PRINT December 2006

Francesco Bonami

1 “Fischli & Weiss: Flowers & Questions. A Retrospective” (Tate Modern, London) “Is happiness looking for me in the wrong place?” Anyone who can come up with this searching formulation—as Fischli & Weiss did for their slide projection Questions, 2002–2003—deserves a Nobel Prize. These artists won’t get one, of course, because they are lazy: They ski, they hike, they go on extended holidays—they also seem to laugh more than the average artist—and in between they make their amazing art. What more could you want from life (other than to be either Fischli or Weiss yourself)? Their retrospective at Tate Modern, organized by Vicente Todolí and Kunsthaus Zürich’s Bice Curiger, is proof that happiness did find them; their work for the past three decades has been an exercise in the life well lived.

2 “Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape” (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, New York) In a profound way, this small show, curated by Gail S. Davidson and Floramae McCarron-Cates, revealed the endless, incestuous relationship of the American subject to the untamable landscape—making it clear that the distance between these painters’ vision of nature and Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth can be measured in light-years. It is not obvious just how we morphed from explorers into tourists, from desiring awe to requiring comfort. But, way ahead of Greenpeace and ecoterrorism, these painters made the case for nature—never knowing that their paintings would lead to maddening exploitation, as people took inspiration from their work to transform nature into the most successful marketing tool of the tourism industry, with unavoidable polluting effects.

3 Thomas Hirschhorn, “Superficial Engagement” (Gladstone Gallery, New York) The best CliffsNotes to America’s macabre folly in Iraq. Maybe art can’t change the world, but Hirschhorn’s “Superficial Engagement” was proof that the world can change art. This brutal installation and gruesome tour de force—a rollicking heads-and-guts bouillabaisse—was a melancholy reflection on the power of art to understand and convey pain. Anybody looking for death as an existential concept here would have been disappointed: The images of suicide bombers and their victims make dying today seem a very superficial endeavor.

4 Oriana Fallaci A brilliant writer and interviewer of everyone from Federico Fellini to Henry Kissinger, Fallaci died in September without having accomplished her aim of becoming a Mediterranean Susan Sontag. Her final tantrums about fundamentalist Islam were both spectacular and sad. (Her best-selling 2002 book, The Rage and the Pride [Rizzoli], would have been better titled Rage and Prejudice.) Fallaci devoured her last meal of notoriety with a compulsive appetite, harboring a barely veiled resentment at being excluded from history, the very subject she had previously interrogated so aggressively. Still, her Garboesque attitude and her courage (which sometimes verged on foolhardiness) made her one of the icons of the twentieth century.

5 Etta Etrog’s studio near Bucharest, Romania When an interviewer once asked Leo Castelli how he could be sure there was not a great artist he was not aware of, hidden somewhere in the world, Castelli declared, “If such an artist is out there, we”—meaning the art world—“would know.” Perhaps, but I encountered Etrog’s work this year only by serendipity, when I opened a suspicious e-mail that contained a few JPEGS of her recent paintings—the most remarkable representations of modern blandness. Each one featured a wall, a floor, one or two electrical outlets, and an electrical cable, plugged or unplugged, running out of the frame. François Jullien, a French expert on Chinese culture, has written, “The bland brings us to experience a world beyond.” Looking at Etrog’s canvases a few months later in her chilly studio, I experienced a world beyond the bad remake of the ’80s (with ten times the budget) that is art today. I experienced a certain pathetic, beautiful naïveté that has elsewhere gone missing in action.

6 Maureen Gallace (The Art Institute of Chicago) Organized by James Rondeau, this was one of the most important boring shows about painting ever. If Giorgio Morandi was a fascist, Gallace is a fetishist who practices onanism with light and shade in a mesmerizing way. I was scarred this year by a flurry of shows by bombastic, splashy, and orgiastic bad painters, so for me, seeing Gallace’s work was like locking myself in the bathroom after a party with a bunch of nymphomaniacs.


7 Piotr Uklański, Summer Love This “pierogi western” will make John Ford and Sergio Leone cringe and roll in their graves. The Polish quarry where most of the action takes place is not exactly Monument Valley or Almería, but the crude atmosphere of melancholic despair means Summer Love has a chance of becoming a cult film. The director also deserves credit for convincing Val Kilmer to play the role of a corpse for the entire movie and for requiring that two cherry tomatoes be placed in the actor’s eyes.

8 Herzog & de Meuron, “Perception Restrained” (Museum of Modern Art, New York) Aggressive and hostile for vertically challenged people, this exhibition featured slots high in the gallery walls, through which one could see crowded samplings from MoMA’s collections of painting, sculpture, photography, and furniture, from several different periods, creating a condensed experience of how culture and art work in our heads today. It was kind of a vindictive move by the two architects (who were not chosen by MoMA in 1997 for its expansion)—a reminder to the museum that, like us, culture today belongs to a chaotic modernity and not to a minimalist one. If going to a museum is seen as a kind of airport-lounge experience, you have to accept that art can easily turn into “stuff,” meaning that viewers will experience mostly accumulation rather than sublimation.

9 Kim Christensen’s article “Painter Said to Be Focus of FBI Probe” (Los Angeles Times, August 29, 2006) This news story, about an alleged FBI probe into Thomas Kinkade’s contractual arrangements with galleries, can be seen as an interesting parable of Balzacian proportions for an art market run amok. I would like to challenge Benjamin H. D. Buchloh to discuss the Kinkade phenomenon in October without trashing him. Any young painter who needs to decide whether to become the next Gerhard Richter or the next Kinkade should read Christensen’s article and look deeply into Kinkade’s story and his “art.”

10 HOLA (Heather Flood and Jeffrey Inaba, with Jeffrey Johnson of SLAB), (Los Angeles/New York) The best post-Koolhaas architecture-and-urban-practices firm around: Slow, cool, Zen-ish, epicurean, and inspiring, HOLA clean up junk space using humor spray. They are constructing an environmentally friendly building in Costa Rica called the “Bong House,” and, if the City of Chicago hired them, they would un-loop the Loop to create what they call “Great Street”—the longest shopping strip in the world.

Francesco Bonami is the Manilow Senior Curator at large at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where his retrospective of Rudolf Stingel’s work will open next month. He is also the founder, with Giuliano da Empoli, of WAC (Weapons for Art Construction), an agency for cultural diplomacy.