PRINT December 1999

Daniel Birnbaum

1. “Sigmar Polke: The Three Lies of Painting” (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der BRD, Bonn, 1997) Large retrospectives are risky in that they always seem to push the artist’s achievement—even a living one’s—into the past tense. But Sigmar Polke’s hallucinatory, open-ended painterly project has proven impossible to bring to any conclusion. The magnificent retrospective in Bonn was the painting show of the decade. Among all the superheroes of German painting, only Polke still flies high.

2. Matthew Barney and Cady Noland (Documenta IX, Kassel, 1992) Matthew Barney’s and Cady Noland’s displays on two subterranean floors of a public garage in Kassel were the strangest, most extraordinary contributions to Jan Hoet’s show. Noland’s Towards a Metalanguage of Evil—a meditation on car crashes, death, and American media corruption—nonchalantly spread out among the parked cars, a few Coke cans marking the blurred borderline between public art and public life. Or were the stray cans plain old litter? Barney’s first international appearance took the form of OTTOshaft, which, with its odd materials, hermetic symbolism, and bizarre sexual charge, suggested a seemingly fully formed vision of the world (or some world) that continues to unfold with each new episode of his increasingly baroque five-part film cycle.

3. Felix Gonzalez-Torres My first real encounter with Felix Gonzalez-Torres was Untitled (For Jeff), 1992, a billboard in an empty lot in downtown Stockholm. The show at Magasin 3 was splendid, but the vulnerable hand pictured on the billboard is what I remember most vividly. “I wanted to make an artwork that could disappear, that never existed,” Gonzalez-Torres remarked later. The billboard piece comes close to realizing that disappearing act. Now that the work—and the lot—are gone, even the absence is absent.

4. Stan Douglas Instead of conforming to expectations, Stan Douglas’s 1991 “Monodramas,” a series of short works for television, makes you feel you’ve missed the point or were cheated out of the plot just when it seemed to get going. In I’m Not Gary, my favorite, basic communication breaks down: You’ll never be completely comfortable watching TV (or talking with your friends for that matter) again.

5. Eija-Liisa Ahtila The three ninety-second spots Eija-Liisa Ahtila produced for Finnish television, Me/We, Okay, and Gray, all 1993, are among the most effective works I know exploiting that newly antiquated medium. TV lacks the visionary ambience of more up-to-date technologies—and maybe that’s why it’s possible to create such melancholy works in the medium these days. In Gray, three women travel in an industrial elevator and deliver a deeply worrying report on an imminent nuclear catastrophe. Speaking with incredible speed about chemicals and radiation, the women create a weird kind of high-tech poetry—in Finnish.

6. Dieter Roth The importance of this artist, who long toiled in the fecund semi-obscurity that close association with putrescent foodstuffs affords, became increasingly clear in the ’90s, and his last show, at Hauser & Wirth, was a real hit. In Solo Szenen (Solo scenes), 1997–98, the old man performs his daily routines (displayed on more than 100 monitors stacked on top of each other), leading up to a low-key but strangely dramatic endgame featuring a bizarre philosopher-bum’s high-strung metaphysical ruminations, reminiscent of Beckett or Bernhard. It seems that Roth has inadvertently begotten a whole platoon of boys who like to pack rooms full of junk. They’ve been making a mess all over Berlin and LA lately, which is fine, but one might have hoped that other aspects of Roth’s work—his guileless exposure of human vulnerability, for example—would give birth to another lineage. Maybe it’s still to come.

7. Gabriel Orozco I don’t know why I like Gabriel Orozco’s Island within an Island, 1993, so much. Despite the childishness inherent in building a miniature New York skyline out of small pieces of wood found in the street, Orozco gets something interesting going between mini and macro, and that tension seems essential to what makes Orozco’s good pieces good.

8. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris There are plenty of reasons to go to Paris, but I’m grateful that throughout the ’90s the Musée de la Ville de Paris put on provocative exhibitions of contemporary art. A dialectical tension between historical and contemporary shows may sound like empty rhetoric, but here it really works—Edvard Munch paired with Eija-Liisa Ahtila, for instance, or August Strindberg with Olafur Eliasson. And I’ll never forget when Louise Bourgeois’s giant spiders invaded.

9. “Verner Panton: Light and Colour” (Design Museum, London, 1999) Having lived most of my life in Scandinavia, it should have come as no surprise that the Panton show in London this summer would be a kick. Panton, the Danish visionary, offers a psychedelic alternative to the typically boring neutrality of Nordic style. This is as far as you can get from the blond and cool design that completely dominates Scandinavian hotel lobbies—and the pages of Wallpaper.

10. Bruce Nauman It’s almost superfluous to say it, but Bruce Nauman was the artist of the ’90s. Everyone seems to like him, which is strange considering how little pleasure and how much suffering his art conveys. Why it is that we want death, pain, and claustrophobia in art I can’t say, but in retrospect the screaming heads in Nauman’s Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera), 1991, set the tone for the decade. And to top it all off, MoMA’s impressive 1995 retrospective (co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the Hirshhorn Museum) made it clear that Nauman has been one step ahead of everyone all along.