Steven Parrino

ONE OF THE NUMEROUS guerrilla flyers that popped up around the most recent Venice Biennale wondered: “What will the artist do after the curator is gone?” Reverse the polarity and a far more provocative question emerges: “What will the curator do after the artist is gone?” When artists die, curators who would have otherwise collaborated on exhibitions with them, choosing and installing works in tandem, are left on their own. The touch of the artist—and some are exacting about the placement of their work—is absent, to various degrees, in a show installed by someone else. The postmortem exhibition is especially challenging for a curator dealing with a premature death, as artists of the 1980s and ’90s leave us: How does one, in a sense, keep the work alive? It’s a tall order, and having an intimate working relationship with the artist only goes so far. Nothing can replace the “live,” one-on-one experience that brings an exhibition organized by an artist and a curator truly to life. Venice offered up two cases in point. More than ten years after his death in 1996, Felix Gonzalez-Torres was chosen to represent the United States, but the exhibition, organized by Nancy Spector, felt more like a tasteful presentation of the artist’s work than a Gonzalez-Torres show. This was an artist who was generous with his audience and his collaborators, but the precision with which he presented his work in life should be respected posthumously; that generosity should not open the door to whatever reinterpretations or new readings the work will bear. Even more egregious, in the Italian Pavilion, Robert Storr brought together pieces by a number of dead artists in a single gallery, creating a memorial of sorts that turned tribute to travesty. With three Fred Sandbacks crowded into a space where only one should have been installed, you had to wonder if there has ever been a greater, more fundamental misunderstanding of this artist’s work.

These issues have lately loomed large around the art of Steven Parrino. In the months leading up to his untimely death in a motorcycle accident in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2005, he was preparing a large survey show at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in Geneva. Although the show was realized just one year later by curator Fabrice Stroun following the plan that he and the artist had developed together, it couldn’t avoid taking on a commemorative feel. And so the impetus to “keep the work alive” seems to have driven the conception of “La Marque Noire/Steven Parrino Retrospective, Prospective,” a three-part exhibition this past summer at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The exhibition included a survey of Parrino’s work (as well as a number of collaborations) modeled on Stroun’s 2006 show but also featured two additional sections presenting works by artists who influenced Parrino (“Before [Plus ou Moins],” organized by artist Olivier Mosset and Palais director Marc-Olivier Wahler) and artists Parrino himself influenced or supported (“Bastard Creature,” curated by Wahler and Anthony Huberman, who took their cues from Parrino’s own curatorial efforts). The result was more than a traditional retrospective, but, clearly, Parrino’s work stands on its own, as it did during the artist’s life: autonomous, uncompromising, and tough as nails.

The retrospective portion, organized by Stroun and Wahler, was the most successful. Here we saw what Parrino contributed to painting after his beginnings in the late ’70s, a moment when, as he put it, “the word on painting was that painting was dead.” Bad news for most painters; joyous news for a true nihilist such as Parrino: That moment gave him license to violate the canvas, to penetrate—as Lucio Fontana had done—the painted surface (to lay bare its artifice), to willfully destroy that most valued of art objects, and in the process to align himself with a history of painting that was both transgressive and reverential. From the “performance” of Jackson Pollock, including his own senseless death (and Parrino’s misstretched canvases often resemble the violence of a car crash served up cold), to the distance of Andy Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series, in particular the convulsive beauty of his car accidents—this was the history from which Parrino emerged, a history he was aware of and was compelled to “fuck with.”

As evidenced by the selection here, even when Parrino’s works are nearly flat, they are as much about sculpture, mass, form, and volume as they are about painting. He understood that sculpture and painting are both intrinsically about space (and this includes the space of the gallery), and his hybrid objects—disrupted canvas surfaces, paintings removed from stretchers and bound up on the floor, paintings made with motor oil, works that straddle wall and floor, overlapped leaning panels—play with spatial aspects and thereby seem to “perform.” Unfortunately, the installation in Paris left something to be desired in this regard. Parrino often set up a relationship between viewer and painting by hanging his work near the floor. This method of display is crucial for a piece such as Stockade: Existential Trap for Speed Freaks, 1988–91, a canvas with five circular cutouts that mimic the holes for head, wrists, and ankles in the stocks: painting as instrument of punishment. At the Palais, unfortunately, this work was hung at a more standard picture height, which greatly diminished the “trapping” of the viewer the artist clearly intended. Similarly, Hell’s Gate Shifter, 1997, which comprises five red misstretched paintings, with one canvas hung above the others and tilted away from the wall, was installed too far from the floor; the cantilevered canvas, rather than ominously looming over the viewer’s head, appeared as an inverse canopy.

Despite such hanging gaffes, the range of Parrino’s work and its radicality were well represented. The inclusion of pieces incorporating music or sound, such as Dancing on Graves, 1999, and the film Necropolis (the Lucifer Crank) for Anger, 2004, a collaboration with Amy Granat and Larry 7, provided a sound track to the show, as creepy, haunting, noise-based music and ambient, crackling hiss seemed to inhabit the folds of canvas, broken edges of metal, and the film screen itself. 13 Shattered Panels for Joey Ramone, 2001, a frieze of black-painted wallboard, torn and ripped apart, was particularly enlivened by the sound in the room, which underscored its theatrical presence. Parrino understood the importance of staging his works; here his affinity with a theater of cruelty was readily apparent.

A large selection of drawings featuring many of Parrino’s recurring themes and characters—references to bands such as the Germs and Suicide, Emma Peel from The Avengers, the No Wave album No New York, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth—served as a reminder that this was an artist for whom art was both high culture and subculture. (He was as attracted to a New York Post cover [“A Murder Most Posh”] as to the Black Square of Malevich.) These appeared on a wall that functioned as a transition to the “Before” part of the show, providing a bridge to artists Parrino was influenced by—Vito Acconci, Kenneth Anger, Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol among them. The inclusion of the video of Acconci’s performance Claim, 1971, in particular, was spot-on. Acconci, blindfolded and wielding a metal pipe, is poised at the bottom of a gallery’s basement stairs, waiting for anyone who dares come down; talking himself into a hypnotic state, he repeatedly threatens to swing at anyone who approaches. Ideas of aggression, violence, and chance animate this work, as they do Parrino’s aesthetic. (Parrino referred to Acconci as Vito Ramone in a 1994 photocollage, making him an honorary member of the punk band—Claim calls to mind the Ramones song “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement.”) In this section, four paintings by Sturtevant, based on black paintings by Stella, sounded the only wrong note. It’s Stella who was important to Parrino, not Sturtevant, whose works end up as substitutes for the “real” thing, a disservice to both Parrino and Sturtevant.

For its part, “Bastard Creature” was based on “Bastard Kids of Drella, part 9,” a 1999 exhibition Parrino organized at the Consortium in Dijon, France, and “The Return of the Creature,” a 2003 show at Künstlerhaus Palais Thurn und Taxis in Bregenz, Austria. This section, unfortunately, lived up to its title. Parrino’s curated shows were specific installations, each with their own text, each distinctly of a piece (and, in the case of the show in Dijon, with its own sound track, provided by recordings of the band Royal Trux). The mash-up of these two shows—featuring works by contemporaries as well as younger artists such as Richard Aldrich, Gardar Eide Einarsson, Jutta Koether, Mai-Thu Perret, and Banks Violette—felt almost arbitrary, and there was nothing about Parrino that can remotely be thought of as arbitrary. Some of the works at the Palais were in the original shows, while some were added; two of the artists here were in neither original show, while some of the artists in those shows were not invited to participate in this one. The argument can be put forward that it was not the intention to faithfully repeat Parrino’s curated exhibitions. But one thing is sure: Parrino’s ascendance after death confirms that the art world is based on a logic of winners and losers, and not all the artists he included in his exhibitions were deemed worthy of this one.

Parrino’s exemplary practice—some might say intentionally defeatist practice—can’t help but throw up roadblocks that both frustrate the best intentions to “keep the work alive” and circumvent the worst aspects of museumification that so often usher artists into necrology. While there is no catalogue for the show, an issue of the magazine Palais was devoted to Parrino, and it brings together his work, works by other artists, and his personal obsessions in images and in text in a far livelier way—as if the artist himself had produced a zine to accompany the exhibition. One page reproduces a fax Parrino sent to Wahler in 1998, when the latter was director of CAN, Centre d’Art Neuchâtel, in Switzerland and preparing a solo exhibition of his work. Parrino assures Wahler that the works for the show, which the artist intended to destroy afterward, should not be protected or wrapped. He writes: “Do not worry about damaging anything. (DAMAGE IS GOOD.)” And further on: “Nothing will be for sale. All will be thrown out after the show. Nothing has value.” At least one painting from this group did survive and was reworked as The Self Mutilation Bootleg 2 (The Open Grave), 1988–2003. Included in the recent exhibition, it could easily be read as Parrino’s chilling comment on his own postmortem commodification. Steven Parrino was never tempted by money or success and was almost exclusively supported by galleries, collectors, and museums in Europe while languishing at home. His spiraling market in the past year gives one pause for thought: Dying is a good career move . . . for everyone but the artist.

Bob Nickas is a critic and curator based in New York.