Surviving the Moment

Surviving the Moment

Do our financial wizards, like vampires, leave no reflection in the mirror of art?


The price of things is crowding out their value. When it comes to art, the belief that the price of a work is its sole worth constitutes the peculiar accord between the hedge-fund millionaires driving prices into the stratosphere and the would-be revolutionaries who fantasize about the collapse of the art-market bubble and the whole hideous economic system of which it is a prominent sideshow. Is it even remotely possible to see the exhibition hanging in the Guggenheim Museum right now—paintings, drawings and photographs by the American artist Christopher Wool—as art instead of dollar signs, now that one of Wool’s paintings (not included in the exhibition, which is on view through January 22) has sold at auction for $26.5 million, just a year after another sold for what then seemed an already outlandish $7.7 million? According to a recent article in The Art Newspaper, speculation on Wool’s art over the past few years indicates that it “‘has become a parking lot for money,’ says one high-profile European curator. Like the market for Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wool’s market is in danger of being controlled by a small, powerful group of players, he [adds].”

“Parking one’s money” is apparently an everyday concept among those who have too much of it; a recent New York Times article headlined “Record Prices Mask a Tepid Market for Fine Art” quoted a market expert who accounted for the popularity of contemporary art among hedge-fund managers this way: “They can hang anything they want in their Manhattan co-ops or in Aspen and nobody can say that’s ugly because contemporary art has not been subjected to sustained critical appraisal. There are no markers of good or bad taste that have yet been laid down. It’s a safe place to park your money.”

People clap, I understand, when an auction sale achieves a record price. It’s like cheering at an execution. What’s being killed is the passion for art, sacrificed on the altar of money. Eventually, the entire spectacle justifies philistinism. One could react by saying, with the media theorist McKenzie Wark, that “contemporary art mimics the form of its key patrons, that fraction of the rentier class that lives off finance capital,” and have done with it. That’s easy, unless you’ve ever had an aesthetic experience or, to put it another way, have ever loved a work of art. Wark’s disdainful remark that “art is a portrait of its patrons, and nothing else” can be appreciated for its caustic wit but should be taken with a grain of salt (or maybe a fistful). Besides, art is not going to take his stale advice—more than a century old, anyway—and “abolish itself” in favor of who knows what else. If Wark thinks he’s enough of an artist to produce the post-art of the future himself, he should do it. But art is not going to follow orders from outsiders.

The struggle of successful artists to evade capture by the very market that enriches them is like David fighting Goliath without a slingshot. It may not define an artist, but it indelibly affects the nature of his or her work. As can be seen from his pictures, an artist like Rubens entertained no fundamental doubt that the interests of his patrons coincided with his own. In Goya’s portraits two centuries later, the position of the artist has changed: the Spaniard looks on his country’s nobility with a corrosive gaze. Today, we feel closer to Goya. We want artists to be critics of society, to bite the hands that feed them; they are not to be celebrants of power. They don’t always accommodate this desire, and yet anyone who can’t be thrilled by a Rubens just as easily as by a Goya cares nothing for painting and should probably just leave it alone.

* * *

Is Wool more like Rubens, or Goya—an artist at ease with the social hierarchy that makes him possible, or at odds with it? Here’s a clue: much like Goya, Wool paints with black and white. He’s an artist of spleen, not of celebration. But his blacks and whites also invoke a tradition closer to home, a New York vein of willfully tough-minded painting that reaches back through the early work of Frank Stella—the twentysomething bad boy who, in the late 1950s, was taunting whatever public he thought he had with black enamel stripe paintings, some of whose titles (Die Fahne hoch!, Arbeit Macht Frei and so on) evoked still-fresh memories of the Nazi horror—to the first flush of Abstract Expressionism, when artists like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline abjured the luxury of color, not to give primacy to drawing or composition but to find something more elemental in the act and matter of their art. As Carl Andre would later say of Stella, they were after “the necessities of painting.” For Wool, likewise “introduced” to the public near the beginning of his career by a sculptor colleague (in this case, Jeff Koons), the work’s internal debate concerns “the necessity to survive the moment at all costs, using its repertoire of false fronts and psychological stances.”

Does Wool still hope to find some necessity that would afford him defense against becoming just a servant of his own market? He certainly seems to be trying. One way to resist is to stop making your most salable work. In Wool’s case, that would be the stenciled text paintings he was doing around 1988–92—such as Apocalypse Now (1988), the one that just sold for $26.5 million. It is not on display at the Guggenheim, though apparently it was meant to be, since it is reproduced in the catalog and included in the exhibition checklist. The text it bears (taken from the movie) reads: SELL THE / HOUSE S / ELL THEC / AR SELL / THEK IDS. 

The painting’s recent owners have apparently taken this message to heart. According to the Times, “When the exhibition was being organized,” Apocalypse Now “belonged to David Ganek, the former hedge fund manager and Guggenheim board member.” (Ganek, who is also listed in the catalog, along with his wife, as chair of “the Leadership Committee for the exhibition,” has “since resigned from the board.”) But Ganek later sold the painting to someone else, who immediately flipped it at Christie’s. The painting’s new owner is the sixth to have occupied that particular parking spot, meaning that Zsa Zsa Gabor has had better luck keeping husbands than this painting has had in finding a committed owner. But surely each of those people bought the painting for the same reason: “Because he could tell that’s a masterpiece of the artist and he wanted to buy the masterpiece of the artist,” said the dealer who handled the purchase on behalf of his anonymous client, explaining the latter’s motivations. Perhaps five years with a masterpiece is as much as some people can take—sensitive souls! How will this new owner carry the burden? For the show, meanwhile, the museum is making do with a study for the painting, a work on paper.

Wool isn’t making that kind of painting anymore, though if he were willing to, he could presumably be even more bankable than he already is. The exhibition’s effectively anti-chronological hanging points up the artist’s restlessness, but he never entirely abandons nor sticks with anything he’s tried his hand at. Although Wool pretty much shut down his franchise in text paintings after 1992, there are a pair of late stragglers in the show, one from 1997 and the other from 2000; but the artist keeps changing his tactics, trying new ways of creating “false fronts and psychological stances.” If anything remains consistent in his work, it’s his conjecture that while there may be many avenues to carry on with painting, all of them are likely to involve ways of finding a critical distance on what, for his Abstract Expressionist forebears, was a potential guarantee of authenticity: the display of a direct, immediate trace of the artist’s physical effort in the work’s making. 

In the earliest painting here, made before the text paintings, Wool applied paint using patterned rollers. These trivial patterns of what I want to call, following Keats, “retired flowers” and other such banal decorative motifs grow strangely harsh, almost morose and yet somehow poignant, thanks to the recurrent imperfections and slippages in the realization of what seemingly should have been a clean and systematic structure. Soon Wool took to stenciled lettering and then, in 1993, to silkscreening, a technique that had been a standby of painters since Andy Warhol and then Robert Rauschenberg began using it in the 1960s as a way of transferring found imagery to canvas. Soon after came the graffitist’s preferred tool, the spray gun. With this last, Wool finally began to allow himself something like a free, impulsive gesture—but only at a distance. And the distance was redoubled when, in 1998, he started cannibalizing his own work, making silkscreens from earlier paintings and recombining details (or even whole paintings) on fresh canvases, often at a larger scale than the original. 

Perhaps most telling in all of Wool’s repertoire of anti-gestural gestures is his propensity, since 2000, to paint by erasing—to wipe away with a turpentine-soaked rag the marks he’s already made. Taking into account the artist’s view (as conveyed by the exhibition’s curator, Katherine Brinson, in her catalog essay) of “his spraygun application of enamel as closer in spirit to drawing than to painting,” the blunt, businesslike but definitively deconstructive gestures of erasure are the most painterly marks he’s made, and also the closest to the Abstract Expressionist ideal of directness and immediacy. Yet they are gestures of refusal, of negation. They seem to reach for a void beyond the painting’s presence. For Wool, his continual alternation of applying and removing materials and imagery is a manifestation of doubt—that mainstay of Abstract Expressionist art—as exemplified by the title of Dore Ashton’s great book on Philip Guston, Yes, But…. Even so, his doubt manifests itself differently, in a sort of anxious mechanization of painterly gesture—more like Jasper Johns or Sigmar Polke than Guston. Wool’s blending of these distinct approaches makes him a scholar of his own skeptical traditionalism. “The tools have changed and the ways of exploring visual things have expanded,” he asserts, “but it’s not a paradigm shift, it’s the same old paradigm.” Doubt is the one idea in art that never goes out of date, because it’s the one perspective that’s sure to stay relevant to changing circumstances.

It’s a challenge for any artist’s work to withstand the exposure of a grand museum retrospective. Wool’s paintings do. Technically impeccable in their ultra-refined grittiness, on their own terms they maintain a great sense of unruffled presence, never recessive yet without palpable design on the viewer. They are just passively aggressive enough to provoke a curious viewer to try and draw them out. THEHAR / DERYOU / LOOK / THEHAR / DERYOU / LOOK, as the last of the word paintings here, the one from 2000, would have it. The apparent tautology may not be one. I take it to mean roughly, “If you’re vigilant, if you’re really attentive, you’ll come across as a tough guy.”  It suggests the fundamentally self-protective position from which Wool likes to work. Eventually, though, there’s a limit to what can be achieved by never letting your guard down. Wool’s stoicism is sturdier than I’d ever imagined it could be. The paintings manage to “hold the wall” even at the Guggenheim, where they have no walls to hold on to. They conform so well with their own intentions, yet I want to catch a glimpse of something bigger than a mere intention can contain. 

Could Wool’s defensive crouch represent what Wark would understand as his art’s portraiture of its patrons? I doubt it. What if our financial wizards, like vampires, leave no reflection at all in the mirror of art? Decisions about where to park one’s money are simply made by following the crowd, with “no markers of good or bad taste.” At least for a day, one artist’s work is worth $26.5 million and another’s is worth $26,500. The explanations for the difference come after the fact and arbitrarily. All along, Wool was following his own doubt and not the dictates of his market. What if someone’s art has no patrons—and most art doesn’t. Who, then, is it a portrait of?

* * *

Anyone who thinks art’s mission is to abolish itself will probably not have bothered to go to Industry City (formerly known as Bush Terminal) in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to see the massive recent exhibition “Come Together: Surviving Sandy, Year 1,” which was curated by Phong Bui, the editor and publisher of The Brooklyn Rail (to which I am an occasional contributor, gratis), and himself an artist who lost most of his work to the floods of October 29, 2012. Bui just might be the most affable and energetic denizen of the New York art world, but (as befits a man whose mentor was Meyer Schapiro) he also has a deeper working knowledge of artistic activity in this city over the past sixty years than almost anyone I know. In “Come Together,” which includes more than 200 artists, in many cases represented by several works each, he has rustled together one of the largest exhibitions I’ve ever seen outside some of the great international biennials. “Centered on the work of artists directly affected by Sandy,” as the exhibition was described, it also included “work inspired by and referring to the storm, along with work by artists who were invited to participate in the spirit of solidarity.” It was, in essence, an exhibition of Bui’s extended network of friends and friends of friends, and the participants ranged from out-and-out stars (Alex Katz, Shirin Neshat, Joel Shapiro, Kiki Smith) to complete unknowns who have no gallery behind them, let alone patrons.

Any art lover could come away from the show with a fresh discovery or an unexpected rediscovery. I was taken with a couple of funky assemblage sculptures by an artist named Jo Nigoghossian. Another treat was a modest yet tough abstract painting by Robert Storr, the well-known curator, critic and educator, who seems to make it a policy not to exhibit his own work. (I last caught sight of one of his paintings about twenty years ago.) But my great find was Joanna Pousette-Dart, an artist whose work I didn’t know but whose name I recognized, because she is the daughter of the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart. Her contribution to “Come Together” was a pair of large, eccentrically shaped paintings with exuberantly colored, hard-edged curvilinear forms that somehow manage to recall both Arabic calligraphy and Northwest Coast Indian art without indulging in nostalgia for the exotic. Who knows when we’ll be able to see more?

Encountering Pousette-Dart’s paintings in Sunset Park the day after seeing Wool’s retrospective at the Guggenheim seemed serendipitous somehow. Wool had been a student of her father’s at Sarah Lawrence College (he ended up dropping out), and it was from the elder Pousette-Dart, in part, that Wool learned how to be “a painter more interested in questions than answers.” Together, Wool and Joanna Pousette-Dart curated an exhibition of her father’s work at the Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York two years ago. There’s a lesson here: the paths and projects of the market darlings continually cross with those of outliers. Which category a given artist is slotted in seems arbitrary. Pousette-Dart made a splash with a couple of new paintings, but how would they hold up displayed with ninety others along the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp? Will she ever get the chance to find out? I could ask the same about any number of the other well-regarded mid-career artists included in “Come Together”: Rita Ackermann, Cora Cohen, Lonnie Holley, David Humphrey, Donald Moffett, Gary Stephan and Stanley Whitney, to name just a few. It’s no insult to Wool to point out that the star system so beloved of art collectors (and the museums they sustain) has little or nothing to do with the value of what modestly successful or unheralded working artists make.

As an effort to show the breadth and energy of contemporary art at the grassroots, “Come Together” was a success, but it offered no cure-all for the capricious inequalities imposed on the art scene by the vagaries of the market in a time of ever-increasing upward distribution of income. Every underdog is someone else’s overdog. One reason is that the art market isn’t the only market artists have to contend with; another trades in the one commodity many artists need the most—space. Bui and his exhibition have come in for vociferous criticism—most prominently on the Art F City blog—for his collaboration with Industry City, whose owners have been forcing artists out of their studios to make room for higher-paying tenants. The Times recently named Sunset Park one of “Brooklyn’s New Gentrification Frontiers.” Artists are harbingers of gentrification, but they rarely reap its ultimate economic benefits. The real estate market pits artist against artist. Hurricane Sandy was ultimately a man-made disaster, not a “natural” one. So, too, is the expectations gap of our economy, which makes it harder for most artists to live and work, even as a few become bargaining chips in a game being played somewhere above their heads. Art just might help us survive all this, if the market doesn’t kill it first.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy