Panel Surfing

Sarah Thornton at the ninety-fifth annual meeting of the College Art Association

New York

Left: Thomas Lawson, artist and CalArts dean. Right: Art historian Linda Nochlin with Andrew Brown, commissioning editor of Thames & Hudson. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)

Some art worlders lead sexy lives, others spend Valentine’s Day at the Hilton in midtown. Six thousand participants converged on the generic hotel with garish carpets for the academic talk-a-thon otherwise known as the annual conference of the College Art Association (CAA). With more than two hundred panels, receptions, meetings, and reunions, it is a polymorphous event kicked off by an awards ceremony, which one speaker said is “as close as art historians get to the Oscars.” Indeed, award winners were limited to a two-minute speech, and as most of the accolades honored lifetime achievement, many came prepared with a joke about aging. Some winners expressed their gratitude in meticulous detail; others simply offered a sketch. Upon accepting the Artist Award for a Distinguished Body of Work, Betye Saar was effusive: “I want to thank anyone who has ever shown a slide of mine.”

Jerry Saltz won the Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism. “I’m writing as hard as I can,” he assured the crowd. “I love the art world. It’s my family and my subject.” To shed further light on his motivations, he explained that when he first started writing, his wife, New York Times critic Roberta Smith, told him that if he didn’t get better at it, she would kill herself.

Artist Duane Michals, with Scotch tape on his eyeglasses and green Wellington boots, delivered the keynote address. His half hour of autobiographical wisecracks was punctuated by the inquiring plea: “Are you teaching amazement in your schools?” He showed slides of his photo narratives, which included a drag version of “Untitled Film Stills” called “Who Is Sidney Sherman?”

Left: Art historian Tom McDonough. Right: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch with collector Don Rubell.

The next day, it was back to the serious business of academia. Bigwig art historians wandered the corridors with entourages of grad students nipping at their heels. When they encountered dons of similar rank, they made sure to confirm the time and place of their postpanel powwow, while their students hung back in a tribal huddle, taking mental notes on the protocols of scholarly interaction. All observed with empathy the anxious gait of recent Ph.D.'s in dark suits on their way to interviews in hotel rooms, where members of the hiring committee might very well be sitting in a prim row at the foot of a king-size bed.

Is this academic conference the obverse of an art fair? Both are markets. But here, art historians are marketing themselves. Moreover, for the cost of a work by a mid-ranking German photographer (one in an edition of six), you can obtain a unique art historian for an entire year. Also, both occasions are increasingly focused on new art. Doctorates used to be written about work that was at least thirty years old; now, artists unheard of six months ago are being “historicized” at CAA. However, between the conference and the fair, there are deep schisms in taste. The fashionable artists at CAA—like Walid Raad’s Atlas Group—may be enjoying exhibitions at the erudite Paula Cooper Gallery, but they rarely produce the high-end hotcakes that pay for a dealer’s booth.

The conference bore witness to the glories of academic argot. Panels were resplendent with hackneyed jargon like the banal “dialectics of desire,” the predictable “challenge to essentialist identities,” and the deadly “rearticulation of the specificity of hegemony.” Some audience members played hangman. Others pondered the curious clear-plastic-encased gold braid on the conference-room chairs. I contemplated the conspicuous absence of blondes and concluded that CAA was a brunette affair.

Left: Artist Betye Saar. RIght: Artist historian Thomas Crow with critic and curator Katy Siegel.

The hottest panels were organized by the “new October junta” and attended by older October editors and contributors. The biggest draw of the weekend, “Virtualities: Contemporary Art Between Fact and Fiction,” played to a ballroom packed with people nervously scribbling notes. The panelists, largely contributors from October and Artforum, including Artforum’s editor-in-chief, Tim Griffin, were arguing (sometimes implicitly and always ambivalently) against the notion that there is, as Mark Godfrey put it, “no criticality in virtuality.” I sat next to Andrew Brown, commissioning editor for art at Thames & Hudson, who eventually whispered: “The irony is that this is a virtual discussion. The CAA is, by its nature, spectacular.” Indeed, it was excellent theater. The first four speakers performed their positions with struts and frets, while the fifth speaker concluded the friendly competition with a series of theoretical pirouettes on utopia. Then the session’s impresarios, T. J. Demos and Margaret Sundell, invited questions from the floor, and Tom McDonough stood up and delivered a devastatingly clever antidenouement. When I caught up later with McDonough, he admitted, “You need a complex language to analyze complex ideas, but there is a performative aspect. We have to admit it’s a code, signaling to an in-group.”

While “Virtualities” offered its fascinations, my favorite panel was an off-Broadway session organized by Wouter Davidts and Kim Paice. “The Fall of the Studio: Reassessing L’Atelier d’Artiste in the Post-studio Era” consisted of five well-researched case studies presented in chronological order, pulled together in a feminist tour de force by respondent Kirsten Swenson. All seemed to agree that “poststudio” is a misnomer. Although no longer a celebrated site of individual creativity, the studio is still a frame (for artists as diverse as Mark Rothko and Bruce Nauman), a center of interrelation and exchange (e.g., Olafur Eliasson workshop and office), and a subject matter (Jason Rhoades’s My Brother/Brancusi, now clearly canonized, was shown by several speakers).

When I finally hit the book fair, I was a little worse for wear. The “dialectics of tedium and engrossment” had taken their toll. Still, it was a pleasure to bump into Linda Nochlin. She’d been feted with a “Distinguished Scholar Session” and was doting over manuscript copies of her collected writings on Gustave Courbet, which come out in June. With essays going back to 1965, the book is as much about Nochlin’s intellectual development as it is about the artist. Pointing at the cover illustration, Courbet’s self-portrait The Wounded Man, the fabulous feminist twinkled, “Isn’t he the Mick Jagger of the nineteenth century?”

Left: Artist Will Barnet. Right: Critics Peter Plagens and Jerry Saltz.