PRINT May 1999


Matthew Collings

IN THE FIRST FEW PAGES of Matthew Collings’s book It Hurts: New York Art From Warhol to Now, the author absolutely glows with admiration for Andy Warhol, rhapsodizing over Lonesome Cowboys and exalting sweet relief that the artist’s early films, once virtually inaccessible, can now be easily rented at Blockbuster. But this is simply not true. In fact, only about six of Warhol’s ’60s films are actually out on video, the late ones that everyone knows were directed by either Paul Morrissey or Jed Johnson. Were the early films available, probably one would find them at stores catering to auteuriste tastes, not at Family Values Central. I checked this factoid at my local Blockbuster. Situated on the notorious defile of Eighth Avenue in Chelsea and presumably in tune with the rental habits of a typically more licentious crowd, this outlet nevertheless carries only one “Warhol” film, Andy Warhol’s Dracula. As for the homo-Western: Sorry, no, the clerk told me. Did you mean Lonesome Dove?

A certain glib inaccuracy defines the Collings style, which he explicitly aligns with the gee-umm, inarticulate-yet-on-point manner of Warhol’s example. “What about Vito Acconci’s Seedbed?” the author disingenuously queries. “It was 1971, probably.” Right beside this patch of text is a photo documenting this performance, clearly labeled with the correct date, 1972. Gee, British cheekiness, I guess. This really should be the book’s charm; it isn’t. Collings presents himself as the guy who is going to give you the real deal, minus the lather of intellectual pretensions, plus the odd personal detail about the main players: Someone who long ago discarded the rose-tinted glasses of smiling stupid belief characteristic of many high-minded novices. What Collings’s book promises is an afternoon gallery tour with that good friend you can count on to tell you what you really need to know, and whose brash disrespect for worm-eaten totems comes as a refreshing tonic.

Too bad the Blockbuster anecdote sets the real tone. Like a walking tour, It Hurts has no real structure, skipping or lurching from one topic to another as the inspiration of wit rewards or fails its author. In each of the book’s two sections (there is no obvious sense in the division), what the author deems historically relevant (Warhol, Minimalism, Greenberg, etc.) brushes against the right here, right now. So while the book has enough witty asides, artist profiles, and gossipy interludes to entertain, the cut-throughthe-nonsense tone ultimately fails to deliver any sort of informative précis. It’s just this guy talking about whatever: Oh yes, over here Conceptualism, over there, Schnabel marries a model ..., women artists get political, etc. Doing his best Warhol gee-whiz, Collings explains Rirkrit Tiravanija: “But actually he’s a very good artist of course. He cooks rice and the gallery-goers eat it and it’s art. It fits with Gordon Matta-Clark’s Food, which is good because everything fits with that now. It’s about overlaying an art structure in the everyday. Or the reverse.” But actually, of course, that’s a lot of deflationary posturing to level an opinion that finally confirms art-world consensus. Did you know that Kiki Smith is a big Rod Stewart fan? Or that Richard Prince “was always amazed by [Jeff Koons’s] inept come-ons to women in bars”? Stuff like this is funny, but somehow not funny enough. One cannot get away from the sense that the author’s style of wearing his knowledge lightly fails to . patine the slipshod workmanship overall. This particular ’80s (Comme des Garcons?) suit is wearing rather thin.

Collings’s previous book, Blimey! (1998), offered a pithy account of the London art scene of which the author, the former editor of the now-defunct Artscribe, is a prominent member. The current volume is delivered up more in the spirit of Mrs. Trollope or Oscar Wilde: the somewhat wearily tolerant British view of the mores of upstart America. It is worth noting that, while Swinging London may have been reinvented in the ’90s, for the better part of the century the British art world has been distinguished by its willfully provincial crustiness: more fossil bed than scene. What distinguishes Collings’s approach to New York is a strong current of animus, even as he freely admits that the YBAs typically do little more than recycle the New York/American art of the ’60s. He affects to preside over his survey like a pathologist at an inquest. The autopsy is incomplete. It will have to be done over again. Maybe one can start by correcting the consistent misspelling of artist Gregory Green’s name. A mix of correct and wrong would better suit the overall Collings manner.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.