Saturday, December 28, 2013

Goodbye to All That, Writers on Loving and Leaving New Yor

Book Commentary:
Recently picked up a copy of Goodbye to All That, Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.

I never really liked the Strand bookstore. Ursus Books and Argosy, those are my kind of bookstores, more like libraries than bookstores, quiet and contemplative. The Strand was always too busy and more of a bargain place. I never seemed in danger of casually spending hundreds of dollars there. Yet recently I found myself nearby and wandered in looking for Emily Dickinson’s The Gorgeous Nothings. Of course they had it. But because three was a long wait at the checkout line I lingered about and stumbled upon a tempting stack of nonfiction books, suddenly endangering my credit card. Through restraint I was able to resist a mass purchase, opting for a single copy of Goodbye to All That, Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.

The ‘love/hate New York’ theme combined with the ‘lived there/done that ’ story is always and forever appealing. People love and hate this city, come and go, for so many different reasons and experiences. Back in the mid 80’s I went on a vacation driving around New England, stopping in each state, visiting artist friends who had left New York. Unlike the contributors to Goodbye to All That these were visual artists not writers. Most had come to New York to start college or finish their education. They then spent a few additional years developing their art and absorbing all they could while living in the center of the art world. Later they moved from New York to places, picturesque and inexpensive places, where they had always wanted to live. They started to raise families and continued to evolve as artists. Their New York experiences, while exacting and transformative, did not seem traumatic. They did not flee. They simply left. They had no lingering anger, doubt or angst.

In Goodbye to All That things are more complicated. There are a couple of former junkies (one a former dominatrix) and no lack of problematic relationships. Some writers were born there, most not. Many had a fear of leaving, some a fear of returning.  It was complicated. The trappings of wanting a career came up often. Many had arrived after New York had become a much more complex, crowded and expensive megalopolis, so debt was a word that often popped up.
Since I had misread the subtitle as Writings on Loving and Leaving New York, I initially hoped to find a couple of visual artists in the mix. Not so. It would have made for a different story. For it was a bit puzzling why writers found the city so expensive. They could live and write in small apartments, couldn’t they? Visual artists, especially sculptors needed space, equipment, materials and perhaps a vehicle in addition to whatever computer, typewriter or writing apparatus of choice an author might use. What were they griping about? What fabrication costs do writers have?
Are writers prone to complaining more than visual artists?

Although these narratives are very personal, sometimes the tone can even sound confessional, transparency is not always paramount. One contributor, writing about her marriage to another writer, grumbled about their busy schedules and the lack of quality time together. Their writing careers developed into a competition. Debt was mounting. And yet in the throes of crushing debt and a bickering and competitive marriage they left New York to live happily ever after (and purchase property!?) on an idyllic island off the coast of Maine! How’d that come about?

Was this fact or fabulation? Gossip or reportage? After all, these are writers. In Goodbye we learn that:
Liza breaks up with current boyfriend because an ex sends her a free ticket for a weekend with him in Puerto Rico.
Hope writes a successful memoir and during the book tour starts adding parts to jazz up her story and loses tract of what she embellished and what’s true.
For Chloe, grooming meant buying a new thong while coked up out of her skull because she was planning on having anal sex that night.
Rebecca snorts lots of cocaine, and makes out with bouncers in exchange for free entry to clubs.

I’m sure Goodbye to All That is as factual as Joan Didion’s essay of the same title published in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. That essay is praised in the Introduction of the new Goodbye and, I assume, is the reason why all the authors here are female. I decided to reread it.
I had remembered it as a period piece, a somewhat tortured account of a young and fragile person finding her way in the New York publishing world of the early 1960s. But upon rereading I now found it especially difficult to relate to a story so full of observations and statements such as “I was making…so little money that some weeks I had to charge food at Bloomingdale’s gourmet shop in order to eat”.
No opening cans of Campbell’s soup or buying hot dogs from street vendors for this woman.

Do writers carp more than other artists? Maybe not, there are the occasional sweet moments in Goodbye. It’s just that ya gotta love the rants:
“New York City manifests itself now shamefacedly as a chump-factory, a chumphouse. It’s Chumptown … It’s well documented: Chumps need artists and artists need chumps, but they’re supposed to stay out of one another’s sight … There have always been chumps in New York, but they used to be bashful chumps who bought the brilliant ones their drinks”.

Yes, it’s that love/hate thing again and it’s all in Goodbye to All That, Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.

PS. Reading the comments section in the New York Times online review of this book is hilarious.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Detroit and Just Kids

Another young artist (former student of mine) told me that he’s moving to Detroit.

This semester I assigned Patti Smith’s book Just Kids to my 3rd year sculpture class at the School of Visual Arts.
An easy read, the strength of the book is both in its descriptions of NYC in the late 60s and 70s and the telling of the happenstance relationship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe that evolved as they searched for their artistic identities, eventually navigating their separate paths to stardom. The Chelsea Hotel, Harry Smith, Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, the beat poets, et al, play a role in this narrative of a bygone era. But in discussing the decrepit conditions of NYC back then my students wondered: Was the New York of the 70s the Detroit of today?
I answered: Well, Bushwick was burning. And yes, the Bronx was crumbling. Without a doubt the East Village was strewn with vacant lots and drug dealing. Crime and danger seemed to be ever-present. Of course all those problems kept the rents low which was attractive to artists. NYC was the center of the art world, which was growing. And Wall Street was here. In addition a crucial component of New York’s economic revival was its large Higher Education Complex. Columbia, Hunter, Parsons, Pratt, New School, SVA, etc, were all expanding, attracting thousands of new students each year eventually helping to repopulate the sketchier sections of town. The population was on the increase, fueling the new service economy. True, there was dog shit and broken glass everywhere and yes the city was tittering on the edge of bankruptcy. However, even though many people might not have thought so at the time the city had hit bottom, and by the late 70’s it was poised to turn the corner.

Are there any visible corners for Detroit to turn? Does Detroit have a bottom? I hope so.
Yes, there is Ruin Porn and Crime, and therefore Cheap Real Estate. But a viewing of the film Detropia certainly does not inspire optimism. In it artists are treated as a sideshow. City inhabitants are shown struggling, sometimes scavenging. That film and a recent New York Times article showed images of devastation on a scale hard to comprehend, never mind recovering from. But are the high costs of living in New York and the allure of being an urban pioneer making Detroit an attractive and viable option? Do young artists in other parts of the country have Detroit on their minds? Those are the questions I recently put to colleagues teaching around the country: So far the consensus is no.

Towards the end of Just Kids Patti Smith marries Fred (Sonic) Smith, and in 1979 they move to Detroit where they set up home in a virtually empty hotel in the downtown area.
Who can argue with a hotel of one’s own?
The Urban Frontier awaits!

Some Exhibits:

Revisited the Reinhardt three-part exhibition at David Zwirner.
The Black Paintings (a dark chapel).
The cartoons (art world hilarity and political agitprop).
The slide show (hypnotically illuminating missives from a perceptive traveler).
This guy was an artist.

Roni Horn at Hauser & Wirth: Lime and lemon drop eye-candy in the first room (rotund glass forms with frosted edges and centers of amazing clarity). Collaged drawings in the middle room (ponderous piecemeal workings). More glass jewels in the third room (technical wonders). The work in each room could be read as one piece (I preferred to think of them as such).

The glass chunks apparently take a year to properly cool down. They sit in an oven while the temperature is gradually reduced, maintaining equal interior and exterior temperatures. Thus they avoid bursting. This body of work is more alluring then her earlier glass chunks because the surfaces are more fascinating to peer into. Their installation however, while beautifully laid out and lit, possesses an unfortunate designer showroom aesthetic. Thereby emphasizing craft and presenting these glass marvels as high-end baubles. If eyes are windows unto the soul, is it too much to ask for these orbs to function as such?
Not a problem with the drawings. The multitude of paper pieces and their markings mystify. The drawings are puzzlers. They seem to map out terrains, form continents, and yet defy comprehension as to their sources and their system of making.
Several years ago at a Sculpture Center banquet honoring Roni Horn, she professed to the audience that she didn’t know what she was doing. Of course the not knowing is a much-preferred perch to make work from than the view from the known. The not knowing is a truly enviable position to have, and difficult to maintain.

I thought of having a drink at the gallery’s bar but it doesn’t have a rest room.

Kusama at David Zwirner: The Line. Nuff said.

Monday, December 2, 2013

I finally went to the relocated Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (Spoiler Alert: It’s changed).


There’s something to be said for “Destination Art”. Art that you have to seek out, that does not make itself convenient to visit. Certain depositories of culture, such as Judd’s complex in Marfa, Texas and the earthworks of the American West sit at a remove, require a journey. The Barnes Foundation, though originally in a more densely populated area near Philadelphia, was such a destination. The requirement of needing to schedule visits combined with its location, just outside the city limits, made it a quiet and out-of-the-way venue. The relative isolation allowed for uniquely personal relationships with the collection to be formed. Visitors often returned, seeking out single works or specific rooms and spending one-on-one quality time. 
I started going to the Barnes in the late 70’s and visited it at least 15 times in the following years but had yet to visit the new location. A certain amount of dread accompanied me as I recently took a group of students to the Barnes, now in downtown Philly. I had always looked forward to seeing this collection. In rooms almost empty and with all the time needed to linger and circle through the collection, seeking out old favorites and spending time with lesser-known works. It was never a problem booking times and the fact that one could be virtually alone within this great and eccentric array was in strong contrast to the evermore-crowded museum scene.

Before I went this year a friend mentioned a large Ellsworth Kelly painting he had seen inside the Barnes. I thought he must have been having a senior moment for I well knew that no such artwork was in the collection. However as we approached the new building there stood a two story high metal sculpture by Kelly near the entrance, heralding the changes to come! We then entered a fairly modest reception area that in turn leads to a gigantic lobby. The size of the lobby, or what they refer to as the central court, was all out of proportion to the modest size of the Barnes; it seemed bigger than the actual Barnes. Was this a space to hold parties, election celebrations … what?
Off this space was the Kelly exhibit, in a large white room that had the piece my friend described, as well as several other works. It was a great show, but why was this exhibit here and where was the Barnes? It felt like we were in an outpost of the Philly Museum. It was a while before we entered the actual Barnes Collection as my students and I were puzzled, disoriented actually, by the lobby and sat there for some time pondering the need for this vast space.
The original Barnes was a Beaux-Arts design by Paul Philippe Cret, who also worked on the Rodin Museum that the new Barnes now sits next to on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The exhibition rooms of the old Barnes were replicated and fitted inside a boxy building designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects. This “relocation” makes those spaces feel like the period rooms at the Met, as if the rooms are now on view as well. Of course the collection is laid out in all its eccentric glory, much the same, as before. Soutine, Renoir, van Gogh, Seurat, Picasso, door hinges? It is what it always was, a great collection presented in an unusual and unconventional manner that encourages looking. It makes you pause; it’s a slow read. But now the rooms are crowded. I don’t recall ever being told to step back from a work during previous visits. This time it happened four times in the span of an hour as I simply tried to maneuver around people.
The popularity of the new location is a problem. It dampens the unique qualities and experiences of the original Barnes. There is great art to be seen, for sure, but now it’s set in a more accessible location replete with the typical shortcomings of the current museum scene. Tourism, crowds, starchitecture and with the emphasis on including contemporary art the trappings of the art market loom, not far behind.
The Barnes is required viewing. It’s still a destination. But this destination has changed, forever.

Coming soon: the entire town of Marfa is moved to a mall in New Jersey!