PRINT May 1998

US News

the Hugo Boss Prize

THE $50,000 PRIZE MONEY is nothing to sneeze at, and the six finalists—Bul Lee (Korea), Douglas Gordon (Scotland), William Kentridge (South Africa), Huang Yong Ping (China), Pipilotti Rist (Switzerland), and Lorna Simpson (US)—whose work goes up at Guggenheim SoHo on June 24 in anticipation of a July decision, are serious, provocative artists. So how come nobody gives a patootie about the Hugo Boss Prize, the biennial award underwritten by the German haberdasher and administered by the Guggenheim Museum? The Turner Prize—about $30,000, handed out annually since 1984 to a UK artist—generates much more suspense and debate on the streets of both Sohos.

The Turner’s parochialism is actually its strength. Foreigners are curious about whom the British will pick to represent them on the international stage. Juicier still, the Turner usually goes to an artist (Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing) who pushes the limits of what art ought to be—in a country notoriously hostile to such work. The inevitable media hubbub adds the Turner some spice.

The Hugo Boss Prize is an international affair, which means the entry field is too wide and the interest level too diffuse. Only a tiny clique of art-nerd cognoscenti on expense accounts has actually seen all the work. This year’s seven-person jury is a mélange of curators, including the Guggenheim’s John Hanhardt and Robert Rosenblum, an international biennial organizer, a collector, a critic, and the Guggenheim’s director, Thomas Krenz. But even these art-world jet-setters conducted their preliminaries via “slides, videos and other documentation.”

There are other reasons for the indifference. The fact that the prize is named after a trendy clothing manufacturer—and not a great artist—is one. Furthermore, the honor is awarded on the wiggle-roomy basis of “either a major aesthetic achievement or a significant development in contemporary art.” One is not sure whether the artists are competing with their own best pieces or if Hugo Boss is conferring a lucrative version of those “lifetime achievement” awards that showbiz uses to trot out sentimental favorites and to make sure that nobody noteworthy is totally overlooked.

More troubling is how anybody can measure performance art (Lee) against photo-text art (Simpson) against animated drawings (Kentridge) against installation art (Huang Yong Ping) against conceptualism (Gordon). Should we assume, uh, other criteria? Two years ago, the (American) white male Matthew Barney won the first Hugo Boss Prize. That would seem to lengthen the odds against Kentridge and Gordon (who is further handicapped by having already won a Turner). Simpson would make it two Yanks in a row. Bul would make it a performance-artist repeat. And Rist would reaffirm nasty ol’ Eurocentrism.

So—not that we suspect that the fiasco around the cancellation of the contemporary section of the Guggenheim’s “China: 5,000 Years” exhibition or the museum’s desire to undertake projects in the world’s most populous country will have anything to do with the outcome—but we’ve got Huang Yong Ping in the office pool. If anyone cares.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum.