PRINT December 2008



To take stock of the past year, Artforum contacted an international group of artists to find out which exhibitions were, in their eyes, the very best of 2008.


James Coleman, Background, 1991–94 (Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin) Existential photo-novel? Soap opera? Mail-order-catalogue photo shoot? Coleman’s installations, pairing slide projection with synchronized audio, don’t lend themselves to easy categorization. In Background, shown at the Irish Museum of Modern Art this year, the male narrator’s voice adds to the general dislocation, straining earnestly to convey some sort of meaning, while stuttering in his efforts to enunciate the very words being read. His voice shifting, he speaks in turn on behalf of each of the four characters presented. This is no dry disputation on the production of meaning, but a conversation with the self, about the self—a darkly humorous dialogue shot through with melancholy.


“Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?” (Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York) It was like walking into my dream show of 1989—and, as in dreams, the most unlikely people showed up, not always cast as themselves. A wallpaper facsimile of the gallery’s previous show—which had featured works by late-1980s icons Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Donald Baechler, and Kenny Scharf—formed a backdrop for the display of actual works by the likes of Rob Pruitt, George Herold, Lily van der Stokker, and Francis Picabia, creating a succession of double takes. As I looked and laughed and got lost in the joyous rigor of every detail, the inside of my head began to feel like its own sculpture in the making. I was left with a spring in my step and reminded of what art and exhibitions can be outside of conventional formats.


“The Collections of Barbara Bloom” (Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin) In Bloom’s art, a show becomes a collection; a collection becomes a book; a book becomes an exhibition. Beautiful objects in perfectly orchestrated displays seem to guide you, with elegance and with a smile, from room to room—and from page to page. But her art is not about ownership or materialism; it is not about a “body” of “work.” It is about the magic of a playful mind. Her art takes its time.


Blinky Palermo (Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf) This show confirmed for me the paramount importance of Palermo, as it must have for all who saw it. He remains a model of seriousness and good faith that we must keep in mind, now more than ever. My conviction is absolute, although I can’t explain why. Others will find the critical models, as they have for Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman, and other painters who are equally difficult to talk about. There must be many of us who are waiting for the day when we will learn why our certainty about Palermo is justified.


Terry Riley, debut of Universal Bridge, composed on and for the organ at Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, May 25, 2008 Expansive genius Riley blew my mind, taking the hall’s Caligari Maserati of a pipe organ all the way out and back in the world premiere of his Universal Bridge. The California wizard played from within the golden maw of this massive instrument, his “Hurricane Mama,” conjuring an aurora borealis of sound as a storm of colored light broke above the hall. Feeling as sound, sound as feeling: a somatic ride taken by an audience that sat transfixed as draw knobs were pulled in combinations that made sounds and things no one had ever heard or felt before.


Adam Pendleton, The Revival (Performa07, New York) The heart of this piece was Pendleton’s experimental sermon recited in his unusual, melodic voice. The Revival, conceived as a Southern-style religious service, included a gospel choir with live accompaniment by jazz composer and pianist Jason Moran and soprano Alicia Hall Moran. Pendleton, a painter as well as a poet, cross-referenced genres and styles to create new dialogues in what was a simply beautiful, piercing work.


Francis Alÿs, “Fabiola” (Dia at the Hispanic Society of America, New York) Alÿs’s exhibition of nearly three hundred copies of a lost nineteenth-century French painting was an outstanding investigation of the migration of images, the vertigo of representation, and the obsessive-compulsive impulses behind collecting. The paintings, found by the peripatetic artist through years of flea-market wanderings, depict Fabiola, a fourth-century saint, in profile, her hair covered by a veil. The enigmatic portraits could easily be deciphered as an allegory of Melancholia, but the mise en abyme set in motion by the mimetic repetition of the subject was ultimately more Pierre Menard than Aby Warburg. When I saw a painted copy of Courbet’s Origin of the World for sale only weeks later a few blocks from the Met, where the original was then being exhibited, it made Alÿs’s collection seem all the more remarkable. A Fabiola is a Fabiola is a Fabiola. . . .


Doug Aitken, Migration (303 Gallery at Art Basel) Amid the jostling crowds at Art Basel last June, Aitken’s Migration, 2008, provided something of a refuge. (And it did again when shown at 303 in New York this past fall.) Refusing narrative, the video contains a sequence of seemingly incongruous scenes—from a beaver wading in a bathtub to a gelding poised bedside at a motel. There is neither dialogue nor any discernible sense of linear time, only Aitken’s mesmerizing imagery, which struck me as a series of cinematic paintings and reminded me of what it felt like to watch Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas for the first time.


Andro Wekua, “Blue Mirror” (Gladstone Gallery, New York) Pensive and dreamy, Wekua’s world is remote from the everyday. His paintings, set within the deep tones of the exhibition space, speak a language of their own, bearing intense and at times even incongruously bright colors, rich with emotion and full of memories, while his sculptures, resembling children in form, seem wizened and aged—as though touched by the sadness of life: the kind of melancholy that one sometimes longs for.


Neal Beggs, The Alphabet Climb, 2004, in “Users’ End” (Be-Part, Waregem, Belgium) It is: abstract beat body brut clair-obscur conceptual combine concrete constructivisme crafts dadaïsme déco décollage expressionnisme fauvisme fluxus fundamental futurisme genre happening high-tech illusionisme impressionnisme informel jugendstil kakemono kubisme land lettrisme licht luminisme magic-realism maniérisme modernisme monochroom neo-nouveau-réalisme neue-wilden nul objets-trouvés plein-air pointillisme pop postpainterly povera primary purisme readymade réalisme-soft suprématisme transavantguardia trompe-l’oeil vorticisme zero, no, just art.


Kate Huh in “SIDE X SIDE/Visual AIDS” (La MaMa La Galleria, New York) In the queer/punk tradition of using cut-and-paste and found imagery, Huh’s materials, like her writing, are simple yet powerful. Rooted in a community of activists that values DIY production and hand-to-hand communication, Huh’s visual and textual work is guided by her actions among the hearing impaired and radically queered. Throughout, she assumes a thoughtful and playful viewer open to the gay, trans, and lesbian codes that inform her practice.


Mike Kelley, “Educational Complex Onwards: 1995–2008” (Wiels, Brussels) While I have seen Kelley’s work in group shows, viewing it for the first time in isolation within this large-scale solo exhibition amounted to something of an epiphany. Kelley himself might now be considered a sort of school. But zooming in and out of this tightly focused yet generous display of projects, from film and video installations to paintings and drawings, built environments to models, memories to projections, and back again, I was inspired to see how, because of his all-reaching vision—evidenced both in his well-known work and in more recent projects—he remains miles ahead of his acolytes.


Tatiana Trouvé, “Density of Time” (Johann König, Berlin) I feel lucky to have caught an exhibition of Trouvé’s “site-specific constructions” at Johann König in Berlin this past May. Art should defy language, and this work certainly did. By turns Duchampian and Merleau-Pontian, Trouvé presented a small (museum-quality) universe in which orthodox time and logic have taken a walk and we’re not at all anxious for them to come back. While they’re away, a superphysical landscape parties.


Daniel McDonald, “Bohemian Monsters” (Broadway 1602, New York) I read this show of miniature tableaux as an elaborate storyboard for a miniseries that Douglas Cramer might have produced about the East Village—Valley of the Dolls set on the LES and in Echo Park rather than Midtown and Bel Air. Washed-up movie monsters in roles of our favorite avant-garde types. Is the Bride of Frankenstein playing Kembra Pfahler? Is the Wicked Witch of the West playing Tabboo!? Who’s the Mummy supposed to be, Rob Pruitt? That’s me in the corner (Michael Stipe’s show at Rogan being another favorite of the year). Beyond wry social satire and attention to craft, there was an astute politics at work in what was McDonald’s first solo show.


Lawrence Weiner, “As Far as the Eye Can See (The Geffen Contemporary at MoCA, Los Angeles) and Michael Asher (Santa Monica Museum of Art, CA) There was nothing particularly unexpected in the operational mode of either of these two nearly coinciding and long overdue exhibitions in Los Angeles. Yet as spatial interventions, their stunning elegance and rare precision—employed to almost inverse effect—have remained unrivaled in my mind all year. Both extremes—one comically dense to the point of oppression (Asher), the other airy and flooded with light (Weiner)—insisted stubbornly, and against much current evidence, on spatial experience as a critical endeavor. Never before had the Geffen looked so good, the Santa Monica Museum so strange.


“Ant Farm: Radical Hardware” (Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, Buell Hall, Columbia University, New York) This exhibition of Ant Farm’s early image production was informative, rigorous, and fun. Curators Felicity Scott and Mark Wasiuta managed to unearth long-buried video material of hippies frolicking on inflatable structures; drawings, contracts, and communications for building the genitally shaped House of the Century (1972); as well as many other marvels from this architecture collective’s past. The meticulously executed installation design allowed for an enlightening back-and-forth between historical documents and academic commentary, thereby both recasting what a show based on archival material can accomplish and shedding new light on Ant Farm’s early embrace of image technologies.


Rodney Graham (303 Gallery, New York) Graham did for Chelsea and other art centers throughout the world what Duchamp did for the Mona Lisa. I read it as Greenberg for Dummies. Contemporary art requires antidotes like this periodically. Thanks, Rodney!


Carl Andre, “Idea and Object” collection display (Tate Modern, London) Every time I pass by an Andre floor piece in a museum, I wait a while to see if any visitors will walk over it, but that never occurs. Last year I even tried—unsuccessfully—to convince the curators at an institution I was showing at to place the Andre very close to their Minimal art gallery’s entryway. This year, the Tate did exactly that. An Andre was installed so close to the entrance of the first of their fifth-floor collection rooms that crowds were just marching over it. I watched in awe; it felt like seeing the work in completion for the first time—a sculpture not for “the masses” to look up to, but a kind of pedestal for us.


Ryan Trecartin (YouTube) Trecartin posts his videos on YouTube under the name Wian Treetin. This year he added I BE-AREA, which I like for its vibrant colors, special effects, and editing—though it’s too long for my taste. My favorite is (Tommy Chat Just E-mailed Me.), 2006. It’s a short video that shifts from girls on the Internet, to girls on the phone, to girls inside the Internet. Tommy is, I think, the protagonist, even though he’s hardly mentioned. Actually, maybe Tommy isn’t the protagonist. Maybe there are two protagonists: sound and image. Though both are subjected to Trecartin’s arsenal of special effects, the video still comes across as one homogeneous piece. That’s what inspires me the most.


Shelly Silver, in complete world (screened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York) It’s easy to feel alienated from one’s fellow citizens; it’s not easy to combat that alienation. But Silver does. Her film in complete world weaves together street interviews with a hundred or so New Yorkers; ages, accents, styles, and races mix as people respond to questions like, Are you satisfied? and, Are we responsible for the government we get? Deceptively simple in its formal rigor, the film focuses on timbres of voices and shapes of faces, investing without reservation in the extended, non-sound-bite take in which all the strangeness, pathos, tang, and perspicacity of demotic speech unfolds. Spliced between the interviews, black screens backed by city sounds both link and separate the speakers; the city is a matrix, but all will be drowned out if we don’t listen carefully. If neither avant-garde silence nor infotainment cacophony can help us now, maybe what we need is Silver’s skeptical but tender vérité.

Shelly Silver, in complete world, 2008, still from a color video, 53 minutes.


Fischli & Weiss, “Questions & Flowers: A Retrospective” (Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Germany) This spring, while Fischli & Weiss were at the Deichtorhallen preparing the last leg of their three-part retrospective, I happened to be nearby assembling an exhibition at the Kunstverein. Stopping by one afternoon (which had become something of a daily routine), I found the pair installing Floss (Raft), 1982, a collection of carved pieces resembling odd things you might find in a country garage. With their assistant, Jason Klimatsas, they worked individually but in perfect unison, with just a word spoken here or there. I was struck by their ease as they casually placed objects around the room, playfully testing out various relationships. To observe was to watch a story unfold.


“Wolfgang Tillmans: Lighter” (Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin) When I first became interested in narrative writing, I was irresistibly driven by the idea that Tillmans’s photography should be my paradigm. His work, which was noticeably different from most (particularly German) photography of the time, incorporated a literary quality, diving fearlessly into various social and personal narratives. I have long believed in a good/evil dialectic between narrative and formalist art. In Tillmans’s huge Hamburger Bahnhof exhibition, his narrative structures were less prominent. The photographs nevertheless created a new experience for me, suddenly making even the “empty halls” of formalism somehow lovable.


“Yevgeny Khaldei: The Decisive Moment” (Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin) World War II planes bomb a hillside while a shellshocked reindeer looks on—a typical composition by Russian photographer Yevgeny Khaldei. Known almost exclusively for work produced during and immediately following that war, he acted, in contemporary parlance, as an “embedded journalist,” reporting with the Soviet Red Army in theaters of war from Vienna to Berlin to Budapest. Hovering between propaganda, reportage, and storytelling, these images elicit fascinating questions: Are they collage or falsification? Spontaneous snapshots or staged? Drama or documentary? What’s the difference anyhow? Ask Khaldei: Explaining how he captured a dramatic smoke cloud above the smoldering house of an SS henchman, he coolly stated, “I set fire to the building.”


Kori Newkirk, Rank (LAXART, Los Angeles) Newkirk’s installation this past summer was one of the timeliest artworks I’ve seen in a while. Mixing two worlds—that of politicos like Obama and McCain with that of pop-music videos—Rank, consisting of a blinged-out podium, curtain, and cluster of microphones, seemed readier for the likes of Missy Elliott and Timbaland than for Sarah Palin accepting her nomination. Newkirk’s monument to a long history of whistle-stop speeches shifted my perspective on passing the mic.


Michael Clark, “The Stravinsky Project” (Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York) I saw it performed last year at the Barbican in London, but I am choosing the piece this year for its New York debut at Lincoln Center. Yes to spectacle; yes to virtuosity; yes to transformations and magic—especially, but also only, because Clark knows exactly how to turn all those diversions upside down and make something you would never expect on top of it all. Fabulous!


Emily Dickinson, from the MTA’s “Poetry in Motion” series (6 train, New York)

I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch—
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.


“Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas” (MoCA Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles) Former minister of culture for the Black Panthers and art director of its paper from 1967 until 1980, Douglas applied the ethos of his party’s motto—“A thing is only good when it brings real benefit to the people”—to his art. Committed to social justice, he represented the poor with dignity while aggressively attacking their oppressors through his aesthetically compelling and formally innovative illustrations, collages, posters, and drawings. Exhibited at this moment in our history—when an African American stood poised to win the presidency of a country at war not only abroad, but against its own citizens’ constitutional freedoms—Douglas’s output seems as relevant and politically astute today as it must have during the momentous and contradictory times that produced it.

Emory Douglas, poster from The Black Panther, May 11, 1969, offset lithograph.


Annika Eriksson, The Man in the Park (Högalidsparken, Stockholm) “Be careful, brightly dressed man, what are you doing?! Terrible things can happen in there, even to you!” There are huge areas in every city that I would never enter after sunset, which during Sweden’s winter can be as early as 3 PM. As the light decreases, so does my access to space. We women are used to it. Walking near a park at night, we hasten past. But for one week last January, Eriksson hired a man—a trained guard in white uniform, equipped with a flashlight—to roam Högalidsparken in central Stockholm following a particular choreography from dusk to dawn nightly. You could walk beside him, taking your daylight shortcut to the tube station, or ask him to stand close as you observed a fox. He was your protector; but alone there, at night, with a strange man—my God, also the man in the park.

Annika Eriksson, The Man in the Park, 2008. Performance view, Högalidsparken, Stockholm, January 9, 2008. Photo: Per Kristiansen.


Lukas Duwenhögger, “The End of the Season” (Cabinet Gallery, London) I recall a highly crafted maquette of a lattice watchtower upholding a humanized copper teapot of improbable height, which thus seemed quasi-celestial. . . . Its provenance was that of a proposal, for a memorial for the city of Berlin, to the homosexuals lost to Nazism. It was thus both a work and a proposition for a work too contentious to have been commissioned. Nonetheless, its very strangeness and wit are what gave it conceptual and ethical viability. A flotilla of riches—including a pastiche of devotional painting featuring a young man seated with a dog, perhaps as surrogate lover—concluded an exemplary project.


Michael Asher (Santa Monica Museum of Art, CA) The exhibition “Michael Asher” was memorable because it concretized several histories at once. We learned, for example, about the ways the museum has accommodated the specific spatial demands of artworks over the past decade, a history retraced wall by skeletal wall. More visceral still were the implications of Asher’s intangible practice as presented in a major museum—an institution with, appropriately enough, no collection. Visiting “Michael Asher” with my students from the Art Academy in Copenhagen made his art-historical marginalization, and therefore the imperative for this presentation, all the more obvious. Students mused that, given all the contemporary art this well-traveled group had seen, how could it be that such a historically cogent figure seemed so radically unfamiliar?


Riwaq Biennale (various venues, Palestine) The exhibition that made the greatest impression on me—the Riwaq Biennale—was in fact not an exhibition: It consisted primarily of conversations, workshops, and tours through the occupied territories. I saw Hebron, Jenin, walls, barbed-wire fences, and military checkpoints. I saw a bottle-shaped city surrounded by a wall, a city with just one entrance: Qalqilya. After the biennial closed, one of the speakers at the LiminalSpaces conference in Israel said the next Riwaq Biennale should take place in the Gaza Strip. Who goes?


Jonah Freeman, Justin Lowe, and Alexandre Singh, “Hello Meth Lab in the Sun” (Ballroom Marfa, Marfa, TX) With entry into this behemoth of an installation, or “total environment,” came a creeping anxiety as contemporary time and place were replaced by a devastated setting of perhaps two decades past. Passing from room to room, one encountered the detritus of addiction’s insanity, along with bizarre assemblages of new-age and druggie ephemera—evidence that “natural magic” failed to meet its utopian ideals. Less a house of horrors than a distillation and magnification of hippiedom’s myriad failures, the temporary work was both an allegory and a warped reflection of 2008.


Larry Johnson (Patrick Painter, Los Angeles) In one photograph, a beam of ghostly, pure white light streams from a crisply hand-rendered line drawing of a now-obsolete slide projector. A kind of spirit photography is evoked by the palette of shadowy black-and-white, which in other works is supplanted by the high-key lighting of pornography. In full color, the hand of the artist is photographed simultaneously fucking and erasing, with a pencil, a sketch of a clearly pleased and rather unburdened cartoon donkey. What, exactly, is submission in this image? That the animal alludes to the stung-to-death donkey from Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread only adds to my nervous affection for the artist.

Larry Johnson, Giraffe, 2007, color print, 45 1⁄2 x 92". Photo: Fredrik Nilsen.


“An Evening with Carolee Schneemann” (REDCAT, Los Angeles) Schneemann’s pioneering Fuses, 1965—an orgiastic, layered document of the artist having sex with her then-boyfriend—remains so potent that while watching the film, one cannot conjure even the remotest idea of anything conventionally “binary.” Colorful, gritty, and flickering, Fuses is a treatise on pleasure that leaves the subject/object dyad (and many others) a sorry splot on the windshield of the artist’s commitment, her curiosity. The pink throbbers—I just loved them. Fuses plays as a fundamental corrective to the thrashers that ail us: cyberimmateriality and its contemporary attendant, brutality. Generous here, Schneemann offers the sweetest thing: joy. Forty years later, even more stunning.


Sharon Hayes, “In the Near Future—Warsaw, 2008” (Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw) This past summer artist-activist Sharon Hayes protested the Vietnam War in Warsaw. My immediate impression was that this action was radically out of context—that it was a stance in opposition to forgetting the war and a gesture in favor of dissent anytime, anywhere. As it turns out, the performance did have a context: It was one of five related actions in which Hayes carried signs from past protests in Poland, including placards from the 1980 Solidarity uprising and from a recent gay rights rally. The sign I saw, which proclaimed in Polish, WE CONDEMN US AGGRESSION IN VIETNAM, was identical to one carried at the antiwar demonstrations in Warsaw forty years ago. Hayes’s performances are concerned with the public’s reaction to a war or political crisis, the mediation of that response, and the manner in which our memory of it is framed—perhaps even how it has been handed to us.


“The Soul (Or, Much Trouble in the Transportation of Souls)” (Palazzo Delle Poste, Trento, Italy) Part of Manifesta 7, this information-intensive show was anchored by a locale that provided a conveniently relevant platform for today’s discussions of where life begins and ends. For it was here, of course, that the Council of Trent took place in 1545, during which the Catholic Church made important shifts in doctrine pertaining to penitents’ interior lives—which is to say, their souls. The show took us on an exploration through the wonderful work assembled by its two curators, Anselm Franke and Hila Peleg, as well as through small curated projects, such as the “Museum of Projective Personality Testing” and the “Museum of European Normality.” It all made me hope that the job of judging European souls is in good hands today. Inspiring, intelligent, and funny!


Philippe Decrauzat in Le Printemps de Septembre (Musée les Abattoirs, Toulouse, France) To cross the threshold of Decrauzat’s installation at Musée les Abattoirs was to enter a total vibratory cinematic space—black and white lines pulsated as the flat painted planes of the floor and walls merged with the modified architecture, which now seemed to resemble giant, shaped canvases serving as doorways and corridors. In one room, Leslie, 2008, a periscope-like sculpture, rotated while emitting a shrill, piercing sound. In the other, Decrauzat’s 16-mm film After Birds, 2008—a loop of resequenced Hitchcock stills—cast the shadowed silhouettes of avian forms moving in cycles of endlessly morphing patterns: a gorgeous ode to the magical surface of the silver screen.


Andrea Zittel (Schaulager, Basel) Zittel has written: “Because we already understand images to serve a function of persuasion in advertising they are already read as a potential ‘fraud’ or ‘lie’ that somehow makes them feel more truthful since their role as propaganda is so transparent.” Her paintings, drawings, and objects—furniture, items of clothing, and customized mobile homes (alongside their models and drafts)—are bent on such forthrightness. Seen together, they recall a trade-fair product launch or flagship-store display. After fifty years of Pop, Zittel not only has found an elegant way to expose the “somehow truthful” in commercial design, but has also proved that innocence is necessary for some form of honesty to emerge. In colors that look native to a country you’ve never seen, if you even knew it existed, this work doesn’t serve as propaganda—not even for itself.


“First Selection” (Cruise & Callas, Berlin) With blue-chip exhibition spaces mushrooming throughout Berlin, this new gallery, located in a rotten Kreuzberg backyard and basement, adds haut goût to the zeitgeist. A former motorcycle workshop with an oil-stained floor, rough brick walls, and a huge cellar, it’s worlds away from the classic white cube, reminding me of temporary spaces you could find ten years ago in Berlin’s pioneer days. Of the work in “First Selection,” a show featuring five emerging artists, I especially liked that of Stefan Rinck, Heiko Sievers, and Gabriel Vormstein, whose rough-and-tough installations sprawled throughout the dark basement. In the backyard were fabulous abstract paintings by Ralf Dereich and Dominik Steiner.


Lize Mogel, Area of Detail (Common Room, New York) Mogel’s diverse yet precise work as an artist, curator, and editor reminds us that we never escape geography, society, and politics. In Area of Detail, Mogel examines the United Nations emblem—a map that looks “down” on Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, presciently depicting the North Pole without its ice cap. As global climate change is making natural resources and shipping routes in the Arctic Circle newly accessible, the UN has become a platform for debate among arctic nations seeking to use the formerly impassable Northwest Passage. Mogel, coeditor of An Atlas of Radical Cartography, presents a new view of this familiar terrain by skillfully remapping it against the grain.


Jeremy Deller, “From One Revolution to Another” (Palais de Tokyo, Paris) This ambitious exhibition sought to map modes of representation and cultural production employed from the onset of the British Industrial Revolution to the recent digital revolution. Artist-cum-curator Deller eschewed traditional object making, presenting instead insightful projects—such as Ed Hall’s collection of banners, and his own collaboration with Alan Kane, The Folk Archives—that excavated this past through archives and personal narratives. Artistic practice here was located in direct experience and investigation; archiving proved essential to writing the histories of losers, obscure lives, and minor objects.


Barack Obama, Democratic National Convention speech (Invesco Field, Denver) “THERE HE IS!” someone behind me screamed, reacting simultaneously with sixty-eight thousand other people as Barack Obama stepped onstage. Two things that I remember: the electricity of America turning a historical corner; and the realization that Obama now had to be a fullfledged politician, forced to convey a message that is both moderate and consistent, with little nuance. During that night’s closing fireworks show, red, white, and blue confetti soared sixty feet in the air as rockets exploded against a backdrop of stars like a cosmological event. A few fragments of red and white streamers were caught on a cable high above the stage, and, dancing in the pyrotechnic haze, they looked like an American flag coming apart.


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “The Unexpected New: Late Paintings” (Michael Werner Gallery, New York) An astonishing show of “late” work spanning fifteen years, all painted in Davos, Switzerland, after a life-altering nervous breakdown in 1915. Suddenly there is new freedom, a detachment, a void of expression, gesture evacuated. A cold fever of poisonous pastel combinations, muted and sometimes mutilated, disturbing-looking and hard to take even now. Mannered and sophisticated, flat and impatient, compositions reflecting an authority of indifference. Kirchner was cast in a completely new light, as somebody concerned with the power and possibilities of painting, not image—the paintings not “expressive” but a solitary and courageous surrender to the work itself, an indeed unexpected declaration of victorious defeat.


“Threads of Splendor” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) Inaugurating a spectacular year at the Met, “Threads of Splendor” brought together some forty-five tapestries manufactured in Europe at the height of absolutism. These action-packed, woven cinemascopic stills, which once decorated vast palace walls, were shamelessly propagandistic dedications to saints, monarchs (Louis XIV, in particular), and other deified beings. The ultimate artisanal spectacle of their time (produced from designs by artists such as Rubens, Charles Le Brun, and Pietro da Cortona), they engage a different visual register than paintings. Without the depth of multiple oil layers, they appear somewhat flatter (despite huge 3-D volumes depicting horse asses, ship bodies, and battle formations), but their soft materiality and muffled palette give a peculiar and oddly removed sound to heavy, over-the-top drama.


Curator Mark Beasley on Chris Burden (New York) At some point in New York this past spring, Beasley recounted how Burden once threw a balsa-wood model airplane down the aisle while traveling on the Concorde . . . and could therefore claim to have made and launched the fastest commercial aircraft in history. Obviously, this unmonumental performance didn’t happen in 2008, but given that rumors are born at the time and place they are first heard, they only die once they’ve become “dated,” and cease to circulate. Thirty years following Burden’s launch, this rumor is still breathing.


Barry MacGregor Johnston, “Wild Knock” (Overduin and Kite, Los Angeles) Johnston’s work is spun from where the objects and rites of late capitalism intersect with the space of the individual, activating new relationships couched in genres of popular performance and tinted by the subtle lawlessness of street life. Evoking a contemporary equivalent of both Huysmans and Dickens, his aesthetic employs such things as inside-out pockets, chalk on concrete, fourteen-karat-gold-plated chains doused with Evian, and the face and arms of a laborer’s tan drawn on the body in self-tanning gel. In performance, an unholstered metal-detector wand is waved into the crowd, summoning us to enter the artist’s mini-circus of ambiguously earnest dissent. Through Johnston’s work, we can engage a searing and hilarious dissection of cargo culture without being forced to swallow a big-box store’s worth of products.


“Some Dry Space: Michael Light” (Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, NV) Light’s survey of the West, predominantly shot from a self-piloted airplane using techniques descended from early military reconnaissance photography, delivered a bird’s-eye view of the persistent “frontier.” For this exhibition, in an oversize handmade book resting on a tripod (rather than on a pedestal), an inverted wall-size photograph of a Los Angeles cityscape shot directly into the sun, and in photographs of endless Wyoming coal mines, California oil fi elds, hollowedout Utah mountains, and vast desert landscapes portrayed with vertigo-inducing tilted aerial perspectives, Light offered a nonfi ction metaphor for the shock-and-awe violence characterizing American frontiers past, present, and future.


Mike Bouchet, 16x9 Action Film (screened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) This feature-length video projection constituted 144 action films screened simultaneously in a rectangular grid, accompanied by a mind-blowing aggregate of music, gunshots, explosions, and screams—all 144 sound tracks mixed as one. The viewer could either trace individual story lines, analytically jumping from movie to movie, mixing and matching image with audio, or take the experience as a singular hypnotic expression. Either way, Bouchet shamelessly and systematically exploited typical blockbuster films to create a new cinematic experience.


Bernhard Leitner, “TonRaumSkulptur” (SoundSpaceSculpture 1968–73) (Hamburger Bahnhof–Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin) Thirty-five years ago, New York–based Austrian architect Leitner began deploying sound as a building material, considering it an architectural, form-producing substance not unlike stone, plaster, or wood. This exhibition brought together the early sketches, notations, models, and photographs wherein the architect first revealed his radical idea of “sound space” and featured a re-creation of his 1973 installation Sound Tube using contemporary equipment. This simple construction of wooden planks suspended from the ceiling and studded with speakers gave way to the most dynamic sensation of shifting space, proving that artistic vision and invention trump novel technology.


Erika Vogt, “Motor Post Motor Band Disband” (Daniel Hug Gallery, Los Angeles) Like a witch with big plans giving fair warning, Vogt in her first solo show harnessed the energy of analog-digital alchemy, hinting at its full ritual effect. “I wanted to bring lightning into the studio,” the artist says. Projected onto a small patch of taboo high-gloss gray paint was footage shot in three layers—a video of a film of a video—of lightning bolts and forest fires; a screen like a ghost; and Vogt clutching a mirror for a shield, a stick for a sword, and a beret for a helmet, “communicating,” she explains, “with another soldier, the guardian of the unknown.”

Erika Vogt, I Arrive When I Am Foreign (Projection Send Back), 2007, color print, 47 x 96 1⁄2".


“Agitated Images: John Heartfield & German Photomontage, 1920– 1938” (Wolfsonian, Miami Beach, FL) Thirty-five of Heartfield’s hot-as-Baghdad designs for books and magazines appeared here, demonstrating the artist’s unique ability to mix political satire with the techniques of avant-garde aesthetics (photomontage, image appropriation) and mass-communication to create a dazzling visual blend.


Lawrence Weiner, “As Far as the Eye Can See” (K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf) From the smallest matchbox to the largest juicy lavender wall text, Weiner’s works both pervade and mingle elegantly with the strange neo-Renaissance architecture of this North Rhine–Westphalia parliament-turned-museum. Descending the stairs into the exhibition, one collided head-on with the art mantra for the twenty-first century:


I hit that wall! And found everything!


Adam Chodzko, Pyramid in the Folkestone Triennial (various venues, Folkestone, UK) From one small facet of an over-engineered piece of architecture—the inverted pyramidal steel supports of Folkestone’s Leas Cliff Hall—originated an incredibly dense artwork, fraught with layers of absurdity, tragedy, spirituality, and comedy. The tale of a town’s economic woes and redemption brought about by the sinister structure’s construction was in part told through a video, which at times spiraled into mania only to be rescued by the stern speculation of a voice-over. Screened in a ghostly, decommissioned store that once sold stone for kitchen renovations, the video made the left-behind samples of marble, granite, and sandstone feel like eerie cultish artifacts. Simultaneously vast and molecular, Chodzko’s project was relentless.


“Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) A masterful gathering of approximately forty paintings (and as many drawings) encouraged viewers to hypnotically enter “Arcadian Visions.” The exhibition included Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, ca. 1648, and Landscape with a Calm, 1650–51; two works discussed by T. J. Clark in The Sight of Death (2006). Here, however, the show’s depth provided the luxury of contemplating many more such compelling “narratives,” making it an antidote to what Clark has called the “pseudo-utopia” of our contemporary visual culture, a “terrible moment in the politics of imaging, envisioning, visualizing.” In contrast, this exhibition became a relief from the usual blockbuster spectacles endlessly confronting New Yorkers. “Poussin and Nature” let viewers regain a foothold into a historical framework, whose collection of inspired gestures allowed one to breathe rather than be “blown away.”


Harry Partch, Plectra and Percussion Dances: Satyr-Play Music for Dance Theater (REDCAT, Los Angeles) This ethereal and uplifting work from 1952 was performed with skill and theatrical aplomb by PARTCH, the Los Angeles–residing music ensemble specializing in the work of Harry Partch and other microtonal composers. The group plays on instruments constructed according to Partch’s unique designs: objects that are plucked, struck, bowed, and strummed, producing shimmering textures and engagingly unusual rhythms—a diverse array delighting both ear and eye. The REDCAT performance also featured a selection of the late composer’s songs. In all, a demonstration of fine musicianship, animating the difficult tunings of a true American maverick.


Louise Bourgeois (Centre Pompidou, Paris) To walk through the installation of Bourgeois’s comprehensive retrospective at the Centre Pompidou—narrow and without daylight—was to ride a ghost train. Yet the aesthetic force of Bourgeois’s sculptures—ranging from her wooden stelae of the 1950s to her tapestry heads of 2002—laid bare an obvious joy. Reinforcing this feeling were personal photographs of the artist, elegant and smiling, as she appeared at openings in the ’50s alongside her male peers; dining with fellow feminists in the ’70s; as a young mother out for a walk with her sons; and, in 1975, even sporting her extraterrestrial bubble suit on the street outside her New York home.


Herbert Tobias, “Blicke und Begehren” (Gaze and Desire) (Berlinische Galerie, Berlin) A rare instance of an art institution getting it right despite itself. When showcasing Tobias, Germany’s most important gay photog, it’s easy to take the glamour route: His fashion photo­graphy of the ’50s (featuring a teenage Nico) is startling and very romantic. More problematic for the institutional setting are his personal-poetic portraits of lovers and tricks, a hunky young Klaus Kinski, or a pre-RAF Andreas Baader bursting out of hustler-black slacks. Thank God Tobias’s explicit blue-mag pictorials from the ’70s until his death from AIDS in 1982 weren’t ignored.

Herbert Tobias, Andreas Baader, 1965, black-and-white photograph, 19 7/8 x 15 7/8".