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PRINT September 1998

US News

the MacArthur fellows

My wife plays a little game whenever I telephone from the office and ask if there have been any calls. “Just the MACARTHUR FOUNDATION,” she deadpans. “I told them you weren’t here, so they moved on down the alphabet to Sylvia Plimack Mangold.” Or Rona Pondick. Or Alexis Rockman. I—like about 500,000 other American artists—entertain an inextinguishable, secret hope that someday I’ll get a tap on the shoulder from the MacArthur folks, collect $350,000, and be able to paint and write as I bloody well please for the subsequent five years.

But my MacArthur envy has diminished. The cachet of the fellowships, at least to artists, is evaporating. MacArthur recipients have gone from the truly original and quirky (Robert Irwin and James Turrell, two “light-and-space” peas in a West Coast pod received theirs in 1984, early in the program) to the safely venerated (Martin Puryear in 1989, Ann Hamilton in 1993) to the art-world-hot (Kara Walker last year and Janine Antoni this time). Increasingly, the MacArthurs are looking like Guggenheims size XXL. (The two other 1998 artist-recipients, Ida Applebroog and Gary Hill, probably belong more in the venerated category than the trendoid one.)

How does one explain this year’s choices? A quick glance at the foundation’s guidelines isn’t much help. Between the reasonable first criterion (“an individual of exceptional creativity”) and the last (enabling the recipient to “work freely, to do what could not otherwise be done”), there’s a real corker: “The Fellow’s work will likely make a significant difference in human thought and action.” It’d be nice to think this kind of stuff still plays outside the Constructivist old-age home, but public chocolate gnawing does not a Stepanova make. Just the same, as the foundation points out, “No one has ever declined a MacArthur Fellowship.”

For the record, should the foundation folks come knocking, I won’t stand on ceremony either.

Peter Plagens