PRINT December 1995

Ralph Rugoff


There were two outstanding retrospectives in Los Angeles last year—Jeffrey Vallance’s and Annette Messager’s—but the strongest new work I saw was GARY SIMMONS’ “Erasure Drawings” at the Lannan Foundation. If in the past Simmons had tended toward didactic one-liners, these spectral, CinemaScope-sized murals, executed in white chalk on long black walls, hit nerves from awe to sadness. Aggressively smeared, their imagery evoked a cartoon ghost town—burning ships, empty ballrooms, vacated thrones—and lent the foundation’s industrial cloister an elegiacal aura (not unfitting for a space closing for good next June). Simmons tweaked his images to add sinister notes: in the ballroom picture, elegant nooses rather than lead crystals dangle from the chandelier, which seems to quiver as if from a recent lynching. The melancholy of these images, however, was balanced by Simmons’ amazing work with chalk and erasers: swirling steam-colored eddies and cascades of luminous, pulsing lines turned the walls into vibrant, unstable energy fields. The result was both head-spinning and heart-stilling. Inspiring, depressing, beautiful, and haunting, the installation also made complex suggestions about the nasty aftereffects of corrosive images, racist or otherwise. Simmons’ vigorous rubbing and smudging conjure the horror of bad memories you can never completely erase.


Attacking the WHITNEY BIENNIAL feels a bit like shooting a dead horse, but the 1995 model is a corpse that deserves it. The show wasn’t uniformly terrible, just flat and largely pointless, which was even more disheartening. The real problem was a lack of conceptual oxygen—given a clueless context (“metaphor” as a theme?), even good work looked stale (Charles Ray’s bottled self-portrait smartly brought along its own atmosphere). Work by many ’93 repeats—including Lari Pitman, Jack Pierson, Nan Goldin, and even Cindy Sherman—seemed redundant, as did contributions by a number of first-timers (none more so than Andrea Zittell’s vacuous and overblown ’80s-style fabrication). Jason Rhoades and Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose work in both cases is most interesting when activated by performance elements, came across as clumsy in both visual and conceptual terms, begging the question of why they were chosen in place of older artists like Paul McCarthy and Louise Bourgeois, each of whom produced some of the most powerful and significant work of the last two years. Other key omissions: Nayland Blake’s bunnies, Bob Flanagan’s Sick video scaffold, Aura Rosenberg’s landscape “porno-rocks” photos, Vija Celmins, and a host of lesser-known West Coast artists. At a time when interesting artists are living in all parts of the country, this biennial of “American” art remains absurdly biased toward New York. In 1995, its selections would’ve made sense only had the museum printed the curator’s art-world family tree in place of a catalogue.

Ralph Rugoff is a writer and curator living in Los Angeles. He is the author of Circus Americanus.