PRINT February 1986


success and Pittsburgh's 1985 Carnegie International.

PITTSBURGH’S 1985 CARNEGIE INTERNATIONAL was a jewel of a show, a ritzy display of contemporary art with all the “quality” that one could hope for. This was the exhibition with which the Museum of Modern Art, New York, should have reopened after its renovation in 1984, rather than the halfhearted grab bag of mixed goods with which it tried to show that, contrary to critical opinion, it really was keeping up with contemporary art. The Carnegie International gave short shrift to distinctions between the provincial and the cosmopolitan, the national and the international. The art had its ups and downs—some of it was authentically meaningful, some of it disappointingly depleted—but one was happy to see it all together. And of course one was happy to see it all gathered in a museum in America, for a change. In 1982, the year of the last Carnegie International (which is a triennial event organized by the Carnegie Institute), this would have been a brilliant exhibition, quite revolutionary in contrast to the retardataire display that was actually offered then.

However, since practically all the art shown in Pittsburgh has had its fair share of critical commentary over the last few years, I’m going to write not so much about individual works as about their collective effect insofar as itseemed to express the spirit of the exhibition, and of the times. In this context the Carnegie International was an exhibition of "contemporary classics’: about arrival—success—not discovery. Glamorous blockbuster exhibitions are really symptoms of our anxiety about the world and art’s role in it; art is cast as an island of sanctuary in the midst of social uncertainty. At this point in time such exhibitions are like pyramids stacked with symbols of self, aimed at justifying our society to the future—at giving us an afterlife. Many of the works in the Pittsburgh show—especially the pieces made for the occasion—seemed to try to rise to a grand event by being grand themselves. The physical bigness of most of them did not seem entirely necessary to their concepts; rather, it was a self-conscious grasp at the institutional destiny that the artists had in mind. Awareness of the politics of display seems built into art these days. Ingratiating grandiosity is an instrument of Lebensraum, a guarantee of museum immortality Bigness, of course, is not only an age-old way of addressing the fear of oblivion, and of stretching an idea when it has begun to shrink or seems to have reached the limits of its growth, but one method of confirming a work’s classy consumer character. Its effect was reinforced in this exhibition by the luxurious if overdesigned installation.

The appearance of grandeur was in large part an attempt to force the issue—to legitimate success, to signify authority The show was about what Max Weber called the “routinization of charisma” Art that once seemed deviant and difficult was made respectable and familiar. What was once shocking or surprising was here merely stunning. No doubt unwittingly, the exhibition showed art dressed to be accepted by society rather than to plumb esthetic depths.

The Carnegie International signaled the underlying problems of all the ’80s megashows we’ve seen organized by a cabal of “master” curators—such exhibitions, all in Europe, as “Westkunst” (Cologne, 1981), “A New Spirit in Painting” (London, 1981), Documenta 7 (Kassel, 1982), “Zeitgeist” (Berlin, 1982), “von hier aus” (Düsseldorf, 1984), and “The European Iceberg” (Toronto, 1985). This time the European curators—Rudi Fuchs, Kasper König, and Nicholas Serota—were joined, on the Carnegie International’s advisory committee, by Americans: Hilton Kramer, Linda Cathcart, and Maurice Tuchman. Here were some of the curatorial and critical leaders in art today; the exhibition, then, was about the routinization not just of charisma but of authority. In curators, art, and catalogue essays, everything was neatly balanced between the European and American, so that the show seemed to call a truce— temporary?—to the contest between European and American art, a contest it posited as the source of the dynamic in recent artistic developments. This happy state of affairs apart, the exhibition had no clear point. While the catalogue, basically a collection of previously published essays, shows a consciousness of the different positions represented by the artists, the exhibition as a whole, and its admission to having no “preconceived thesis,” evaded a critical opportunity Like many of the European shows, underneath its splendor, its ”good times for art“ look, it had the smell of false consciousness. Subliminally, it proposed the reconciliation of sometimes wildly disparate kinds of art. Its conception of ”rigorous standards of individual achievement"—the words of John R. Lane and John Caldwell, respectively the director of the Carnegie Institute’s Museum of Art and its contemporary curator, who together actually chose the works exhibited—was noble, but it did not protect the individuality of each artist from becoming merely nominal and therefore negotiable.

On the surface, the earlier megashows aimed at nothing less problematic than the redefinition of “quality” in contemporary art, but their less open agenda was an attempt to restore the importance of European art through the validation of certain European artists as exemplary, as epitomes of contemporary production. These exhibitions’ real value, however, lay in their exploration of the way the artists in question dialectically reconcile 20th-centuryan’s contradictions, or, better, demonstrate its conflicts. The shows, which like the Carnegie were international, created a new mainstream of Post-Modern development, signaling the outlook artists must have to be regarded as “advanced” and authentic. They must roll with various crisscrossing and overlapping stylistic, conceptual, and media currents; to make a work of art today is like charting a voyage on a compass all of whose poles are highly magnetized. The Carnegie International was a great opportunity to further articulate the structure of contradiction that is contemporary art—the conflicts that animate it. Not doing so, the exhibition ended up a naively positive celebration of supposedly inherently “vital and resonant” art. Failing to recognize the inner strains in art and in the contemporary situation, it standardized much of what the artists represented in it have attempted—it dulled their cutting edge. The homogenization created an overall effect of pointless pluralism and premature summary. Unless it articulates the tension between differentiated positions, with-it pluralism is the most facile method of the politics of display; one select group of artists can comfortably replace another. (The lack of attention, yet again, to the women’s issue—only 4 of the 42 artists here were women—showed the holes in the Carnegie International’s preselected pluralism; the exhibition unthinkingly participated in the rollback of feminist gains characteristic of the Ronald Reagan period.)

As said earlier, the more-or-less-common denominator of the exhibition was bigness—the megawork of art as symbol of success. The mega is an easy way of simulating meaning. Performing the old trick of making quantity seem like quality, it creates the Gatsby effect: showing off through size, one comes to believe in the reality of what one knows to be illusory. In this show, Gilbert and George and Robert Longo seemed best to reveal the current theatricality of size. Their works showed size routinizing charisma by rearticulating it—repackaging it—as spectacle. Much has been written about the significance of spectacle in Modern art, and the Carnegie International seemed to turn the screw of spectacle tighter: it banalized and undermined art’s power to make explicit our feeling of the uncanniness of our existence in the Modern world, our feeling of being far from at home in it. By not dealing with the fact that in the Post-Modern situation the assimilation of uncanny art into show capital is practically instantaneous, much of the exhibition unexpectedly lost its hold over us and devolved into a fragmented mosaic of sanctimonious spectacle.

The high point of the show’s opening festivities—and this was a great moment in social history—was when, after various introductory remarks (including some by H. John Heinz III, senator from Pennsylvania), Richard M. Scaife, chairman of the Museum of Art Committee of the Trustees of the Carnegie Institute, awarded two Carnegie Prizes, one to Anselm Kiefer for the gigantic painting Midgard, 1980–85, and one to Richard Serra for the equally gigantic sculpture Carnegie, 1984–85. This event, which occurred in an ornate gallery of the old museum building, now the music room, and marked the 150th birthday of Andrew Carnegie, symbol of enlightened capitalism, was fraught with significance: a German painter and an American Minimalist sculptor, the latter only six years older than the former—implying the parallel development of European and American art over the last 15-to-20 years—were gladiatorial co-victors. The art-historical significance of the moment was confirmed by the fact that for the first time in the history of the International a second Carnegie Prize medal, which bears allegorical figures of industry and victory honoring the arts, had had to be struck. Several of the artists, asked whether they would accept the medal should they win the prize, had said they would not—presumably refusing the role of soldier in the army of art, or athlete in the Olympics of art. One can’t help but think of Jean-Paul Sartre’s refusal to accept the Nobel Prize, in 1964, on the ground that it would trivialize his work into a demonstration of bourgeois success.

One is of course happy for Serra after his recent struggles in New York and Saint Louis. It is appropriate that his prize be directly symbolic of enlightened capitalism. It is also appropriate that Kiefer’s Midgard is huge, symbolically expressing the old German, and continuing capitalist, need for Lebensraum. Kiefer’s works in the Carnegie International were strong, but in general his "original textures’: as they have been called, are beginning to look increasingly manicured, and his eternal landscapes of German despair to seem like a well-visited national park, their architectonic central elements less mysterious and more like the Old Faithful geyser, predictably exploding with meaning from the depths. Serra’s work has an equally nostalgic look—that of early industrialism. (Could it also be vintage authoritarianism?) Both artists are great mythologizers, which is perhaps why they won the contest, for besieged capitalism badly needs to remythologize its sense of manifest destiny.

It is noteworthy that the Serra work, stationed at the entrance to the modern wing of the museum, began a movement through the show that ended, for all spiritual if not practical purposes (the exhibition continued in another wing), with a magnificent display of Kiefer paintings. The works of both artists were beautifully sited, the Kiefer display bouncing off that of Robert Ryman, which helped make Kiefer seem restrained —as “classical” as Ryman, whose small works were noncompetitive in the context. Serra and Kiefer were displayed to a spatial advantage that not all the other artists received, what with diagonal walls and boxy partitions breaking up the other spaces. But without these flourishes of design to help administer the success of the art, we would not have realized the exhibition’s socioeconomic, if not art-historical, importance.

Donald Kuspit is the editor of Art Criticism. Published at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is a regular contributor to Artforum.