Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Does Art Have to be Interesting? or My Dinner with Andre and O.J.

Does Art Have to be Interesting?
My Dinner with Andre and O.J.

Does art have to be interesting? It seems we all agree that most contemporary art isn’t. And galleries reinforce this by consistently filling their spaces with mostly uninteresting and therefore disappointing work. Going to exhibitions would certainly be more fun if we didn’t care about being disappointed.
I recently went to several uninteresting exhibits in Chelsea. It didn’t take much to find them. At one (the Andrew Kreps Gallery) they had a bunch of lightly colored paintings covered with gridded patterns of some sort; they weren’t very interesting to look at. Thinking they must have a back-story, I checked the press release. Turns out that in making the paintings the artist utilized a “random walk algorithm, a formalization of Brownian motion that is used in financial instruments to model market behavior”, or so it said.
OK… but that didn’t make the paintings especially interesting to look at, or even think about, and although the use of an algorithm gave the show an au courant vibe the back-story simply felt like just another art school strategy (which here means uninteresting). Is it old school to think that paintings should be visually interesting? The Forever Now show at MOMA wasn’t very interesting but it was clear that most of the works were at least trying to be interesting, most of them anyway. But maybe that was the problem.
Back in the day even Conceptual art (especially Sol Lewitt’s drawings and sculptures) was often visually engaging, same thing with minimalist painting and sculpture. But I guess that’s truly old school by now.

The Carl Andre Retrospective at Dia Beacon.
Yes, he’s been called the O.J. of the art world. Yes, there were the attendant protests and polemics that invariably accompanied his retrospective at Dia[1]. And yes, it was a great show[2].
Glad it wasn’t in NYC because visiting Dia Beacon, a destination art[3] venue if there ever was one, is always unique[4]. It’s never crowded, the light is fantastic and it has space, space and more space! Even on weekends one can casually be alone with the Sandbacks and the Heizers, take a nap on the couch with the Weiners[5], or nonchalantly spend too much money in the bookstore. No problem.
On the final weekend of the Andre exhibit there were more visitors in the building than I had ever seen, yet (agoraphobia alert!) there were rarely more than 4 people wandering about in spaces that were 6, 000 - 10,000 square feet each. 

Dia installation view
Andre spread out his space-occupying objects in the most casual yet arresting manner, resourcefully managing repetition without being repetitive. To perceive oneself in the process of perception was the mindset of the day. What was seen was more than what was there. The combination of taut arrangements of cast concrete, stacked wooden timbers and random and varied metal bits turned the vast corridors of Dia Beacon into traversable space fields. It was thrilling to once again see how so little can add up to so much.
In addition to the more familiar sculptures there were rarely seen art works: loose coils of metal, a line of found bent metal shafts and from the early days: surrealist inflected objects, mail art and massive amounts of concrete poetry[6].
His classic checkerboard arrangements of metal plates were the least interesting; fortunately there were only a couple present, token nods to an overplayed and reoccurring series. Maybe art does have to be interesting.

The Zero exhibition at the Guggy.
Now that was a visually and conceptually rich exhibit. And you got it just by looking at the work. No back-story needed. While responding to and reacting against post war trends in art, mostly in painting, these artists made some very good paintings. It was the thing-ness, the facticity of the pieces that stunned. Simple and straightforward uses of materials held ones gaze. 

Jan Schoonhoven, R91-3, 1991
Later at the Zwirner multi-story concrete bunker gallery, Jan Schoonhoven who was also in the Zero show, had a large selection of his paintings and drawings. This guy rocks the planet. Simplicity, whiteness, low relief paintings, and drawings made of repetitive ink strokes on white paper filled the second floor. It was all too much, too good to disappoint.

[1] It is curious to compare the reputations of William Burroughs and Carl Andre. Burroughs shot and killed his wife, and was convicted of it. Yet he became an important figure for younger artists, including women, and today remains a cultural icon. Andre on the other hand allegedly killed his wife by tossing her out of their apartment window, he was found not guilty, yet he remains persona non grata to many artists and protests accompany his exhibits. He is the O.J. of the art world.
[2] Saw it twice. It was even better the second time around.
[3] Definition: an art space at a remove. One must leave NYC.
[4] It is a distinctively personal experience. One reason is because Robert Irwin designed the main entrance so that one walks in by oneself, as an individual (as opposed to being herded in with the hoards at the MOMA Mall).
[5] There’s never anyone in the Weiner room.
[6] OK, maybe the writing section was a tad repetitive.

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