TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 2005

LETTERS

LETTERS

Grotesqueries

To the Editor:

David Rimanelli was displeased with my exhibition “Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque” and has pronounced it “a bore” [Reviews, November 2004]. I am sorry. Besides that, there is little else I can say except that it seems he is easily bored.

Nor will I dwell on several ad hominem remarks that are scattered throughout his review—for example, in the space of three sentences I am characterized as an “intellectual populist,” “a master politician,” and “the don of his own Mafia.” I will, however, gratefully acknowledge that despite all my flaws Rimanelli does write that “the show is [italics are his] well curated.” Moreover, I appreciate the fact that he is also gracious enough to say that, unlike so many “festivalist” shows of late, mine actually has a coherent theme and that “Storr delivers his thesis clearly and persistently.” And he does mention liking the works by Lamar Peterson, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, and Peter Saul (whom he previously identifies as one of the “usual suspects”) as well as the animations of Kara Walker and Raymond Pettibon, neither of whom, prior to my invitation to take the plunge, had made moving images. So, I am reassured that his visit can’t have been a total loss.

All of that said, Rimanelli raises a number of objections that go to the heart of the exhibition’s theme and one concerning its intellectual sources. These deserve to be addressed since they concern fundamental misconceptions on his part. First, Rimanelli writes, “The problem is his thesis. The conception of the grotesque that Storr advances looks pretty tame, almost decorative.” As far as museum exhibitions are concerned I am not quite sure what his standards of tame are, but McCarthy’s spread beavers, Mike Kelley’s Sex to Sexty covers, Kim Jones’s scorched weenie toss (Rimanelli missed the performance, but it was part of the show), Charles Burns’s beautifully morbid comic-book page spreads (not seen in a museum context of this kind before), and, above all, Walker’s literally climactic black-ink “cum shot” are not exactly standard fare. But I guess Rimanelli was looking for gross-out thrills rather than weird poetics. I am sorry that the film program intended to accompany the show proved unfeasible; he would have gotten lots of Roger Corman.

As to the charge “decorative,” I vigorously plead guilty and ask him to read the exhibition catalogue or go back to those college art-history books (E.H. Gombrich, for example) he vaguely remembers. In them he will discover that the grotesque was, at its origin, an ornamental phenomenon initially developed in antiquity, revived in the Renaissance (after Romanesque and Gothic interludes of rampant pagan miscegenation of species and genres), and passed down from avant- to arrière-garde and back through the Baroque, Rococo, and Romantic eras and on to the moderns and antimoderns of almost every stripe. The premise of the show was simply to present as wide an array of contemporary grotesques as possible within the constraints of space, time, and money, works where, formally speaking, distortions and disparity are fostered by two primary genres: caricature and, yes, decoration. As to my true sources, if Gombrich is too far from Rimanelli’s reach, he has only to look through his back issues of Artforum for Mike Kelley’s comments on Adolf Loos and the modernist abhorrence of decoration in “Foul Perfection: Thoughts on Caricature” to catch up with the discourse. It’s not too late.

Citing our appalling misadventures in the Middle East, Rimanelli laments the fact that there was nothing overtly political in the show. That was a conscious decision on my part. I wanted to recover the full use of a term that has become an epithet for the aberrant and unsightly—“grotty,” for short—and in the run-up to an election there was no way that this could be done if I took a topical approach. But in an America being force-fed ideas of the normal, the unequivocal, and the righteous, I can only hope that a show in defense of the abnormal, the ambiguous, and the ambivalent could be understood as an explicitly political gesture. As to his comment about the laughable “artiness” of the Abu Ghraib photos, I can only conclude that Mr. Rimanelli has been besotted by media theory. True, the grotesque pressurizes contradictory responses and sometimes it conflates tragedy and comedy. However, in the realms of the horrific Rimanelli has made a basic category mistake exemplified by the fundamental difference between Goya’s “Caprichos,” which are grotesque, and his “Disasters of War,” which are not. Without in any way being art, the Abu Ghraib photos belong on the second side of this equation. At any rate, I have no mixed feelings about those pictures, and for me they are not in the least grotesque. The acts are criminal, the images obscene, and my response to them is unalloyed revulsion, shame, and anger.

Furthermore, Mr. Rimanelli faults my attempts to describe “the wellsprings of the grotesque” and my use of the words “base materiality” without footnoting what “any hip-to-crit undergraduate art history major might recognize” as a reference to Georges Bataille, and, failing that, in a dizzying inversion of intellectual priorities, “then at least [italics mine] Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss.” As he is apparently unaware, I am not a hip-to-crit undergraduate. Yet, I confess, thirty years ago when I made my living as a bookseller I sold copies of Bataille to consenting adults and precocious adolescents, and, starting with a pink slipcovered copy of Histoire de l’oeil, read some myself and more there- after while having my own experiences of “baseness” and “materiality” along the way. But are such terms and concepts really to be treated as if they have been “branded” by a particular clique of scholars? Must everyone think and write as if they had been living the same student life and following the same syllabus? Haven’t Bois and Krauss’s disciples genuflected enough to absolve the rest of the intellectual and artistic community of presumed debts to their academic industriousness? Seemingly not.

And one last question to Mr. Rimanelli, who in his annual Top Ten list took the opportunity of praising my friend and colleague Pamela Kort’s recent exhibition on the comic grotesque in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German art to snipe at my exhibition one more time by inviting his readers to make “invidious comparisons” between her efforts and mine. In the same column he also draws attention to New York Times writer Jonathan Kandell’s “revoltingly stupid hatchet job” on Jacques Derrida’s obituary. He was right to call Kandell and the Times on what they did, but in what way does his hatchet job on SITE Santa Fe raise the level of discourse above comparable snideness or, rather, lower the standards of criticism in Artforum’s pages to any lesser degree?

Robert Storr, New York

David Rimanelli responds:

Mr. Storr accuses me of making ad hominem attacks in my review of SITE Santa Fe. “Intellectual populist” strikes me as rather wan as ad hominem attacks go. As for my suggestion that he is the don of his own Mafia, this is plainly a rhetorical move prompted by the first paragraph of the catalogue essay that Mr. Storr accuses me of not having read thoroughly, i.e., his invocation of the figure of Tony Soprano as pop-cultural avatar of the grotesque. (In all likelihood, Mr. Storr has no actual mobsters in his family; quite possibly I do.)

Regarding my Top Ten, I actually regret my disparaging reference to “Our Grotesque,” which wasted space that could have more beneficially been used expanding my praise of Mr. Storr’s friend Pamela Kort’s show. This frivolous jeu d’esprit perhaps could give the impression that my review of SITE Santa Fe was motivated by some bizarre personal animus; I promise you it wasn’t. Mr. Storr goes on to say that my attack on Jonathan Kandell’s Times obituary of Jacques Derrida is on target, but then uses this as an opportunity to attack me for in like fashion debasing the critical standards of Artforum. May I simply say that Mr. Kandell was supposed to write an obituary, not an ignorant, misleading, indubitably ad hominem “review” of Derrida’s life and work. I wrote an exhibition review, which is criticism after all, and I stand by it.