Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Florida Derby, 3/28/09

Quality Road looked like a lean, mean racing machine as he turned back a strong bid by the previously undefeated Dunkirk in the G1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park today. Dunkirk was the favorite and Quality Road was the second choice in the wagering.

Besides setting a new track record for nine furlongs at Gulfstream (1:47 3/5), Quality Road now has enough graded stakes earnings to guarantee him one of the twenty slots in the Kentucky Derby.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What's New?

I make abstract paintings, and enjoy abstract painting generally. Many think me a retro curmudgeon going on and on about the importance of the visual; about how color, shape, and composition can be be a potent vessel for psychological, emotional, and even political content, and wondering why the visual is, in much contemporary art, a secondary consideration to subject.

But lately, when I'm catching up on what they're talking about in Artforum, on the web, and in the galleries and museums, I'm starting to notice a musty odor. Am I really the old-fashioned artist here?

From "Moral Hazard" by Norman L. Kleebat on the art of Artur Zmijewski, Artforum, April 2009:

"It is easy to storm out of a gallery presenting the work of Polish artist Artur Zmijewski. Many viewers (present company included) react negatively at first to his confrontational and transgressive videos, which accost viewers with images and ideas that stand outside what one generally encounters in polite, 'normative' society."

From the press release for the new Gavin Turk solo show at Sean Kelly Gallery, entitled "Jazzz:"

"In the Main Gallery, a group of large-scale apparently abstract paintings, in the manner of Jackson Pollock, are in fact constructed from countless layers of paint representing Turk's repeated signature. The works quite literally question the artist's signature as a sign of uniqueness and value. Turk's characteristic appropriation of identity in these paintings is echoed and reinforced by a group of black and white photographs of the artist in his studio making the paintings. The photographs are reminiscent of the well-known series of photographs by Hans Namuth[...]"

From the press release for Alex Bag's current video installation at the Whitney:

"For her first solo museum presentation, Alex Bag debuts a newly commissioned video installation she has made for the Whitney Museum of American Art, inspired by a popular and progressive 1970s children's syndicated television show, "The Patchwork Family." Continuing the commentary on contemporary media culture that has characterized her work to date, Bag reimagines the earlier TV show, in a darkly satiric vein, peopling her studio audience with real-life children. The children are regaled by – and react to – the show’s special guests, an assortment of characters including an abstract artist, an animal wrangler, a wizard, a psycho-pharmacologist, and others."

From the Press release for "Younger than Jesus," opening next month at the New Museum:

"Inspired by the fact that some of the most influential and enduring gestures in art and history have been made by young people in the early stages of their lives, “Younger Than Jesus” will fill the entire New Museum’s building on the Bowery with approximately 145 works by artists all of whom are under the age of thirty-three years old."

Transgressive video art, art about the slippery nature of identity and the significance of authorship, ironic media critique, a large scale MFA show. Haven't these ideas been well-mined over the last decade or more? Like, very, very well-mined? They're all beginning to smell a little like yesterday's sushi.

Virtually everyone agrees that art is about to change; the abysmal economy and the epochal feeling of Obama's presidency have virtually insured a major shift. What it will be is anyone's guess, but it's obviously my hope that artists can feel free to make visual art without apology or backstory, which has been a surprisingly controversial position for quite some time.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, pt. 3

Click here to read part one of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Click here to read part two.

Bad Painting as a historical phenomenon was born in large measure as a refutation of Modernism, which insisted that art should be really good. But in spite of his unflappable belief in the existence of quality, Clement Greenberg himself said in a 1945 review of Jackson Pollock that "all profoundly original art looks ugly at first." The critic's point is that from Turner and Manet forward the viewing public, from the lay observers up to the tastemakers, were largely behind the curve in terms of accepting the most advanced painting as a legitimate enterprise. And by the time that the public caught up to and accepted a given style, painters had moved on to something else and the process began again. This cycle repeated for roughly a century and then the rules changed a bit.

To be sure, advanced painting had its passionate defenders throughout this process (Ruskin, Mallarme, Apollinaire, Schapiro, etc.), but Greenberg was the one to forcefully introduce the idea that these styles were the products of an aesthetic and cultural critique. Ironically, critique was the instrument of Modernism's destruction and at the same time Greenberg's most durable legacy - an enormous portion of important art since the late '60's has taken critique of one sort or another as its primary motive. Consider these two quotes, the first is from Greenberg's coda essay, "Modernist Painting," 1960:

"The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence."

In part two of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I quoted from the press release for "Bad Painting, Good Art," the big Bad survey show from 2008 at the Museum Moderne Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien in Vienna. There is a striking similarity to the Greenberg quote:

"'Bad Painting" is the critique of painting expressed with its own most essential means: many of the most important painters of the 20th century like Francis Picabia, Rene Magritte, Asger Jorn, Philip Guston, Neil Jenney, George Baselitz, Albert Oehlen or Julian Schnabel radically called their medium into question using different strategies of incorrect, faulty, ugly or angry painting in order to open up new possibilities for the medium."

Greenberg and the Viennese curators clearly have a different idea of what the essential means of the medium are, and why they need to be critiqued; the former insists that subversion is not the goal, and the latter implicitly says that it is. But both agree that critique is the driving principle - that the painting of the recent past shouldn't be used as a foundation to build upon, but requires correction. Now return to Greenberg's statement about the ugliness of the new, and compare that to the "Bad Painting" press release. Ugliness, or at least temporary ugliness, would seem to be an inescapable consequence of immanent critique.

Another common aspect of Modernist critique and the Post-Modern critique which opened the door for Bad painting (and many other styles and motives) is a kind of moralism. Modernism's moralism was a drive toward purity - in the case of painting, toward the purely self-referential image. Greenberg himself admitted that the perfectly flat, auto-referential painting was not a possibility, but that advanced painters must strive to get as close to it as possible. It's hard not to notice the religious overtones to this quest for an absolute purity which is always just beyond reach.

Bad painting's moralism is of a different stripe (no pun intended). It would say that since quality and purity are simply the arbitrary prescriptions of an institutional power structure, these criteria must be dispensed with. Transgression of the parental/parochial rules of Modernism is the goal: it can take many forms, but must look Bad. This last point is the one that's difficult to get around - Why should I or anyone else be asked to look at something that is admittedly and intentionally Bad? This is where moralism comes into play, and it's that of the bitter pill: it tastes terrible, but if you know what's good for you, you'll take it. It's the visual version of Castor Oil, and once again this is where it crosses paths with Greenberg's pronouncement about Pollock in 1945.

Bad Painting, it would seem, is Post-Modern critique taken to a peculiar but entirely logical extreme. This is how backlash tends to work in all cultural spheres, be they political, religious, or aesthetic: a wild see-saw ride that eventually find equilibrium. Viewed as such, it makes little sense to decry Bad Painting. What could one say, anyway? It's really Bad?

The irony, of course, is that Bad Painting's methodology of critique is borrowed, at least in part, from Modernism itself. In the Hegellian sense, Modernism (specifically good painting) and Post-Modernism (specifically Bad Painting), can be seen as a schematic dialectic: the latter depends for its existence on the former even as it seeks to delegitimize it. And as Hegel points out in the Phenomenology of Spirit, major cultural shifts of this sort must be sorted through in each and every detail; no steps can be skipped. Bad Painting, which now has a thirty-year institutional history, would appear to be an endgame to a long cultural reevaluation.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Aqueduct Results, 3/14/09

My last four visits to the Big A consisted of two tremendous outings immediately followed by two horrendous ones. As I've said in these pages before, this game has a way of keeping you humble.

In other news, and believe me when I tell you that I'm dying to change the subject, the Derby hunt heated up today with four major prep races in which many of the contenders and hopefuls ran.

The G2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn saw a stunning upset as the presumed Derby favorite, Old Fashioned, was beaten by a 56-1 shot named Win Willy, who swung 4-wide into the lane. The colt must have eaten his Wheaties this morning, or maybe something else entirely. Was Rick Dutrow in Arkansas today? Silver City finished fifth in the race.

At Fair grounds in New Orleans, Friesan Fire crushed the G2 Louisiana Derby by open lengths. The victory was made even more impressive by the fact that three other Derby contenders ran: Papa Clem, Giant Oak, and Patena, finishing 2nd, 4th, and 8th respectively.

Pioneerof the Nile (no, I didn't forget to hit the space bar) was heavily favored to win the G2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, and he did. There were six horses there, but it was basically a one-horse race.

Musket Man was shuffled back and came 5-wide into the lane to take the G3 Tampa Bay Derby by a neck. Nowhere to Hide, General Quarters, Bear's Rocket, and Sumo finished 4th, 5th, 6th, and 9th respectively.

The Professor's next trip to the track will be April 4th to see NY's big Derby prep, the Wood Memorial. Tune in to No Hassle at the Castle for details and save the date!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Paulie's Picks, Aqueduct, 3/14/09

For my students, Spring Break means sun, surf, and fun. But I think all that stuff is vastly overrated, so I'm going to the track instead. Here are Professor Paulie's picks for tomorrow's card at the Big A:

1st race:
6 - Hedge Fund
2 - Mucho Gusto
4 - Golden Man

2nd race:
1 - Much the Best
2 - Now Act
4 - Bodyshots

3rd race:
1a - Kitty Nip
6 - Chernobyl Princess
4 - Professional Woman

4th race:
5 - The Zipster
1 - Western Deed
7 - Top Leader

5th race:
3 - Won Great Classic
2 - Temore
8 - Mightybobbymagee

6th race:
7 - Greenspirit
4 - Eldaafer
6 - Almighty Silver

7th race:
2 - Big Gavel
6 - Pocket Cowboy
4 - Titletown Tiger

8th race:
2 - Mr. Shortcake
11 - Miller's Mint
9 - Ernie Boy

9th race:
2 - Daily Star
1 - Dream Play
5 - Love That Dance

10th race:
11 - Flo's Honor
8 - Federal Deposit
7 - Tony the Terio

Tune in tomorrow night for results.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, pt. 2

Click here to read the first installment of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."

The earliest instance of "Bad Painting" being used as a laudatory term in an institutional setting is the New Museum's 1978 exhibition of same title. The show included Neil Jenney, Joan Brown, William N. Copley, and William Wegman. The operating principle in the exhibition was still a relatively fresh idea in the evolving postmodernist critique of art: the notion of the "end of history," or the rejection of the idea that art had an evolutionary progress from one period to the next. From the "Bad Painting" press release: "It would seem that, without a specific idea of progress toward a goal, the traditional means of valuing and validating works of art are useless." But if the curators were bereft of those criteria of valuation and validation, how was work chosen for the show?

Again, from the "Bad Painting" press release, this time quoting New Museum director Marcia Tucker: "'Bad Painting' is an ironic title for 'good painting,' which is characterized by deformation of the figure, a mixture of art-historical and non-art resources, and fantastic and irreverent content." These criteria are borrowed from expressionism, pop, surrealism, and pop, respectively. More from the press release: "In its disregard for accurate representation and its rejection of conventional attitudes about art, 'bad' painting is at once funny and moving, and often scandalous in its scorn for the standards of good taste." This last criterion seems to strike closer to the heart of the matter: The standards of good taste in painting at that time stemmed from Modernism. One would have to infer that the selection process included an assessment of how emphatically a given painting rejected Modernism. This assumption is bolstered by the show's explicit rejection of a historical teleology, which was central the Modernist history of art.

Fast forward thirty years to 2008, when the Museum Moderne Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien in Vienna mounted a show entitled "Bad Painting, Good Art." The show presented a historical overview of bad painting as a phenomenom, and included work from a time long before it was considered a genre. From the press release:

"'Bad Painting" is the critique of painting expressed with its own most essential means: many of the most important painters of the 20th century like Francis Picabia, Rene Magritte, Asger Jorn, Philip Guston, Neil Jenney, George Baselitz, Albert Oehlen or Julian Schnabel radically called their medium into question using different strategies of incorrect, faulty, ugly or angry painting in order to open up new possibilities for the medium. Using prominent works by 21 artists, the exhibition presents 'bad painting' as a phenomenon which opens a new and differentiated perspective on the history of painting since the beginning of modernism which today still influences contemporary discourse."

The elephant in the room for both of these survey shows, and for the myriad of museum and gallery shows in the intervening years based on a similar premise, is that they never include "real" bad painting. By this I mean the millions of pictures produced in freshman painting classes and retirement communities every day. The 90's trend for "Outsider" art was close in appearance, but these pictures were never showed alongside "Insider" bad painters. There is often a strong family resemblance between the art world version of bad painting and the amateur version, and the amateurish pictures are sometimes held up as influences. But the real article is missing the essential self-awareness that it is not Modernism; that it is responding to and rejecting Modernism. It is therefore never exhibited in the company of art world bad painters.

The other elephant in the room is that Modernism hasn't been central to the discussion or creation of art for about forty years, except, of course, as a kind of specter that needs to be continually critiqued. Even the 1978 New Museum show, which was hung when postmodernism was at its peak as an art world force, came a full decade after Modernism had been knocked off its pedestal. Pop, minimalism, and conceptual art had, along with the afore-mentioned critiques, all contributed to Modernism's demise. It's important to point out that the original "Bad Painting" exhibition didn't take place in an abandoned warehouse in one of the boroughs, or a loft, or a bar, or any other such setting which could be associated with subversive art - the New Museum had a stable address on lower Broadway in the heart of Soho, with a large, renovated exhibition space. All characteristics of the dreaded "art institution."

Without Modernism as a formidable enemy, a good deal of critique-driven art would have no identity. Therefore, a certain tightrope act must be continually played out. A phantom power group of people and institutions that are enforcing "good" taste, academicism, quality, linear historical narratives and the like must be fabricated or exhumed in order to rail against them. These power systems don't actually exist, and haven't for quite a while. From my own vantage point inside one of the major art schools, it is quite clear that the originators of the major critiques of the 70's now hold the positions of power. The same is true in the major museums which show contemporary art ; the New Museum now has a multi-million building all it's own in lower Manhattan, which opened to great fanfare in 2007. In a familiar cycle, the rebels of the '60's and 70's, who asked hard questions of power and demanded satisfactory answers, have themselves become the art institution. Life is funny, isn't it?

In subsequent installments of the Good the Bad and the Ugly, I intend to discuss the internal critiques stemming from Modernism itself in the mid twentieth century, and the role of Pop in redefining high and low.