New York

“What It Is”

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

This survey show organized by German critic and curator Wilfried Dickhoff, was one of those zeitgeist readings that often seem so significant when seen outside of New York or in Europe, but which tend to come off as willfully self-important in a New York gallery context. What would probably have registered at a distance as an idiosyncratic ideological sampling of trendsetting artworks looked, at first glance, more like a fast-food buffet of chic names when viewed up close in Soho. But if you looked beyond the “what’s hot” aspect of this eclectic assemblage, you could parse out a meaty question: what happens when “dumb” circles back on some imaginary attitude continuum to act “smart?” What does it look like when neo-Expressionist brashness pauses to reflect?

Not that this provocative proposition was clear from the catalogue’s woozily worded premises. Almost lost in its neo-Nietzscheisms and impacted artists’ statements were two important directional indications to the territory being mapped out. First, an affirmation of the primacy of “dumb.” The exhibition’s title was taken from a purported conversation between anonymous artists—“Artist 1: Your work is shit. Artist 2: It is what it is:” In its conflation of gossip and criticism, of one-upsmanship and pseudosimplistic defense, the exchange concisely implies one important level of current art discourse: context is all. Second, the main essay by Gottfried Benn, “The Style of the Future,” attempts a more intellectual but no less intimidating definition—“Phase II of the expressionist style”—then follows that categorization with some hothouse phrase-making: “According to my theory you have to do something stupefying which you yourself laugh at in the end” This jaunty apocalypse-baiting, while still beavering toward an ever-progressing future, defines a mood (and it is a mood, not a reasoned manifesto) that saturates the “What It Is” collection, knitting together, even if ternporarily, works in disparate modes by an art gang sporting the “serious fun” look—“What It Is” meant business.

With 26 works, by as many artists, closely lined up on the gallery walls, all of them clamoring for attention, “What It Is” was like a rowdy salon in which everyone paid lip service to the governing agenda, then spoke up all at once before breaking off into smaller discussion groups. You had to thread through the whole show to get a sense of who was talking to whom, and about what. But amid all the chatter, several significant dialogues could be overheard.

Tentative lines of communication were set up between pseudoprimitives (Donald Baechler’s process painting Earthquake, 1986, splitting buildings drawn on a canvas covered with glued-on fabric, and Walter Dahn’s Selbstportrait als bundesrepublikanischer Strassenfeger [Self-portrait as Germany’s janitor, 1986]); between knowing naïfs (David McDermott’s and Peter McGough’s ’30s-ish illustration of boys in the bathroom, Rub a Dub Dub . . . 1937, 1986, and Salvo’s Gauguinish landscape Untitled, 1980); between new abstractionists (Peter Schuyff’s optical illusionism and Andreas Schulze’s cosmic icons); between deadpan provocateurs (Andy Warhol’s Day-Glo, wallpaperlike silk-screen Camouflage, 1986, and Albert Ohlen’s red-faced Hitler, Portrait of A.H., 1986. Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat as well as Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente contributed works that kept to themselves, reinforcing their respective power centers by their monologues. A couple of would-be conceptual godfathers, Joseph Kosuth and Ed Ruscha, tried hard to keep up with the fast-paced goings-on, as if proximity could yield affinity; Ruscha’s patterned sentence in the sky (Travel Agency, 1983) and Kosuth’s recycled psychology billboard lit by neon (It Was It, 1986) were almost successful efforts to provide a specific “history” for this post-Conceptual grouping.

A couple of quieter statements were almost lost in the din. Ross Bleckner’s artificially aged painting of a huge chandelier hanging over a floor design like a Renaissance compass from what looks like the ceiling of the treasure house of Atreus (Untitled, 1985) was a meditative moment of Proustian power. Also easy to overlook was the inclusion in the show of only one token woman, Rosemarie Trockel, who contributed a woven fabric panel with a deconstructed-hammer-and-sickle design motif; like the exhibition itself, it (and her sole female presence) was certainly what it was, and more than it appeared to be.

John Howell