PRINT December 2000

Arthur C. Danto


1 “Making Choices” (Museum of Modern Art, New York) A show of shows in two senses: It consisted of twenty-five separate exhibitions, some of which belonged in an inventory of the high points of 2000 in their own right; and it was an epochal show, putting in question the entire concept of modern art. Strikingly, none of the exhibitions was devoted to modernism as such, save perhaps Robert Storr’s “Modern Art despite Modernism.” But even there it merely skulked as the ghost of what we must call the Greenbergian paradigm, as Storr included modern works to which Greenberg would not have given the time of day—pieces by Dali, for example, and Andrew Wyeth. The aggregate effect was to draw boundaries around modernism as a period style within the modern era and to show how much there is to modern art that falls outside those boundaries. It was a marvelous demonstration of curatorial virtuosity, making plain that there is a virtually unlimited number of exhibitions constructable out of the contents of a single museum. “Making Choices” was evidence that MoMA is about to reconfigure its own identity—and as a result to reconfigure the shape of art history over the past century and a half, as well.

2 “Chardin” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) There were no such deconstructive/reconstructive ambitions at work in “Chardin”: The exhibition spoke to the sense we all have of what art at its greatest can mean. It is perhaps too much to expect that “Chardin” will reenfranchise painting, but so many artists have told me how moved they were by the old magician’s subdued brilliance that I would be amazed if the small luminous still life did not reemerge under the permissive auspices of pluralism.

3 “2000 Biennial Exhibition” (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) This Biennial made a scarcely noticed decision to override traditional exclusions. It included two pieces by Thornton Dial, for example: An artist heretofore segregated to shows of outsider work, here he looked as cutting edge as someone fresh out of Yale or Cal Arts. And the exhibition disregarded the art-craft duality to include Josiah McElheny’s virtuoso installation of conceptual glasswork. By internalizing these boundaries, the Biennial effectively erased them. All artistic dualisms today are untenable, and it was exhilarating to see this recognition institutionalized in a show that celebrated visual thinking of a very high order.

4 “Greater New York” (P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York) A kind of Who’s Who of Unknowns, the show made it boisterously clear that panelists will have an easy answer to the question, “What’s Happening in New York?”—namely, “Everything.”

5 Mark Tansey (Curt Marcus Gallery, New York) His heroic show had a studio format, with small provisional black-and-gray drawings pinned almost edge to edge up and down every wall. Only here and there did one find a typical Tansey image. The work appeared mainly to be about the processes of searching, and it implied that each of this artist’s images is itself the culmination of a search. The exhibition seemed inspired by a determination to make his private artistic decisions visible both to critics who think of his work as easily achieved and easily understood and to enthusiasts who have wondered how he did it at all.

6 Thomas Nozkowski (Max Protetch Gallery, New York) Nozkowski’s wonderful paintings were abstract and comical, featuring carnival-colored balloons emptied of speech and uncertain shapes that looked as if they were based on pink underpants, waving like impudent banners.

7 Sylvia Sleigh (Deven Golden Fine Art, New York) I responded to the fourteen-panel Invitation to a Voyage: The Hudson River at Fishkill as to a masterpiece. It shows the artist with some friends, including her late husband, Lawrence Alloway, and a cat, picnicking on an idyllic riverbank. Invitation struck me as being near in spirit to one of my favorite paintings—Watteau’s L’embarquement a Cythere. Arrayed on facing walls, it radiated happiness—a feeling about as improbable as beauty in the present world.

8 Jacob El Hanani (Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York) From a distance El Hanani’s labor-intensive drawings looked like silver gray monochromes, but up close one saw that they were built out of letters, symbols, figures, and images so tiny that they put one in mind of a person dedicated to inscribing the Koran on a grain of rice. The drawings evoked peace and patience, as if time had no bearing on their world.

9 Alastair Noble (Robert Pardo Gallery, New York) The sculptor leaned six large, thick panels of glass against the wall, perching them on shelves. Deep troughs were sandblasted into the panels, corresponding to the way the lines and fragments of lines are arrayed in Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Des. The opaque troughs, from which Noble had entirely etched away any trace of language, were reflected as shadows on the wall. This almost metaphysical use of glass, with its vocabulary of transparency and translucency and its contrast between deep green edges and clear central area, manages to escape the decorativeness that dogs the medium.

10 Richard Foreman, Bad Boy Nietzsche (Ontological-Hysteric Theater, New York) Since the advent of performance art, Richard Foreman’s troupe has been regularly considered as much a part of the visual arts as of the avant-garde theater. His plays have the shape of Aeschylus’s Eumenides, consisting of a single hero and a chorus of Furies that plagues him without respite. In the recent offering, Nietzsche was the hero, set upon by what may be figments of his own fantasy. “Bad Boy” is probably a good antonym for “Super Man” and poor Nietzsche is a mitteleuropän shmendrek who shares a small universe with the erotically unattainable Beautiful Woman, the disrespectful Child, and the Cruel Man—perhaps the Superman—who wears a little girl’s pinafore and beats the horse Nietzsche went mad trying to protect. There was the charivari—typical of Foreman’s dramaturgy—a lot of whirring, flashing, banging. Great stuff.

Arthur C. Danto, a contributing editor of Artforum, is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University and art critic for The Nation.