PRINT December 2004

Pamela M. Lee

1 “A Minimal Future? Art as Object, 1958–1968” (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) With massive, awe-inspiring cubes by the likes of such stalwarts as Tony Smith and Donald Judd, Ann Goldstein’s expansive exhibition of Minimalist sculpture and painting gave new meaning to the museum “blockbuster.” Yet who knew how funny, lush, and downright weird much of this supposedly austere work really is, as in the extraterrestrial-meets-surfer aesthetics of John McCracken’s gorgeous vermilion plinths?

2 The Bontecou Effect This year saw a spate of important retrospectives by women artists (Lee Bontecou, Yvonne Rainer, Joan Jonas) who came of age in the ’60s and early ’70s. Great news for all of us. But widespread response to Bontecou’s traveling exhibition, however positive, highlighted a troubling phenomenon I call the “Bontecou Effect”: when a female artist “of a certain age” is considered by the art world to be missing in action—even though she’s been plugging away in her studio for decades—and interest in her work is resuscitated only by a force of institutional grace. This is the reality that women artists of her generation face.

3 “The Way We Work” (Southern Exposure, San Francisco) The group show has of late evolved into the “group” group show, as in the case of this provocative exhibition of international collectives curated by Courtney Fink and Kristen Evangelista. Indeed, this evolution has been accompanied by a change in the very nature of collectivity in art. Art historians often associate collectivism with the selfassured polemics of the avant-garde—Futurism, Constructivism, and Surrealism. But artists’ renewed efforts to collaborate today, whether by deploying the radio or the Internet, the archive (as in work here by United Net-Works) or the lowly placemat (Red76), represent a real paradigm shift. The new projects communicate less artistic certainty than a precarious desire for connection in these dangerous days with what some might call the multitude.

4 Shanghai, Capital of the Twenty-first Century On a recent trip to Shanghai, I learned that the reality of a “globalized” art world lies not so much with the specific achievements of artists, nor their international renown, as with the startling range of venues available for doing business. As befits its reputation as the new global megalopolis, the city turns out both glamour and grunge in equal measure, its economic ladder spanning the range of capitalist endeavor. From the luxe, Michael Graves–designed Shanghai Gallery of Art to the grittier spaces and studios at Suzhou Creek, one thing is clear: Consumer choice is the leitmotif of a free-market art world, whether in China or Chelsea.

5 Deerhoof Art rock: an oxymoron for the ages. Enter the Bay Area’s Deerhoof, the best argument for the genre. In this year’s concept album Milk Man (Kill Rock Stars/5 Rue Christine), a twisted narrative about milk deliveries and missing children, all the tropes of angular, art school/experimental music were in place. Live, singer/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki performs with plush toys shaped like fruit and sings about pandas. But when the band starts rocking—especially the brilliantly frenetic drummer Greg Saunier—it is your body, not your sense of aesthetics, that embraces that old rock ’n’ roll truism: Fuck art, let’s dance.

6 The Smithson Juggernaut He was everywhere this year—patron saint to a younger generation of crystal-obsessed artists at the Whitney Biennial; object of art historians’ archaeological fascination in a perpetual landslide of books; and subject of a landmark traveling retrospective organized by Eugenie Tsai and Connie Butler. Not bad for an artist whose most famous work, Spiral Jetty, 1970, has been seen in the flesh by a mere handful of visitors, relatively speaking. Today’s Smithson, however, is decidedly less monumental than his Earthworks might suggest. The shattered mirrors and distorted perspectives of his mid-’60s sculptures are apt reflections of our own cracked sensibilities—our collective struggle to make sense of a progressively fractured view of the present.

7 The Battle of Algiers It says something about the vicious-circle logic of our times that this year’s best statement on war, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, was made in 1965. This fictionalized account of the Algerian resistance, rereleased in a newly restored print, draws a timeless portrait of uprising and occupation. Fahrenheit 9/11 may have made for better box office, but Algiers speaks with more profound historical gravitas to the long-range effects of the “war on terror.”

8 The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central) That a TV comedy show could win a Peabody Award for its coverage of the 2000 presidential election speaks as much to the contemptible state of news media as it does to the spot-on satire of the show’s writers. And Stewart’s take on politics only got better this time. (Or worse, depending on how you look at it.)

9 “Ant Farm 1968–1978” (Berkeley Art Museum) Curated by Constance Lewallen and Steve Seid, this year’s retrospective of Ant Farm, the Bay Area’s experimental architecture and video collective, perfectly illustrated just how short is the distance traveled between media utopia and dystopia. From sly performances and videos such as The Eternal Frame, 1975—their parodic restaging of the Zapruder footage—to loopy proposals for communing with dolphins, Ant Farm walked the line between the ecstasy of communication and the lurking dangers of the control society. We’re still walking with them.

10 Bruce Nauman, Raw Materials (Tate Modern, London) We’ve come to expect monumentality from the Tate’s Unilever Series: Think Olafur Eliasson’s vast, eternal dawn or Louise Bourgeois’s monstrous arachnids. Hence the great surprise (perhaps relief ) of Nauman’s aural collage, on view through March 28, which draws from his archive of noise to produce a haunting, cacophonous echo chamber in the museum’s gargantuan space. In a world dominated by visual spectacle, Nauman’s soundscape reminds us of its creepy, whispering underbelly: a material void no less insidious for all its apparent emptiness.

Pamela M. Lee is associate professor of art history at Stanford University. She is the author, most recently, of Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, which was published in spring 2004 by MIT Press.