PRINT December 1997


Drear and Loathing

IF ART IN 1997 WASN’T exactly (to invoke a cliché) old wine in new bottles, or (to cite a hipper version) old whine in new bottles either, there was something both déjà vu and complaining about it. The art you saw this year, whether in galleries, contemporary museums, and chain-link-fenced vacant lots down under one Batmanish bridge or another, had a recombinant, self-pitying quality to it. What was particularly nagging this year about its seeming familiarity came less from any resemblance to Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, or Fluxus events (in fact, the familiar complaint that there has been little morphogological advance in art since about 1975 became a commonplace years ago), than from the way it resembled art outside art. The wan, feckless figurative painting of, say, Elizabeth Peyton looked like something from the wastebasket of any competent young commercial illustrator; only the happenstance that ooooooh, it’s in a gallery lent it any presence at all. Most installations were more than matched in complexity, grit, and (albeit inadvertent) expressiveness by everyday construction sites or road repairs. (And like the genre of still life in 1670s Amsterdam, in 1997 the medium of “installation” remained the orthodoxy of the day. A painting or drawing or sculpture in an exhibition still seemed a brave exception.) Andres Serrano’s “History of Sex” photographs paled in comparison to what, with a few mouse clicks, you could come up with on the Internet (and Serrano’s not really a much better photographer, formally, than your average digital pornographer). The “shock” value of works like, say, the Chapman Brothers’ genitally mutated mannequins at the Gagosian Gallery and in the “Sensation” show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London was about nil when compared to the front page of a daily tabloid. (I have a Conceptual-artist friend who told me recently he was at work on a “John Denver–Claudine Longet piece.” That gave me more of a frisson of tastelessness than any work of art I actually saw this year.)

What I call a “complaining” quality is, of course, nothing new. A plurality of contemporary art has been—call it “protesting”—on behalf of racial and sexual underdogs for a couple of decades now. And in 1997, it seemed to be losing a little of its momentum on that front. The Village Voice recently announced that “science shatters the myth of race” (goodbye, “soul”), and in the same issue, its iconoclastic equivalent of Miss Lonelyhearts, Dan Savage, elaborated on his position that the AIDS crisis (though not AIDS itself) is over. What dawned on the Voice and Mr. Savage—that life goes on, gets better or worse largely on its own—also subtly dawned on artists. Art really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with it. No wonder that the New York Transit Authority welcomed Barbara Kruger’s full-wrap propaganda bus (with, among other quotes, one from Frantz Fanon about the inadvisability of ideology that should reassure even the most opportunistic Clinton policy wonk), while it tried to find a way to get Calvin Klein ads off the subway. In 1997, it seemed that either everybody was subversive, or nobody was.

The genuinely newest work of art of 1997 sat on a riverbank in the ancient Basque city of Bilbao, Spain. Frank Gehry’s addition to the Guggenheim galaxy looked like nothing else in the entire history of architecture (except perhaps, in spirit, Erich Mendelsohn’s 1920–21 Einstein Tower in Potsdam). In spite of a plethora of obvious references—from the sets of Robert Wiene’s 1919 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Manhattan version, which was clearly the gauntlet Gehry considered thrown at his feet—the building was so revolutionary that, once inside, I got the distinct feeling of being in on the beginning of something in architecture and the end of something in art. With Gehry’s once-daunting computer-assisted fabrication of steel, glass, and titanium parts probably standard procedure in the very near future, surreally twisty major buildings will most likely become the twenty-first-century norm. But—probably due to the powers of the same infernal progeny of the original Turing machine—gigantic, static art objects like Oldenburg’s Swiss-Army-knife-trireme and Rosenquist’s million-dollar Guggenheim commission, The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (both present in Bilbao’s hugest ground-floor gallery), are going to look more and more like the sideshow dinosaurs they probably are. Oddly, a museum built specifically to accommodate outsize contemporary art will likely end up helping—by comparatively emphasizing its inherent inertness—to make it obsolete.

The most recent content-heavy art doesn’t look so good, either. Somewhere in the ’90s, a sexual drear—mostly heterosexual drear—entered art from the culture at large. “Sex” (the act) became “sex” the DNA bifurcation; that laboratory definition of “sex” became literally “gender” (technically incorrect, since the latter is really a grammatical term); “gender” became a prefix to “studies,” which became a prefix to “of repression”; and then the whole daisy chain looped back to the sexual act in terms of what a big, fat fuckin’ downer it really is. In the culture at large, drear made some people pierce and tattoo their bodies (usually with badly rendered Symbolist kitsch) in ways—in Dave Hickey’s felicitous phrase—“theatricalizing [their] lack of prospects.” In the art world it took the form of cold carnal comfort art: Serrano, the Chapman Brothers, Tracey Emin’s confessional tent (seen this year in “Sensation”), Sue Williams at 303 Gallery in Chelsea (she seems to be coming out of her funk, however, and making paintings that look like a kind of cheerily genital wallpaper), and, sotto voce, a couple of Richard Phillips’ paintings in the Whitney Biennial.

1997 was a Biennial year, and—after the finger-wagging PC ’93 edition and the dull return-to-painting effort in ’95—the ’97 version was a kind of attempt to reestablish equilibrium: some young artists and some old ones, some New Yorkers and some out-of-staters, some outrageously overproduced work and some achingly intimate stuff. Conservatives (as usual) thought the exhibition a trendy sideshow; progressives thought it too much a recap of for-sale gallery fare; people in the middle (like me) thought it, well, in the middle. But what started to wear a little thin was the excuse of not succeeding being in the nature of the Whitney Biennial. In terms of pleasing everybody’s taste, maybe. The mechanical cacophony of the show could, however, be reduced by about 90 percent by going back to the practice of alternating the media each time out. The old Whitney Annuals used to flip between painting and sculpture every other year; the new Whitney Biennial should alternate between art-object shows (say, anything that hangs on the wall or that you can walk around as opposed to into) and installation/film/video exhibitions. Serious commercial galleries don’t let music wash over paintings, and museums—even when the music is a Bruce Nauman sound track—shouldn’t either.

I mean, they don’t have ambient music in the galleries that moved to Chelsea, New York’s new art neighborhood. I have to admit that I was one of the doubters who thought artsies would quickly tire of schlepping themselves to a depressing warehouse quartier, devoid of bars and delicatessens and long blocks from the nearest subway. But sufficient restaurants and artists’ studios have followed these new urban homesteaders, art dealers, and now you can window-shop big, slick emporia like Matthew Marks and Barbara Gladstone before deciding to go in. Makes for a quick, efficient Saturday.

You didn’t need much more than a few weekend afternoons to acquaint yourself with the best of as-yet-unmuseumized art this year. (Years ending in “7” are usually flat: 1957 came after Don Larsen’s perfect World Series game; 1977 followed the Bicentennial; the ’87 market crash was New York’s reward for the Mets winning the World Series; and so on). But, inside the nonprofit pantheons, there were three shows essential to your regrounding (and if you longed for anything in 1997, it was re-grounding) in Modern art: Jasper Johns at the Museum of Modern Art (held over from 1996), Robert Rauschenberg at the Guggenheim(s)-plus—Ace Gallery, and the English painter Stanley Spencer at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Johns (disliked in much of the art world because his work has remained largely within the frame and has come to cost so much) and Rauschenberg (who continues to demonstrate that American urban detritus is practically an art form in its unaltered self) represent the fertile moment (mid to late ’50s) in the history of Modern art just before it all imploded into Warhol’s total irony: if there’s any hope for post-Bilbao art, it’ll have to arise from the ashes of works like Johns’ Target with Plaster Casts, 1955, and Rauschenberg’s Odalisk, 1955/58.

Spencer is an admittedly personal choice; I’m in a small minority when I say that the guy was definitely one of the most underrated great painters of the century—better than Balthus, as good as Magritte, and almost wholly destructive of any notion of Lucian Freud’s originality. Spencer’s multiplicity of styles (flat, synthetic-cubisty panoramas; Claymation-like religious epics; uncompromising, little-blue-veins nudes; and landscapes that amount to a ploughman’s-lunch take on Constable) is postmodern before the fact. His work also happily gainsays everything I said above about sex in art. He was definitely a Stanley Steamer—obsessed, in his personal life, with rutting with his wife and several other women who passed his way and copious, in his art, with (somewhat decorous by current standards) depictions of carnal delights. If you missed the show, you missed perhaps the best art on view in 1997, which was created, of course, long before that benighted year. But if you can get to San Francisco during the summer of ’98, you can still catch the show’s appearance there.