PRINT December 1995

David Rimanelli


What Artforum’s year-end best-and-worst feature proposes is essentially an opportunity for the typically disenfranchised figure of the art critic to play, if not Addison DeWitt, then Earl Blackwell, awarding certain artists or shows Princess Di’s tiara while consigning others to the Cher/Roseanne dustbin of bad taste. Given this context, there is something a little weak about honoring (or condemning) the Great Dead. After all, Constantin Brancusi isn’t going to collar you at a cocktail party. Having said that, I’m giving the MONDRIAN retrospective top honors. This was, like the MoMA Matisse retrospective three years ago, one of those rare exhibitions that restore a sense of astonishment to our reception of those canonical masters who, through the widespread dissemination and imitation of their styles, have degenerated into visual clichés. (In the case of Mondrian, the first thing that comes to mind is L’Oréal packaging.) What was especially remarkable was the quality of intensely fussed-over painterliness—visible in the minute emendations and erasures that mark the surface of each painting—in works that, when reproduced, resemble bland graphic design. What had hitherto been (for me, at least) a historical corpus mummified in idées reçues regained a spirit of adventure, and beyond that a sense that this seemingly too familiar art remains virtually unassimilable in its formal resourcefulness.


I can’t begin to describe the tortured convolutions of RONALD JONES’ “pflanzenzucht tango” at Metro Pictures, so I’ll simply quote from the indispensable press release: “The title, ‘pflanzenzucht tango,’ is derived from the German term for plant cultivation and was the name of a division of inmates that attended to landscaping at Auschwitz-Birkenau . . . . The work was inspired by an aerial photograph of the camp garden and by a passage from Harold Bloom’s book, The Anxiety of Influence. . . . The catalogue for the exhibition is Beckett’s Endgame.” It’s hard to know what about this installation was most sickening: Jones’ routine exploitation of volatile political/historical material or the impenetrable gloss of pretense that tries to render the whole piece acceptable as a “serious” Conceptual-art product. These criticisms could be extended beyond this particular show, making Jones a nominee for a lifetime achievement award for contemporary-art awfulness.

David Rimanelli contributes to Artforum and to The New Yorker.