the living from the dead, and confessed that he found the “speed at which people understand things” to be “astounding and disturbing.” After Antin, LA-based artist John Outterbridge took the stage to receive a Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement on behalf of David Hammons. He echoed Antin in declaring, “I won’t say much [about Hammons] because I want to keep his mystery intact.”

There was more “distinguishing” to be done when Mary Kelly (UCLA) and Martin Kersels (CalArts) were honored by Annual Distinguished Artists’ Interviews. “At least we’re distinguished, rather than extinguished,” Kelly said before discussing Post-Partum Document, a work I have always loved for the way it asserts the artist as a crazy mother who frames her son’s dirty diapers and creates Rosetta stones from his first forays into penmanship.

Kersels, by contrast, entertained and enlightened as the archetypal artist as humongous kid. He played snippets of Cheech and Chong, Neil Young, Elvis Costello, and Talking Heads. Kersels acknowledged that he is keen to make work that “fails miserably or succeeds magnificently” but despairs when he fails in a “half-assed way.” Not fearing failure is an important part of Kersels’s pedagogy, and teaching is an integral part of his artistic practice. Sometimes he even slips performances into his lectures.

Left: Artist Martin Kersels with curator Ian Berry. Right: Deborah Marrow and James Cuno from the J. Paul Getty Trust.

At least one art-historical panel—the Distinguished Scholar Session honoring Rosalind Krauss—was attended by hundreds of artists. The panel was titled “The Theoretical Turn”; to be sure, the discursive effects of this turn have added a je ne sais quoi to artists’ statements all over America. Yve-Alain Bois, who chaired the starry lineup, kicked off with an endearing introduction to Krauss’s “domineering presence” as the “eminent formalist in our field.” Hal Foster offered ballast to Bois’s selfless précis with a substantive but self-confessed “immodest” homage. Harry Cooper gave a charming paper that balanced praise with criticism. My favorite thought from him was a simple one—that Krauss “picked worthy opponents and made them smarter,” arguing not with “straw men but men of steel.” Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s paper, titled “More on the Difference Between Comrade Krauss and Ourselves,” was a witty roast. He questioned Krauss’s “benevolent acceptance of Greenberg’s fatal omission” of Dadaism, Duchamp, and the Russian/Soviet avant-garde from the modernist canon, then argued that her “breathtaking precision” and “watertight thinking” were “provocative and unpalatable,” indeed “challenging in [their] silence and suffocation.”

The homages of the two other panelists, Briony Fer and Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, barely mentioned Krauss. Lajer-Burcharth gave a long but terrific paper about the similarities between artists and soap-bubble blowers in the painting of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. Her talk would have been a wonderful addition to a panel called “What is the role of the artist?”—which, needless to say, never took place. At the very least, I hope that Lajer-Burcharth stopped by Oring’s red typewriter to share her thoughts.

Left: Artist Mary Kelly with Johanna Burton, director of the graduate program at CCS Bard. Right: Artist Andrea Bowers.

Left: Emmanuel Lemakis, director of the College Art Association conference, with Eli Broad and Edythe Broad. Right: Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Left: Art historians Tamar Garb, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and Sarah Parsons. Right: Artist John Outterbridge.

Left: Artist Faith Wilding. Right: Artist Norie Sato.

Left: Sociologist Adrian Favell. Right: Artist Tammy Rae Carland.