PRINT December 2000

James Meyer


1 Tate Modern The plant is grand, the site unique. Yes, the rearrangement of the collection led to forced pairings and hackneyed themes (when I see “The Body” I want to ...), and the Louise Bourgeois towers, not to mention the single-artist installations, affirmed the fashionable status quo. Still, the new Tate’s energy and ambition are formidable. One only hopes that future curatorial efforts will live up to the building.

2 The Theme Survey The reinstallation of the Tate’s collection is the apotheosis of a museological trend. I had the pleasure of witnessing its birth back in 1996 at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, where the Olympics “Rings” show packaged the Masterworks of World Art as manifestations of the five emotions we human beings purportedly share. After the weight lifters and pole-vaulters went home, I assumed the High would return to tried-and-true chronology. Wrong. The “it’s a small world after all” approach gave way to a smorgasbord of themes—“Identity,” “Nature” ... Forget about deep social and cultural context; in “Nature” one discovered a Martin Johnson Heade orchid next to a Victorian settee (it’s the carved flowers, you see). Works of art, it would seem, exist not so much to be seen, let alone understood, as to serve up illustrations of trite, iconographical conceits. Keen to overcome Grandpa Barr’s teleological modernist enfilade, MoMA jumped on board with its multithemed millennial triptych “Modern Starts,” legitimating the misguided mania that tarnished the new Tate triumph. Like CNN, it all started in Atlanta.

3 The “New” Mary The New York Times breathlessly declared that Mary Boone had established a new identity around an up-and-coming group of young artists. In a bid to recover the glory days of the Julian/Eric ’80s, the latest stable was assembled like one of those bands of youthful crooners—a Fifty-seventh Street ’N Sync with the photogenic Damian Loeb as heartthrob Justin Timberlake and Tom Sachs as Wild Boy Chris Kirkpatrick. The success of the media construction, which crescendoed as the great lady was hauled off to jail pleading free speech (the authorities took a dimmer view of live ammo at the front desk), more than made up for the emptiness of the art.

4 Ugo Rondinone (Matthew Marks Gallery, New York) A large, open room with video projections on all four walls. Slow, pulsing music. Gorgeous, tortured kids loll on the floor staring at gorgeous, tortured actors on the screen. In the back room, three Nolandesque tondos with Day-Glo rings—far out! Vapid, perhaps, but emblematic. Crouching on the floor vainly attempting to pass for a twenty-five-year-old, I felt the seduction of today’s blurring of art video and MTV, of “bohemia” nostalgia and fashion commerce. And realized that the video projection is the salon art of our moment.

5 Martha Roster, “Positions in the Life World” (New Museum for Contemporary Art; International Center for Photography, New York) The term “artist’s artist” has long been applied to Rosier. More recently, a critic’s description of her as “pure”—a sort of Virgin Mary of contemporary art—seemed to imply that only the most somber minded get her work. It’s not true. Rosler’s art is accessible, sharp, and extremely funny. In contrast to the one-note, hortatory approach of some of her postmodern peers, her critical work has come to seem more ambiguous and multilayered. Varied in content, it induces a range of response: You find yourself laughing and thinking and feeling disgusted all at once.

6 Dan Flavin, Untitled (Marfa project) (Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX) Those thorny guys finally got it together. Once the closest of friends, Flavin and Judd ended up not speaking for years. After their deaths, the status of Flavin’s proposal for a light installation at the former Fort D.A. Russell, one of the original projects planned for the Chinati Foundation, was uncertain. It is to Chinati’s great credit that Flavin’s project was finally realized. A sequence of light barriers and corridors in pink, green, blue, and yellow arranged in a compelling visual narrative, this posthumous installation is among Flavin’s most memorable.

7 Stephen Prina, Vinyl II (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) A curious combination of music, performance, film, and institutional critique suffused with allusions from old-master painting to Warhol to Straub-Huillet, it’s one of the few works from this year I’m still pondering.

8 Mel Bochner, “If the Color Changes” (Sonnabend, New York) A quotation from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color is the basis of this examination of the faculties of seeing, reading, and cognition. When Bochner took up painting in the early ’80s, critics complained that he’d betrayed his conceptualist roots. In these works, such doubts are laid to rest. Strategies of simultaneity, complementarity, duration, and repetition—hallmarks of the artist’s early work—return in a credible new form. Some of the best paintings currently being made.

9 David Batchelor, Chromophobia (Reaktion Books, London) Speaking of color, this erudite survey of chromophobic attitudes from antiquity to the present skillfully negotiates philosophical, art-historical, and mass-cultural allusions. A provocative contribution to the discourse of color theory.

10 Charles LaBelle (Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles) Manzoni aside, the potty in art leaves me cold. Abjection just isn’t my gout. Now the scatological has found no more fertile ground than Los Angeles, and it was with a definite boredom that I ventured into the exhibit of this young artist, who had the temerity to stuff himself with little bits of his own shirt. Coming out as doody, then daintily washed and iron-taped together, the stained cotton was repulsive: There really is nothing like the real thing. Yet here it was displayed in a vitrine like a Beuys. There’s a lot of stuff out there that tries to gross us out. Most of it is bad. But I can’t get this “shirt” out of my head.

James Meyer, assistant professor of art history at Emory University, is the editor of Minimalism (London: Phaidon, 2000). His book Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties is forthcoming next spring from Yale University Press.