PRINT December 2015

Daniel Birnbaum

Robert Gober, Untitled, 2005–2006, aluminum leaf, oil, and enamel on cast lead crystal, 4 3/4 × 4 1/4 × 4 1/4".

1 ROBERT GOBER (MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK; CURATED BY ANN TEMKIN AND PAULINA POBOCHA) “The Heart Is Not a Metaphor” made the most enigmatic of artists even more inscrutable—and even more attractive. Although I first came across his strange sinks more than a quarter of a century ago, I still haven’t come to grips with Gober’s work; each time I returned to this show, the artist’s hyperreal, exquisitely rendered limbs, candles, and hairy legs got even weirder and better. “Minimal forms with maximum content,” as John Russell smartly characterized these intense objects back in 1985. But what is the content—religion, politics, sex, AIDS, love, death? Yes, but none of these quite conjures the work’s perplexing specificity and unique psychological impact, so well pitched here. This show should be permanently installed somewhere, so we can keep figuring it out.

2 ON KAWARA (SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM, NEW YORK; CURATED BY JEFFREY WEISS WITH ANNE WHEELER) This magnificent retrospective was simply perfect for Frank Lloyd Wright’s legendary spiral. Installed in twelve sections according to a plan devised by the artist, who was still alive when the exhibition was conceived, “On Kawara—Silence” seemed to perform an inaudible composition for a percussionist: repetitive and yet infinitely faceted.

3 AGNES MARTIN (TATE MODERN, LONDON; CURATED BY FRANCES MORRIS AND TIFFANY BELL WITH LENA FRITSCH) Nothing could be more exact than a painting by this modern mystic, who, I recently learned, heard voices in her head and suffered periods of psychosis. The works appear to have been born in quiet seclusion, and that is the state they instill in the viewer—even when surrounded by hundreds of noisy tourists in a museum that sometimes suffers from its extreme popularity.

Co-organized with the K20 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

4 GIORGIO GRIFFA (CENTRE D’ART CONTEMPORAIN GENÈVE; CURATED BY ANDREA BELLINI) Referring to his striking abstractions as his “little rags,” Italian painter Griffa has long aspired to create a revolution from the home rather than from the barricades. Although his art takes the golden ratio, the Fibonacci sequence, and other eternally valid geometries as its starting point, these paintings are firmly rooted in our mundane world, as titles such as From Earth to Heaven attest. It’s just that he was—and is—a bit ahead of most of us, as became astonishingly evident in this large retrospective. Griffa could almost be an emerging artist, a buddy of Sergej Jensen’s. Take a painting such as Dall’alto, 1968, the oldest work in the exhibition, and put it in any current show with students of Michael Krebber—it would outshine most through its humble economy.

5 LA GRANDE MADRE” (THE GREAT MOTHER) (FONDAZIONE NICOLA TRUSSARDI—PALAZZO REALE, MILAN; CURATED BY MASSIMILIANO GIONI) If you’re interested in Marcel Duchamp, chances are good that you’ve heard of his friend and co-conspirator the infamous Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. But unless you visited Gioni’s impressive survey on motherhood, chances are equally good you’ve never seen any of her works. Thank God I did. The baroness herself—supported by Claude Cahun, Leonor Fini, Emmy Hennings, Hannah Höch, Emma Kunz, Lee Miller, Rosa Rosà, and numerous others—was proof that the early avant-garde wasn’t so male as we are often made to think when visiting major museum collections.

Ryan Trecartin, CENTER JENNY, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 53 minutes 13 seconds. Installation view, Media Markt, Stockholm. Photo: Erik Undéhn.

6 RYAN TRECARTIN (MEDIA MARKT, STOCKHOLM; CURATED BY OSCAR CARLSON) The Media Markt flagship, one of Stockholm’s most aesthetically unappealing shops, hosted a one-day exhibition of techno-hysteria across an entire suite of 196 flat-screens for sale. Thanks to Carlson, codirector of the nomadic gallery Issues, Trecartin’s 2013 video triumph CENTER JENNY took over the space and its merchandise. I hear that sales of TVs increased dramatically, which makes me worried for the sanity of my fellow Swedes.

7 HITO STEYERL, FACTORY OF THE SUN (GERMAN PAVILION, 56TH VENICE BIENNALE) Said Steyerl in these pages back in May: “My conviction is that, now more than ever, real life is much stranger than any fiction one could imagine. So somehow the forms of reporting have to become crazier and stranger, too.” She really lived up to this approach in Venice, in a pavilion curated by Florian Ebner, producing an absurd masterpiece about our liquid state of contemporary globalized capital/warfare/media/life—the highlight of the entire Biennale.

8 RACHEL ROSE (SERPENTINE GALLERIES, LONDON; CURATED BY EMMA ENDERBY) Rose’s camera seems capable of penetrating all the stuff that surrounds us, revealing that perhaps living things aren’t, entirely; and dead things aren’t quite so, either—and making us wonder about such distinctions in the first place.

9 SIMON DENNY (NEW ZEALAND PAVILION, 56TH VENICE BIENNALE; CURATED BY ROBERT LEONARD) Consisting of high-tech vitrines in the spectacular spaces of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana and actual-size reproductions of that library’s Renaissance ceilings transposed to Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, Denny’s ambitious two-venue work juxtaposed ancient maps and globes with objects and PowerPoint imagery from a former NSA graphic designer, whose identity was revealed in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks. I have never seen the visual culture of paranoia, conspiracy theory, and information networks so perfectly packaged. We speak loosely about contemporary art, but Denny’s contribution was a rare example of a work fully worthy of that term.

10 ALEX DA CORTE (GIÒ MARCONI, MILAN) Remake, reuse, reassemble, recombine—that’s the way to go, according to Sturtevant. If you think that philosophy is over now that she’s sadly no longer with us, you haven’t seen Da Corte’s installation, which reimagines a Waiting for Godot stage set by way of Daniel Johnston’s song “Devil Town.” I predict the artist is just getting warmed up with this Beckett mutation—but only 2016 will tell.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor to Artforum and the director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, where in February he will curate (with Carsten Höller and Jo Widoff) the group show “Life Itself: On the question of what it essentially is; its materialities, its characteristics, considering that all attempts to answer this question by occidental sciences and philosophies have proven unsatisfactory.”