New York

“The Success of Failure”

Diane Brown Gallery

There was a sanctimonious air to this exhibition, as though the artists, despite their willingness to expose their wounds, couldn’t help but turn them into blessings. When is a failed work of art a success? Perhaps when it seems to test the artist’s integrity, to touch a nerve of taboo or unknown meaning, or when it inadvertently exposes the impossibility of perfection in our dismal modern age. But none of the artists here make public what would remain private in order to mortify the flesh of their already achieved success. It’s all much more simple: failure becomes success—and what about success becoming failure?—when all value is relative, when it is no longer culturally clear what it is to achieve value, when not only the standards of value but also the sense of value’s necessity have collapsed. To become successful in the terms of this show (which Independent Curators Inc. will circulate in a larger version next year), the failed work of art need only add casually to the art spectacle—not simply through an easy novelty, but through becoming a stimulus for critical discourse, an occasion for art to reflect on its most preferred theme: itself. As long as the work becomes interpretable by reason of its “critical” manner of presentation—these days just to be exhibited tends to confer credibility and significance—and as long as it affords an opportunity for intellectual banter, the art has “made it.”

From this point of view, the most critically pointed of the artists’ texts accompanying this narcissistically opportunistic exhibition was Mark Oi Suverds, which brought together the two most trenchant issues of today’s art world: becoming known, as an end in itself, and making money. (It sometimes seems that artists, to have both, need only have a certain amount to say and no more—that is, that they must lack the aspiration to discover the limitations of their ideas, especially the intellectual and moral limitations.) Oi Suvero writes: “I want everyone to know, it was worth a quarter of a million dollars and now it’s worth nothing.” The work shown was a fragment of a larger wooden piece that had rotted away. Clearly Oi Suvero was distressed by the loss of the work, but it is significant that he expresses its reduction to a failure in an economic metaphor. Some homespun truths underlie the disarming humor: the money Oi Suvero has lost through the work’s destruction is recovered with interest, as it were, by the work becoming “critically recognized.” This will payoff in the more concrete dividend of higher prices later. The “success” of failure is to become a succès d’estime, for this can be the launching pad for fresh commercial success, and is not without social value in itself. Once the public has made the initial leap of faith in one’s art, even failure adds to one’s status these days. Nobody would pay attention if art school students held an exhibition of failed works, although such an exhibition, with texts by their professors explaining why the works are failures, would be an edifying display of art education. Student works don’t yet have sufficient legitimacy to be failures; are the failed works of masters regressive student works?

Looking at the art itself one sees how everything can be of interest and nothing of value—it is beyond good and bad because it is “symptomatic” (the modern condition). The interest here has two components: the work reminds us of the artist’s success through its affinity with his or her known, approved style, and it makes us wonder about the reasons for its deviation from this “norm.” Thus Eric Fischl’s Untitled, 1979, is an intriguing embarrassment, for the viewer as well as for the artist. Those who respect his art in general may be embarrassed by this particular example of it, yet lured by their desire to understand the nature of his lapse from mastery. In this case there are technical reasons as well as the general pointlessness of the conception—the radical difference in clarity of rendering between figure, a crouching woman, and object, a lawn chair, as well as the unresolved character of the space between them, and the lack of any “edge” to their relationship. Other works, such as Richard Pettibone’s Portrait of Max and Linda Polevsky (slightly altered), 1975, seem like facile conceptual successes, and failures for just that reason. They don’t try hard enough—not that hard work hasn’t often justified mediocre results. Meret Oppenheim’s Sommergestrupp (Summer scrub, 1955) shows a far from hectic gesturalism, and fails to bring off the synthesis of primary-process and secondary-process thinking it attempts. It is also a clue to the real reason these artists regard the exhibited works as failures: the reason they lack carrying power, unconscious conviction, is that they neither are made for a particular public nor bring a particular artistic self into being. These works exist for nobody, not even the artists who made them.

Donald Kuspit