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Design and Designer

“…H&M has enlisted American figurative artist Alex Katz, known his brightly colored portraiture, as the latest to design a capsule collection. Katz’s signature style will be woven into clothing for men and women as well as homewares. “The partnership with H&M surpassed my expectations,” Katz told Vogue. “It is exciting for me to work with H&M to make my art more accessible to more people.” “As Alex Katz Teams Up With H&M Are Artist Collabs the New Fast Fashion Trend?” Kyle Munzenrieder, W Magazine.

Continuing on from yesterday’s questions about commerce and an artist’s involvement in that commerce….

Today we have Alex Katz working his magic for H&M. Now what the firm means by his “signature style” I can’t say. How would this translate into clothing? Maybe the flattened, toned color, the abstracted line, and the red lipsticks will be featured. Maybe these clothes will radiate a kind of mid-50s to early 60s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” feel, the same feeling that pervades Katz’s figurative work. Maybe the signature style is about colorful, well dressed, contented Preppies enjoying the fruits of the American Empire. Alright, that’s a bit OTT, but so what? I’m not really keen on Katz’s portraiture which to my eye comes across like American Anime, but his landscape work on the other hand is beautiful – decorative, assured and visual at once. Maybe these bucolic paintings will be made into pattern which could easily be done. There aren’t any photos of the clothing line yet, so I’m talking from an uninformed place – which has never stopped me before….

But all that aside – I have to ask again – why would successful and well-regarded artists do this sort of thing? Is it the money? Is it the chance to reach out to a wider audience – as so many artists like to claim? Yesterday, I discussed my questions about Barbara Kruger designing a label for a winery, because her work, or my interpretation of her work, IS critiquing Consumer Culture, using its very own advertising tools to have a go at it. The work is political, social, anti-consumerist in its stance. So seeing her work on a bottle of wine rang my bell. Again, I don’t know the context of her involvement so I may be shooting my mouth off while stuffing in all ten toes at the same time. I kinda hope that’s the case. Then I can remove my feet, apologize for my ignorance, and put her book back on my library shelf. I’ve always been very impressed with the snarky stridency of Ms. Kruger’s work.

Alex Katz on the other hand, well, I’m not so sure that this kind of work is outside of commerce, or better yet, it’s not critiquing commerce or society or politics or much of anything, really. His work documents, glorifies and beautifies a certain kind of lifestyle in America. There’s nothing much to argue about in these images. His work does indeed have a “signature style”. His color is wonderful, and there’s a quirky flatness that makes the paintings feel contemporary. There isn’t a lick of tension to be seen anywhere. His subject matter and painting style is profoundly bourgeois, and his work continues the 19th Century “Belle Epoque” painting tradition. I would like to think that Mr. Katz is a most contented human being and a gracious man to be around – but then what do I know? He might very well be Satan making serene paintings to pull us over to the dark side. In any case I believe that he’s managed to perfect his own version of Matisse’s armchair…

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

And if I think about it – I guess this kind of thing would be perfect for a clothing line.

Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation

It shows that what has happened is that all of us in the West – not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves – have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us we accept it as normal.
But there is another world outside. Forces that politicians tried to forget and bury forty years ago – that then festered and mutated – but which are now turning on us with a vengeful fury. Piercing though the wall of our fake world.”

A fantastic documentary on power, politics, and vision.

Link to the full HyperNormalisation here.

Commerce and Commercialism

“Much of Kruger’s work pairs found photographs with pithy and assertive text that challenges the viewer. She develops her ideas on a computer, later transferring the results (often billboard-sized) images. Examples of her instantly recognizable slogans read “I shop therefore I am,” and “Your body is a battleground,” appearing in her trademark white letters against a red background. Much of her text calls attention to ideas such as feminism, consumerism, and individual autonomy and desire, frequently appropriating images from mainstream magazines and using her bold phrases to frame them in a new context.” Wikipedia entry for Barbara Kruger.

I recently visited some friends who live in Long Island. I don’t do such things very often, and I thought this short trip might enable me to have a laconic suburban experience. Instead I was introduced to a fast-paced throng-filled world of viniculture and farm-to-table gastronomy. It seems that Long Island agribusinesses have made themselves into a thriving service industry aimed at the deep pocketbooks of well-heeled weekend home owners. The best way to describe this cavalcade of epicurean pleasure seeking is that it’s modeled after the highly successful tourist-friendly Napa Valley – a Faux-Napa, if you will. My friends and I headed out for the wine tastings on offer only to find that the back roads and blue highways were jam-packed with hundreds of other gastro-nauts turning what should have been an ordinary twenty minute drive into an hours long commute.

What’s immediately apparent is that the gentrification going on in this farm country is astounding to witness. Homes are being bought up by wealthy city dwellers looking for weekend get aways, and the locals are cashing out and leaving. It seems that NYC is exporting more and more of its economic theoretics. Bloombergism is flooding through the tunnels. Anyway, my first taste of ex-urban second-home living left me a bit uneasy and riddled with lots of questions I just wasn’t prepared to engage. I sat with my friends, whom I love, at the Bedell winery enjoying a conversation about life, incomprehensible traffic, the pros and cons of antipasto, and contemporary art when I suddenly realized that the labels on the wine bottles were designed by Chuck Close, Eric Fischl and Barbara Kruger. As it turned out the Barbara Kruger wine was actually extremely good – in addition to being extremely expensive.

Considering the moment- good friends, lovely wine, good conversation – I was bothered by what I thought these labels might mean. I found these artists’ involvement in this particular commercial enterprise just a bit off putting. But why should this be so? I’ve never had a problem with artists making money from their work. I mean it’s just a gig after all, right? One has to work for a living. Make money when you can. Put a roof over your head and food on the table. Maybe these artists hang out at this particular winery. I know that I would, especially for that Kruger Red – delicious. Maybe they drink, run up a tab, and this is how they pay it off. Artists have been doing that kind of thing for centuries. But these are successful artists. Their works sell for tens of thousands of dollars and resell for millions. Surely a bar tab is an easy nut for them to crack.

Which brings me back to my unease. It stems from what Robert Hughes was talking about in his Mona Lisa Curse – the annoying unanswered question in our Neo-Liberal era. What is the purpose of Art? If one uses one’s ideas, one’s style, for purely commercial purposes does this invite parody, insincerity, bad faith? I really had no idea what was going on here or how this artists’ label series came about. For all I know there’s a perfectly noble reason for this kind of commercialization – like charity or something. I mean why would successful artists package a bottle of wine or for that matter endorse a consumer product with their serious work? Especially in the case of an artist like Barbara Kruger. Her entire critique depends on satire and irony, appropriation and exaggeration. The work’s centered on “feminism, consumerism and individual autonomy and desire”, and yet, here the same imagery is used for packaging a bottle of wine, a high end consumer product priced to sell at 70 bucks a bottle. What exactly does Barbara mean by “Taste”?

To be fair to Barbara Kruger making a label for a wine bottle may not have been a difficult decision. Her work has been used in commercial ways before. She comes from advertising, has worked and prospered in that world. Like most Postmodernists who like to play on all sides, Kruger seems to like to do so as well. Context is everything! But still I was bothered. So I began to think about and question consumerism and contemporary artists relationship to that consumerism. When does an artist turn their work into a product for sale rather than an art work for sale? IS there a difference? Do we still make distinctions  between unique works of art and consumer products? Should we? And if so what is that distinction here in the Neo-Liberal world where everything has an economic purpose? What is an artist’s ethical duty to their work – is there one? Should there be one? What, exactly, is a Postmodern avant-garde provocation and where is its focus? And why would an artist whose work is committed to a critique of consumer culture and its impact on society use their work to sell consumer products? Does it matter?



Michelangelo Merisi, Portrait of Fra Antonio Martelli, 1608, 47″ x 36.5″, Oil on Canvas, Palazzo Pitti.

Nec Spec Nec Metu

Grand, isn’t he? Well, maybe not so much the man depicted, I mean, he looks like a slyly dangerous douche to me. But the vision of the depicted, the visual opulence in this painting, is stunning. Look at the way the light illuminates certain defining moments in his pose – the hand at the belt delicately holding the prayer beads, the other hand deftly adjusts the sword so it can be easily drawn. His forehead is lined and his eyes are set deep. His gaze is weary. He’s a man of experience. His right ear has been made specific, perfectly realized, cocked and listening to everything in this particular room. The silk collar and cross on his chest fill out the man’s volume. It makes him solid and thick in all of that blackness. Fra Martelli emerges into our gaze, fills the space before us. He’s an emissary of god, a judge of men, a protector of the church, a Knight of St. John, and if need be, an executioner. This man is ready to act both in thought and deed against those who trespass against Holy Mother Church and the Papacy – heretics, blasphemers, sodomites and murderers.

Unfortunately, the artist who painted this picture, Caravaggio, had been charged with all of these crimes. And he was on the run from a well armed band of bounty hunters looking to take his head. Yes, Michele was a wanted criminal, but he also happened to be the Roman art world’s hottest painter of the moment, a controversial avant-gardist and the premier imagist of the new century. Collectors, punters and the church had been lining up to be involved with this art star. There were lists for chapel commissions, decadent parties, FU money, and glamorous success. All had been going really well for our hero right until the moment he managed to murder a crappy swordsman named Tomassoni in a back alley fight over a bad bet, a “bad” woman and some bad blood. That violent encounter fueled by misguided machismo changed everything in an instant, and it sent Michele on a sweaty runner to the South of Italy.

Lucky for him there were powerful Roman wheelers and dealers working on his behalf, and by using their connections and back-alley associates they had managed to cobble together a trade that would lead Michele to redemption in Malta. For the Knights Caravaggio would become their court painter and make them famous. He would also swear allegiance to the Cross and the Brotherhood. In return he would be titled as a Knight and find protection from the assassins and bounty hunters that were hot on his tail. As a bonus if he could keep himself together and out of trouble a Papal pardon would be given for his capital crimes back in Rome. And with that pardon “Fra Michele Merisi” could find his way back to the Piazza Navona and back to the life of privilege that he had thrown away so carelessly. His sins would be forgiven. In Italy this kind of deal making is called “l’arte di arrangiarsi”. Arrangiarsi is all about stretching the rules and finding a solution to a difficult problem – find a clever way to get around a tight situation – and in this case the “deal” would get the troubled genius back to work for the Church. But this particular deal hung on one really shaky proviso – that our troubled hero would tow the line, keep it in his pants and show a bit of contrition.

If you really look at this stunning portrait you can see that somehow Michele seemed to understand that things for him would never be so straightforward. Especially not for an artist, a painter, a sinner, who crossed serious men like Fra Martelli without thought. Of course it wasn’t long before his deal with the devil, the “arrangiarsi”, went south. In short order our hero was beaten, jailed and defrocked by the very “gentlemen” he had just begun to paint and immortalize. We don’t really know what happened in Malta, but considering Michele’s past transgressions, there could have been no other ending to his stay with the Knights. Somehow he managed an improbable escape from the prison pit at Sant Angelo (probably with a bit of help) and went “on the lam” – first through Sicily, then back to Naples, leaning on “friends” and picking up quick commissions all along the way. It looks like he may have been heading back to Roma to renegotiate his pardon – maybe his contacts had managed to cobble together another lousy deal – or maybe they were just leading him on. Conspiracy theories are profligate when it comes to Caravaggio. Meanwhile, determined heavily armed killers were once again hot on his tail. And so this is how the bitter end game played out for Michele – paint quickly for cash, try to avoid the bounty hunters (he wasn’t always successful), and move on, fast. Until he died of fever and madness, stumbling along the shores of Porto Ercole, chasing after his absconded boat. Well, that’s the official version of how he met his end…

Strange, though. The last few “lost” paintings, the ones Michele had “left” aboard his hired felucca before his retched death, managed to wind up in the “right” Roman collections. Arrangiarsi indeed.


Like so many places in Italy the city of Firenze is a living museum. Millions of us pony up every year to indulge in the beauties of the past. We marvel at how many of the works in their galleries and churches can still move us, enthrall us, fill us with vision and emotion even though these works were made hundreds of years ago. It’s comforting to know that there is a human constant, a human connection in our visions. But because we are just tourists we march through these things like we are on treadmills – moving from one sight to another, pushed along by the crowd behind, all of us wanting to see the same things, experience the same things in our own publicly produced private moments. But these things that we encounter are never quite what they once were as marvelous as they might seem. They are the past, they are memories. We tend to fetishize these moments, polish them for consumption, mark our tourist’s moments through them. We’ll take photos of the famous things, meander to the next and the next, leaving them on the walls where we found them. We prefer to see these things through the postcards in our pockets, the catalogues in our bags or the moments captured in our photo streams. But strangely, once in a great while, some thing that we’ve seen sees us as well and follows us back to our hotel rooms. The thing  becomes… present. And before we know it this present thing has slyly insinuated itself into our lives. On that day Fra Martelli came along with me and has been with me ever since, a bothersome last “gift” from Michele.

2 am and all I can think about is that vision can be a supremely dangerous thing. I wrote in my sketch diary – “It’s not the things we know we’ve seen or the things we expect to see that takes us. It’s the things that surprise us, the things we think we do not want to see, things we see that we can not or will not understand, the visions that persist, that are and will remain for each of us, unrelenting.” And I have come to understand that this is life making itself known in no uncertain terms through vision. These bothersome things are raw, unfocused and they exist without our permission or our influence, without our taste or our preferences. They see straight through us. They can not be conjured up in series or made through technologies or experienced without consequences. They do not maintain their distance. They are dangerous, and these visions change how we see the world.

Today there are expeditions looking for the bones of Caravaggio amongst the catacombs of Porto Ercole. They conduct tests in labs looking for DNA markers and genetic sequences hoping to prove that his remains rest among the other poor souls dumped into these nameless pits. And by doing so they may resurrect him, make him one of us once again. We painters are also doing these same kinds of things, conducting the same kinds of tests, looking for markers and sequences among the bones of a dead Modernism. We search through the artifacts of abstraction – the flat surfaces, the processes and manufactured products, the advertising landscapes and image flows. We look on “pictures of nothing” hoping to find that something may indeed exist there, and we are happy when we find ourselves reflected back on those surfaces. But for me Fra Martelli continues to stand in that dark room, in our room, counting his beads, waiting for us to decide – will we see our fate and change or will we continue on our path as our lost Michele had done so long ago?


Jerry gets it right with his review of the GUSTON EXHIBITION at Hauser & Wirth!

The lesson of his career is that in order to really be themselves all artists must find their inner Guston: an artist who foregoes easy answers, looks for and channels doubt and not knowing. An artist like this understands that he or she isn’t controlling their art — not really; that on some cosmic level art controls the artist. All great artists must be able to create a machine that can make things that they cannot predict.Even when they make what might be nightmarish or ugly to them.

Guston confronted aesthetic concerns of the New York School, questioning modes of image making and what it means to paint abstractly.

Michael Zahn @ Pablo’s Birthday

My good friend Michael Zahn has a wall piece installed at Pablo’s Birthday.

The show is entitled “Informed Painting.”

On View Pablo’s Birthday | 57 Orchard Street
Curated by Arne Zimmermann


Market in the Studio – Continued…

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 9.30.04 AM
What I’ve been trying to open up in these FB posts is a deeper consideration, understanding and conversation about what Art is and has become in the face of our Economic Modernist Art World. What does it mean to be an artist at this time in the face of this new reality? Why has there NOT been a backlash of art, aesthetics, theoretics, providing a different viewpoint, a different reality of what our art world should be? Why have we settled for the Neo-Liberal model of unregulated markets, unfettered investments and oligarch manipulations of the very things that should have meaning to US, to artists? We can not go back to an imagined reality of an avant-garde, but we can ask questions of ourselves, about how we fit into this time, about what kind of work we make, what kind of visions we create, and who, ultimately, those visions are for.
I’ve done these posts on FB purposely, because it is their database, and I was hoping to make a sly point. My database for Henri floats free on the net. I have my own url. It is part of the larger “lost” web and to whatever degree possible it makes Henri individuated. Facebook, however, is a genius business idea. It was created as a web within the web, a club so to speak, and somehow they’ve managed to convinced us that their surveillance and collection of our data, our thoughts, images and ideas, is to our benefit. FB is a fill-in-the-blank, click your preferences, and upload your data kind of place. Their programs control and shape your creativity, and in some cases if you cross a line that they deem uncrossable, they’ll throw you off for a period of time. As I write this FB stock price is $112.26, its market cap is almost $320 billion – all because we participate in this “beneficent” umbrella – we create its value. And in that Facebook has become like a new kind of Vatican, a place where believers, users, obtain their moral code and provide “value” to the cause in the form of personal information – what they like, how they shop, what they think, etc. The strange thing is we can do these very same things on our own web pages. We can communicate, share photos, stories, whatever you like, and we can do it for ourselves. We can do it without FB’s Electronic Vatican pocketing our information. Why are we so willing to believe that it’s in our benefit to give over our lives over for someone else’s profit and someone else’s control?
I make this point, ask these questions, because we’ve adopted these same policies of contrition to the market in the art world, and it’s changed how we make art, how we live our lives in the studio and how we consider ourselves in the Economic Modernist Art World. As Dave Hickey has said when speaking of money’s effect on artists and the art world, “care is control.”
“If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it. And that is something we’re going to have to face more and more as the years go on. That nasty question which never used to be asked because the assumption was always that it was answered long ago – What good is art? What use is art? What does it do? Is what it does actually worth doing? and an art that is completely monetarized in the way that it is these days is going to have to answer these questions or it’s going to die.” Robert Hughes – The Mona Lisa Curse

Market in the Studio

Mario Naves sent around a really wonderful article on the economic changes to the art world. There’s also an interesting interview with Mario about those changes. I highly recommend it. But I thought I’d try something a bit more informal and different. I’ve posted this over at the Henri Facebook site. You’ll find some thoughts about the market and a few article links that show a small bit of the history of the economic art world.

The Link to the full post on Henri FB is below and do feel free to comment!


Ghostzapper – Paul Corio’s Show of New Work

My good friend, Paul Corio, is having a show of his new work at McKenzie Fine Art – the opening is on February 7, 2016 from 6 to 8 pm. Best of luck to Paul and hope to see you all there!

Mckenzie Fine Art is located at 55 Orchard St. between Grand St. and Hester St. on the lower East Side of Manhattan.  The show runs through March 13, and the gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 am to 6 pm, and Sunday from noon to 6 pm.

Photo by Adrienne Jimenez from Paul’s tumblr

22 November, 2013 – By Michael Zahn

Tonight in Brooklyn I glance at a wonderful little painting above my desk by Jackie Saccoccio before closing my MacBook Pro, a comprehensively powerful machine featuring the crisp resolution of its fifteen-inch retina display, having tracked an order of Old Holland Classic Colours immediately after streaming David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don Delillo’s novella Cosmopolis. I peel a clementine. My package has left the shipper’s facility. The film, an appropriately nasty slice of glacial pococurantism, was pegged by financier Eric Packer’s blank remove in the back of a white stretch limousine, a long ride cloaking him from the creative destruction his ilk have sown. This seems as accurate a take onto today’s vista as any I’ve seen, a pas de trois of the still, the silent, and the social as exquisitely choreographed as any picture of flowers, fruit, and fabric, where the subject is expunged, values abolished, and narrative deleted.

The imperative to ‘make it new’ isn’t exhausted. The impulse to commodify novelty is. The cubist adventure showed us as much. Using an ostensible depiction of cafe ambience as its armature it fashioned a thing that would have subsumed history in favor of a new content, an art for art’s sake, this coming on the heels of the sale of the Peau d’Or and its conspicuous validation of the avant garde. Given the conditions shaping contemporary abstraction, the issues on the table are papered over by emphases on syntactic declension most pointedly limned by increasingly ubiquitous dematerialization, in itself a significant abridgment of experience and coeval with that which makes everything seem so ‘abstract’. Yet the questions raised here apropos of the artwork are simple. How may our conception of the nexus that constitutes the standards of art– its practice, verity, and status; its relation to the viewer, to its place and to its inventions; its iconicity, legibility, and historicity– draft a vision of the world or provoke an affective response to it? Are artworks still capable of doing so? Have they ceded these tasks to other disciplines? It was with these questions and the imagination of a mutable picture of the sensible status quo that I went uptown on the Lexington Avenue IRT yesterday to see the Donald Judd show at Mnuchin and the Christopher Wool retrospective at the Guggenheim. Made a quick stop between the two, but more on that detour in a bit.

Judd’s Stacks are variations on a rectangular modular volume, executed in metal or in metal and plexiglas. There were ten installed on two floors of the townhouse gallery on East 78th Street. The first, in stainless steel and amber plexiglas, was fabricated for the artist by the Bernstein Brothers in 1968. The last, dated 1990, in anodized aluminum, black lacquer, and clear plexiglas, was also a product of the Queens workshop. They’re at turns manic and subtle, severe and voluptuous, imposing and ethereal, yet so replete in presence and far too rigorous in manufacture to be truly prized in the way most iconic artworks are. This is genius, as the logic they embody ultimately made the everyday rarity of Judd’s life into his art through ways that resist evaluation using the measured instrumental terms of modernity. No real number can be assigned to that matter, unless 101 Spring Street is suddenly listed on the market as is, with its furniture and tools and artworks intact, all impeccably housed in the building’s restored cast-iron splendor. Although this seems unlikely it might not be entirely implausible, considering Christopher Wool’s Apocalypse Now brought $26.4 million at the fall auctions Tuesday, followed by Andy Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) at $104.5 million Wednesday.

Andy’s reasoning continues to loom. This seems obvious, but in many ways still is not and so stands repeating. The prescient complexity of Warhol’s work unspools as time passes, and is possessed of a consciousness that psychically calibrates the plurality of the present beyond trite peans to fame that make up the common gloss on his corpus. This morning upon opening email from a friend that linked to a YouTube clip of the conspiratorial ‘Profiles in Cowardice’ rant from the 1991 indie cult film Slacker, something struck me. Although he screened the numerous veiled ‘Jackie’ images in numbed reaction to JFK’s funeral, Warhol immediately repressed his experience of the actual assassination. Unlike his fascination with the gruesome iconography of the Death and Disaster series, the artist obstructed any view onto the violent deed itself by tampering with the evidence and producing the great assembled mass of Brillo Boxes, eighty of them cranked out in six weeks with the helping hand of the trusty Gerard Malanga. This was accomplished at the original silver Factory, commencing in December 1963 and wrapping in April 1964, just in time for Warhol’s first exhibition at the Stable Gallery. Poor Eleanor Ward hated, hated, hated the boxes. They didn’t look like art.

Appearances aside, Wool is quite like Warhol in that he retains a ludic character and has a facile synthetic touch. He’s emerged from this recent confluence of attention an ironic dark horse symbolic of a vast class gulf. Suddenly, Wool’s a superstar. With the imprimatur of this survey he seems poised to assume the mantle of the American pop-minimal tradition if not that of the entire postwar New York School, its beatnik lit and no-wave punk lending an attendant poetics to his aesthetic accomplishment. While first and foremost a painter and in many respects a quintessential artist’s artist (his craft is immaculate), there’s a theatrical asperity to Wool’s relentlessly frontal address which rivals that of the orthodox minimalists, the qualifying difference being this painter is not averse to the implications of metaphor, image, or past. A key suite on paper hangs at the museum, an insolent chorus of graphic avatars stamped with direct nonchalance that reads spokesman, insomniac, comedian, informant, paranoiac, absurdist, prankster, pessimist, terrorist, hypocrite, mercenary, anarchist, assassin, chameleon, assistant, extremist, adversary, celebrity, each composed in the artist’s trademark grid of stenciled and staggered letterforms. The retinue is cast in a blunt opus of endgame drama and deconstructed roleplay, a tough picture of tragedy and farce in one insouciant package. These exegetic figures were collected for Wool’s Black Book, an oversized folio produced at the tumultuous end of the last century, arriving as it did with early surprise in Berlin, the apotheosis of that described by painter Carroll Dunham as when everything cracked open and with all happening since the critical elaboration of a significant cultural moment.

In hindsight, that decade may be understood as marked by passage to what was dimly understood as a ‘postindustrial’ regime, where the general management of telematic information would allegedly supersede the production of actual objects, with the artwork as a nugatory type of mise-en-abyme where agency is elided. But if indeed the syllogistics of extant pictorialism were shaped by that occasion, then their standing now is one where concerns aren’t those of form as much as of scale and its corresponding value. By the end of the 1970s, the substantive line that tethered the concrete image to the fact of its making had been severed from within– call it bad painting, new image, transavangardia, neo-expressionism, pictures– and reinscribed on a free-floating plane subject to manipulation from without. These tendencies, seen as antagonistic to the objective postminimal discourses they usurped and as a withering parody of the vagaries of subjective judgement, sketched a prescient move towards an organized synergy where artworks were assigned variable worth similar to the way in which a fiat currency decoupled from fixed standards functions in a statist economy, or more to the point, how speculative interest colors perception of any commodity at a given time. This was a collusive activity, and is as accurate a summary as any of how works of whatever medium are regarded in the contemporary art world, a fellowship with its roots in the transnational neoliberalism that’s spread to the globe.

As the 1980s unfolded, painting such as Wool’s freed itself from an appreciable deadlock by adopting serial formats. This was done with an eye not towards furthering competence and entrenching conventions, calls incipient in Clement Greenberg’s prescription for the medium, but with one that hastened an abnegating drive towards integration with installation as a primary means of exhibition. Ultimately it mattered little if a work was good or bad, since what became important was its place within the sequences it diagrammed in a performative demonstration of its constituent arc. This paradigmatic shift, nascent in the provocative soixante-huitard insurrection of BMPT and bolstered by a range of later activity loosely termed simulationist, was codified with the presentation of Jim Shaw’s Thrift Store Paintings at Metro Pictures in 1991. In one adroit move Shaw adjusted the analysis of the medium from the focus on a unique surface to explicating the connotations implicit in its larger support, accepted as the structuring of taste, expertise, and evaluation upon which appraisal of any artifact is founded. Perhaps not surprisingly this shift also saw the rise of video as a favored tool and its projection by the early 2000s as the technical medium par excellence, presenting not necessarily a picture of the world as it was but the reflection of a neo-essentialist mien that perfectly mirrored the free market triumphalism of the post-Soviet bust and the burgeoning dot- com boom. The democratization of video in the years since, in which producers and their audiences commingle while formats and platforms are streamlined as bandwidth expands, carries with it the puzzles of overproduction and access rife today, and which are glaringly apparent at the Guggenheim now. As always, the issues are those of nomination, parity, and legitimacy. Is this art? What makes this art? Who decides so?

The professionalization of the arts that began in the 1950s has reached a tipping point. We’re now witness to a pervasive determinism within the institution at large, where works in question more often than not serve an agenda towards which they’re ambivalent at best. The degree of specialization that privileges abstract concepts over direct experience and interprets intent as divorced from the milieu that gives it rise only girds hierarchies, even as claims are made to subvert them in the name of openness, tolerance, and plurality. This is the true legacy of postmodernism, especially as understood in relation to the present technocratic state. The sovereignty of the incorporated organization as governing body, following the personalized independence emblematic of the postwar neo-avant gardes, is apparent everywhere. So are the obvious faults appearing in the authority which constitutes a foundational claim on which the enterprise rests, one which disregards hypothetical imperatives in pursuit of the infinite expansion of its leveraged prerogative.

Wool’s practice has always seemed preternaturally attuned to bold claims. This is apparent in the topmost tower gallery at the Guggenheim, which presents a concise tableau of the painter’s thematics scattered across a battery of panels hung in tight, unflinching proximity. The room is a stunner. As such, it’s a comprehensive show-within-a-show slyly presented as a picture of its specific moment, and is a gesture that flirts with degraded trompe l’oeil devices and the tenets of second-order observation which comprise a primary underpinning of systems theory. This ken is underscored by judicious moves to be espied in a walk down the museum’s ramp. There are superficial visual parallels in Wool’s oeuvre to be found among his cohort, in the paintings of Donald Baechler, Albert Oehlen, and Phillip Taaffe, in those of Jacqueline Humphries, Jonathan Lasker, and Rudolf Stingel, but most profoundly, at a corporeal level, in the schizophrenic detritus of the Republic laid bare by sculptor Cady Noland. Likewise, phantoms haunt East Broadway Breakdown, Wool’s grim flash on a depopulated nocturnal downtown which feels like a lugubrious appendix to Peter Hujar’s westside rambles, and is the sole instance at the museum in which anything resembling context is afforded its place in the reception of that at hand. With abstraction understood less as a term of positive value and more as one sign among many, or susceptible to analysis as the fundamental contradiction which models dualistic meta-economic goals, the differential pressure brought to bear upon how art is pictured forms the crux of our contemporary aporia and how it’s educed. I wished for more of this at the Guggenheim, but there’s a brief glimpse of it, or perhaps its facsimile, to be had a few doors down Fifth Avenue in the Exposition de Groupe staged by Olivier Mosset at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.*

Upon arrival in New York City in 1977, Mosset grappled with painting’s relevance as it faced challenges wrought by flourishing new media and dubious critical fortunes. With Marcia Hafif he became a co-founder of radical painting, a union which counted Joseph Marioni, Phil Sims, and Gunter Umberg among its members. In selecting a word from the Latin as a moniker under which to operate, with ‘radical’ derived from radix, the root, point of origin, or base system of number, it’s possible those involved were aware they were administering to that widely thought to be a dead language, all the while living in a city increasingly gripped by darkness, decline, and default. The monochrome again became an emblem, albeit one serving as a desublimating index which redirected any claims of meaning back to its dumb ubeity. Ever since, Mosset’s ‘failed paintings’ have been proffered as sites of indifference and entropy, with the diminished expectations that signaled the end of modernism a clear part of the work’s purported deficiency. This is a regulating ideal Mosset shares with Wool, among others.

The influence Mosset has exerted on artists preoccupied with the social reading of media shouldn’t be underestimated. If he insists upon his art as something singular, Mosset has repeatedly discovered means to position his work in thoughtful relation to the world as it is. This is the painter’s great ongoing project, one so simple and reticent to be almost overlooked. His celebrated kinship with the aforementioned Noland, with John Armleder, with the late Steven Parrino, with Amy Granat and Drew Heitzler, and with many others here and abroad attest to Mosset’s engagement with the ethics of networked community, now emerging in its current digital guise, as the plain basis of our diurnal reality. The monochromes on view at the Embassy are sprayed with a repellent urethane coating, their outsourced improvisation neatly recalling Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s Telephone Paintings of the 1920s and Alexander Lieberman’s Circle Paintings of the 1950s, both harbingers of that yet to come. Mosset’s lot of white squares is guarded by four baleful steeds, a louche gang of customized motorcycles fashioned by Jeffrey Schad and Vincent Szarek with a polished gleam evocative of the lacquered brilliance that so unnerved Judd’s peers when applied to his constructions in galvanized iron, or in tandem with light copper, red brass, and the other metals of commerce.

Let’s not mistake these things mentioned above for impossible objects, simply the volatile products of an improbable marketplace wherein the manipulation of risk is disaffiliated from the decent, the commonplace, the gray day-to-day. In each instance, they warrant recalling the traces of head space and hand work gone into their making. However, when finance shapes art from within, as it routinely does, theories of labor and exchange are transformed. Digitalization streamlines the velocity of trade and speed of thought, making it terribly efficient. Likewise, with pertinent implication here, it exacerbates deskilling by inventing tools that minimize the hand’s inflection. Yet its technical processes never actually banish thought or gesture, and put a supernumerary ipseity at the service of a haptic visuality that ideally doesn’t acquiesce to the limits of various programs required for output, that is, metaphoric rendering accomplished in a typically object-oriented understanding. This metonymic displacement is related to the transdisciplinary order of cybernetics, likely the true refuge of the avant garde. In this respect, paraphrasing Leo Steinberg, the hand, in addition to the eye, finally becomes a part of the mind. Computation makes physical conundrums explicit, with the contrivances of its morphology relative to the substrate of binary notation, and integrates the distinction between nature and culture Steinberg made in describing the flatbed picture. Respective correlates are found in hybrid surfaces that may or may not be ‘painted’, as it were, with practices of the medium dispersed up, down, and along the xyz axes of the neutral band that structures the algorithmic sign in general.

This reference to liminality, a concept of space not as a container or ground but as just that neutral band, a threshold, or in this instance where the sensibilities of habit cross the cultus of ritual, becomes evident when considering arbitrary correspondences amongst the temporal aspects of the peripatetic mobility of images, brevatim et seriatim, equivalences of objects that are none. They pass before us like the days, bright into shade. As Jean Baudrillard wrote of Mosset, and of some, all this is not nothingness. An object that’s not an object isn’t nothing. It’s a pure object which doesn’t cease to obsess us with its own immanence, its empty material presence. I’d offer the opinion that what this always hazards is the suggestion of a false ontology where viewer and viewed parley in a myopic obsession with one another, with the subject mistaking the profile of the object for the object itself, and the profile, represented as such, creating the fallacy of a subject for its own self- satisfaction.


Michael Zahn
22 November 2013

*Olivier Mosset’s Expostion de Groupe is on view in an expanded format at The Kitchen in Chelsea.