PRINT December 2001

James Meyer


1 Technomania Technophilia, the most persistent of modernist themes, made another comeback. Ironically, the New Economy waned the year of digital art’s institutional embrace. Museums eager to court Silicon Valley support staged techie shows and dispensed handsome prizes to techie artists. The corporate cart was put before the horse: Many of the works in SF MOMA’S “OIOIOI” and the Whitney’s “Bitstreams” suggested the artistic potential of digital technology yet were not compelling to look at. (Exceptions: the videos of Jeremy Blake and Adam Ross’s Tanguyesque paintings.) The e-’90s already seem distant; the hype has subsided. Let the art begin.

2 “Antagonisms: Case Studies” (Museu d’Arte Contemporani, Barcelona) While the desperately hip techie shows looked to the future, this ambitious effort of MACBA’s Manuel Borja-Villel and José Lebrero Stals looked back—to a heroic avant-garde past. An excellent survey from the late ’50s on, it conceived the political in art as a changing notion. A little nostalgic, a little dated, yes; but at a moment when critical practice is more or less ignored, “Antagonisms” dared to put political art back on the agenda.

3 “Flashing into the Shadows: The Artist’s Film in America 1966-76” (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) The artist’s film of the ’60s and ’70s has been relatively neglected in comparison with the more easily exhibitable sculpture and photography of those years. A much-needed corrective, “Flashing into the Shadows” elucidated the importance of film in the work of Joan Jonas, Robert Morris, and Dan Graham, among others. At a time when museums are under pressure to present crowd-pleasing extravaganzas, curators Chrissie Iles and Eric de Bruyn pulled off a contemporary show of clear focus and impeccable quality at a major institution.

4 “The Short Century” (Museum Villa Stuck, Munich) It would be impossible for a single show to map the end of colonialism in Africa and the continent’s transition into a “postcolonial” era. Okwui Enwezor’s “The Short Century” tried to do precisely that—yet, commendably, avoided didacticism. A documentary section established a context for the wide-ranging work, which, displayed in separate galleries, could be seen as art. Marion Kaplan’s photos of segregated cocktail parties, Zwelethu Mthethwa’s images of post-apartheid South Africa, and Samuel Fosso’s self-portraits in different guises were among the standouts. I will not soon forget Jean Rouch’s stunning documentary The Mad Masters (1955), in which members of a Nigerian cult act out the roles of colonia1 oppressors in estranging gestures and speech.

5 Ellsworth Kelly (Matthew Marks Gallery, New York) The dean of abstract painters returned to the rectilinear diptych of the Guggenheim’s Orange Red Relief, 1959, with felicitous results. The show’s theme was the inflection of shape by shape, of edge by edge, through contrasts of intensity, value, and hue. Impeccably installed, this was an exhibition to return to.

6 Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry (MIT Press) The number of significant critical voices in any era can be counted on one hand. Buchloh is one of the voices of our time. That he is a writer of commitment is well known. What is less obvious, perhaps, is the compellingly dialectical quality of his thought. His narrative of the neo-avant-garde is admirably Adornian; the careers of artists as seemingly unrelated as Rodchenko, Warhol, and Broodthaers become fables of accommodation. For Buchloh, confinement is the precondition and fate (if not the ambition) of critical practice itself. His account is sustained, complex, powerful.

7 Paul McCarthy (New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York) What to make of McCarthy’s art? Oh, it’s about unsettling gender and family stereotypes and unleashing repressed desires—so we are told. Yet, confronted with his art I’m not sure what I’m looking at. His best work resists easy comprehension and pat psychoanalytical framing. At a time when shock has become a hackneyed concept, McCarthy remains "far out.’’ His art surpasses the domesticated grossness, the calculated transgression, of his imitators’.

8 John Di Stefano, HUB A compelling examination of that most fraught and contemporary of experiences: air travel. Occasional voice-overs discussing the fragmented, global subject sound like notes taken during a Homi Bhabha lecture. And yet HUB achieves a visual grain and intensity that persuasively captures the alienating effects of travel in an increasingly mobile society. The final shot of an airplane wing lifting above the runway into a thicket of clouds, accompanied by Di Stefano’s dramatic narration, is a small tour de force.

9 Jack Goldstein (I30IPE, Los Angeles) This modest show, organized by Brian Butler, made the remarkable early films, sound pieces, and performances of this now obscure ’80s star newly accessible. A running loop of Goldstein’s early film shorts of centered single images—a barking dog, a diver, a dove clasped by two hands—reminded a younger viewer why these works made such an impression in the late ’70s and how they could have inspired Douglas Crimp’s deservedly famous account of the Picture as a postmodernist art form.

10 Gregg Bordowitz, Habit The author of the 1993 video Fast Trip, Long Drop revisits what it means to live with HIV. Recalling the methods of feminist artists Yvonne Rainer and Martha Rosler, Bordowitz relates the innocuous details of daily life (waking up, eating, taking pills) to a broader social context. Autobiography becomes a pretext for addressing the global AIDS crisis. Bordowitz contrasts his experience as a middle-class American with access to health care to the dire circumstances of South African and Asian patients who cannot afford the fabled “cocktail.” Yet his haunting confessions of weight loss (he no longer recognizes his own face in the mirror) suggest that, for any person with AIDS, even a position of relative privilege is no picnic: The obverse of a life of habit, of domestic tranquility, is the unknown.

James Meyer, assistant professor of art history at Emory University, is the author of Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (Yale University Press, 2001).