Professor Berenz at Purdue University

Tom Berenz: Towards the North

September 1 through October 10, 2015
Fountain Gallery, downtown Lafayette

Thursday, September 3, 5:30 pm
Join us for a gallery talk by Tom Berenz in Fountain Gallery, with a reception to follow.

Tom Berenz uses the disaster motif as a metaphor to discuss personal, socio-political, environmental and ideological issues in his large mixed media canvases. Through the motif of disaster, he explores the existential self and examines personal narratives, with some being more literal and others more enigmatic. The imagery is in constant flux, but always returns to a pile. “A pile is everything and it is nothing. It is a mound that once was and now isn’t; a mass of information, both physical and metaphysical, organized and chaotic.” Berenz is interested in blurring the lines between realism and abstraction, life and death, beauty and horror, devastation and the sublime.

RAM Artist Fellowship Exhibition 2015

RAM Artist Fellowship Exhibition 2015: Presented by the Osborne and Scekic Family Foundation

August 28 – November 28, 2015

The RAM Artist Fellowship Program aims to showcase the diversity and vitality of the Racine/Kenosha visual arts community by supporting the professional development of its artists. The second biennial exhibition features the work of the following artists:

Lisa Marie Barber, Kenosha

Diane Levesque, Kenosha

Bill Reid, Racine

Jim Sincock, Kenosha

Exhibition Catalogue
Press Room

Preview and Opening Reception
Thursday, August 27, 2015
6:00 – 8:00 pm
RAM’s Wustum Museum
2519 Northwestern Avenue, Racine
Light refreshments will be served.

Picasso’s Women of Algiers smashes auction record

Picasso’s Women of Algiers has become the most expensive painting to sell at auction, going for $160m (£102.6m) at Christie’s in New York.

Eleven minutes of prolonged bidding from telephone buyers preceded the final sale – for much more than its pre-sale estimate of $140m.

The final price of $179.3m (£115m) includes commission of just over 12%.

The sale also featured Alberto Giacometti’s life-size sculpture Pointing Man, which set its own record.

It is now the most expensive sculpture sold at auction, after going for $141.3m (£90.6m). Both buyers chose to remain anonymous.

Picasso painting The Women of Algiers

The previous world record for a painting sold at auction was $142.4m, for British painter Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud in 2013.

The Picasso oil painting is a vibrant, cubist depiction of nude courtesans, and is part of a 15-work series the Spanish artist created in 1954-55 designated with the letters A to O.

“This is an absolutely blockbuster picture – it’s one of the most exciting pictures that we’ve seen on the market for 10 years,” said Philip Hoffman, founder and CEO of the Fine Art Fund Group.

“Yes there are one or two [Picassos] that could even smash that record but it has a huge wall presence, it’s a big show-off picture.

“For anybody that wants to have a major Picasso, this is it – and $179m in 10 years’ time will probably look inexpensive,” said Hoffman.

Man Pointing by Alberto Giacometti
Man Pointing by Alberto Giacometti also set a record

Analysis: Arts Editor, Will Gompertz

Make no mistake; this is a fine painting, by a great artist, produced at an important time in his career.

He started the Women of Algiers series in 1954 shortly after the death of his friend and competitor, Henri Matisse, the master of what he called the Odalisque – exotic paintings of Turkish women in harems.

Now in his 70s, Picasso felt he should pick up the Orientalist mantel from Matisse while also looking to bring together many of the influences that informed his own art. You can see an echo of his famous proto-Cubist work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and the debt it owes to Cezanne and El Greco. There was his lifelong admiration for the French romantic painter Eugene Delacroix who painted the original Women of Algiers (1834), and – of course – his adoration of the female form.

Added to this rich mix was the geo-politics of the time, which saw an uprising in the French colony of Algeria that would eventually lead to the country’s independence.

In Women of Algiers version O, Picasso has distilled all of these ingredients into one large-scale painting of great quality: a study not only of the Arabesque, but also a serious enquiry into the nature of colour, line and composition.

$100M artworks
  • Picasso, Women of Algiers – $160m (2015)
  • Alberto Giacometti, Pointing Man – $141.3m (2015)
  • Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud – $142m (2013)
  • Edvard Munch, The Scream – $119.9m (2012)
  • Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust – $106.5m (2010)
  • Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man I – $104.3m (2010)
  • Picasso, Boy With a Pipe – $104.1m (2004)

Experts believe the investment value of art is behind the high prices.

“I don’t really see an end to it, unless interest rates drop sharply, which I don’t see happening in the near future,” said Manhattan dealer Richard Feigen.

“There’s a huge amount of demand,” added Hoffman, founder and CEO of the Fine Art Fund Group.

“The world’s billionaires are in New York, the world’s museum buyers are there.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a sale as important as this in Christie’s and Sotheby’s in my 25 years of working in the art world.”

Michelle Grabner marries Midwest pragmatism to high art

Michelle Grabner marries Midwest pragmatism to high art

Michelle Grabner outside of what will be her new gallery space in Riverwest.

Ken Hanson

Michelle Grabner outside of what will be her new gallery space in Riverwest

She made one plainspoken line after another, dragging her graphite pencil from the center point to the circle’s rim with the help of a straight edge. She tapped off the excess lead each time.

Slide. Tap, tap, tap. Slide. Tap, tap, tap.

Her daughter Ceal, her third child, sat nearby, covering a shoebox in pieces of brightly colored duct tape to make a rolling suitcase for one of her dolls.

Rip. Cut. Crinkle, crinkle, crinkle. Rip. Cut. Crinkle, crinkle, crinkle.

I didn’t notice the minimalist, mother-daughter composition, the percussive sound of hard work, until I got home and listened to the recorded interview.

That keep-your-head-down and do-the-work cadence has defined Grabner, one of the most influential figures in the art world today. She’s best known for curating the most recent Whitney Biennial, one of the most important and talked about showcases for contemporary art in the world.

Now, after a prodigious and at times controversial couple of years at the heart of the art world Grabner is making a beeline for the fringe. She’s returning to the welcome obscurity of Milwaukee, where she’ll live and runThe Suburban, an internationally respected gallery she owns with her husband, artist Brad Killam.

Grabner, a Wisconsin native, is both the consummate art world insider and an outsider, as at home writing philosophical criticism for Artforum as she is grilling brats for artists in a Packer T-shirt and cutoffs.

Her rising profile has been largely based on more recent and high profile doings — two big museum shows, representation at a major New York gallery, her time as chair at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, her status as a critic in residence at Yale — but it’s the longer view, one that encompasses earlier years in Milwaukee, that is most telling.

A long, clear line can be drawn from friendships made years ago in Riverwest corner bars, upstart galleries and around her dining room table to the ideas and artists she’s championed.

She calls it “Milwaukee think,” a guiding philosophy and set of conditions that inform her way of being in the world and her work as a critic, artist, curator and professor.

“There comes a time when you want your audience to be profound as opposed to big,” said Grabner that day in her tidy, light-filled studio, where a poster of quarterback Aaron Rodgers hangs beside her artworks and Ceal’s, too.

For now, her studio is situated beside her home and art gallery in Oak Park, that Chicago suburb famous for another Wisconsin native, Frank Lloyd Wright, and his house-cum-work space.

The family will sell that compound, pull up stakes, and be living in Fox Point by fall. They’ll be much closer to the Poor Farm, the experimental art space they run in rural Waupaca County, and the gallery will open in Riverwest.

Back to Riverwest

“Anything but an art gallery” was scrawled in looping, purple letters on the sidewalk. Someone had declared a demand in spray paint in front of a burned-out laundromat in Riverwest.

Killam was inside, going over plans for converting the charred space into The Suburban, the gallery that will open in fall next door to Woodland Pattern Book Center, the haven for poetry and chapbook devotees.

It was one of the first pleasant days of the year. A man was screaming a half block away. Something about a parking space. Small children in pastel jumpers were scooping candy eggs into plastic Easter baskets, and neighbors were setting up for a block party.

Grabner and Ceal stood on the stoop outside, discussing where they’d root for the Badgers in the big showdown with the Kentucky Wildcats later.

Grabner showed me the sidewalk graffiti, delighted by the irony.

When a passerby asked whether someone had bought the building, Grabner told him they had. It seemed natural for her to leave it at that, offering no other details. She tends to do things on her own terms.

“We are coming back,” Grabner said though, seeming to inoculate herself against potential accusations of carpetbagging or gentrification. The streets of Riverwest are her intellectual home base, she says.

Grabner, who grew up in the Fox River Valley, started crafting a parallel art world here years ago, even while she was getting her master’s degree in art history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the `80s and through the 1990s, too.

She and Killam bought their first house on Gordon Place, near St. Casimir’s Church, for about $27,000. They had a tiny mortgage and two young sons then, Peter and Oliver.

She worked for a while as a nanny for Kathleen Woodward, the director of the then Center for Twentieth Century Studies at UWM and former wife of Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward. Grabner thought about a career in child care, but art history professor Jeffrey Hayes, a specialist in contemporary art and self-taught artists, won her over.

Grabner went to grad school with Dean Sobel, who would become a curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Debra Brehmer, a local critic and editor of the culture mag Art Muscle. Grabner and Killam became chums with Peter Doroshenko, too. He founded Inova at UWM and organized a worldwide network of curators.

She’ll admit now that being a tough-minded feminist came easier when it was a purely academic exercise. Integrating her life as a mother and an artist was a challenge. Like farmers of a century ago for whom work and family were more entwined, Grabner and Killam worked to create something less compartmentalized, more whole.

In a marriage of high art and Midwestern pragmatism, they created a series of projects that involved the family directly, including one experimental film about changing diapers. And they gathered people around their home.

When their curator friends brought famous artists like Felix Gonzalez-TorresMaurizio Cattalan and Pierre Huygheto Milwaukee, the couple would host meals and get-togethers. Social and intellectual pursuits were one and the same.

“I feel like that whole scene kind of begins and ends with Brad and Michelle,” said Sobel, referring not only to the 1980s and `90s but some of what’s come out of that informal but influential culture since.

It was in that context that Grabner “grew up” intellectually with Nicholas Frank, she said, referring to close colleagues in familial terms as she does.

Frank opened the Hermetic Gallery then, showcasing challenging contemporary art. Everyone seemed to be in a band, like Frank’s The Singing Flowers. They played pickup gigs in corner pubs, amateurs who magically seemed to rise above their skill sets.

Grabner got to know Paul Druecke‘s work when he applied for a local grant. Grabner sat on a jury with artist Tom Bamberger and photographer Dick Blau, patriarchs of the art scene . Neither of the men were keen on Druecke, who was creating humble paintings with sticks back then. Grabner saw something they didn’t, though. She dug in. Druecke got his money.

Thanks to Sobel, her work was included in a museum show for the first time in 1995. “25 Painters” was an auspicious and tightly focused coterie of heavyweights and soon-to-be heavyweights. She and Killam were invited to organize their first museum show thanks to Sobel, too. They hung red-and-black checkered hunting jackets alongside a modest grouping of old paintings, a conceptual conceit that also had the intended effect of making people feel oddly at home.

It’s a legacy marked by idiosyncrasy and integrity, Druecke said.

“I can’t think of anyone else like her in the world,” said Sobel, now the director of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.

“There are no distinctions between everyday life, art, teaching… everything is creative for her,” he said, “and it was all there in the 1980s… none of what she is doing is different from what she’s been doing all along.”

Grabner’s curriculum

In the days leading up to last year’s Whitney Biennial in New York, a parade of preview parties were brimming with bankers, starlets and art-worlders.

Hours before the official opening, lines were forming outside the museum. But one last clique was ushered past the guards for an exclusive peek. They were from Wisconsin. Grabner’s mom and dad came to New York City for the first and presumably the only time. Siblings, aunts, uncles and other sundry kin — nearly 20 in all — were there, too.

Like many Midwestern families, the gathered Grabners represented the reaches of the political spectrum, with a few on the deepest blue side of the divide and more gravitating toward saturated red. Many find one another’s politics cringeworthy, Grabner said.

“But we’re family,” she added.

The Grabners huddled beneath a portrait of Barack Obama on the sprawling fourth floor of the museum. The image of the president, hung high as it might be in public schools or offices at the Department of Defense, signaled that they had entered Grabner’s classroom.

She called her show “a curriculum,” after all.

When she was young, Grabner assumed she’d end up a nurse, a nun or a teacher. Later, she fastened onto the idea of being an art teacher.

“When I see her up there talking, and I think of her as a little girl, I think wow she’s really come a long way,” said Grabner’s mom, Rosie. Her dad paints taxidermy fish. They call her “Shell” or “Shelly.”

With the same script she used for fat-cat collectors and critics, Grabner guided her family through the galleries and the persistent philosophical questions about art that interest her. Ceal was often up front, listening carefully to her mom but confidently wandering off to do her own looking, too.

While the biennial can be a showplace for rapidly shifting fashions in art, Grabner was rescuing and relishing old questions, ideas that track back to her 1987 master’s thesis and beyond. She talked about the ways we “feel our way through the world” today, mentioning how terrorism threat levels are doled out in colors: red, orange, yellow and so on.

She pointed out a work by a little-known artist from Menasha, Philip Vanderhyden, and his project to resurrect an `80s sculpture about the churn of mass media.

She told them not to miss the historical markers Druecke made, incorporating scrawled graffiti from a sidewalk and using commemorative language in a poetic way. Like official looking plaques that blend into the cityscape, they were all but invisible to many visitors.

“How deeply moved I was to see Paul’s work in that context,” said Frank, who wrote an essay for the exhibition catalog about David Foster Wallace, the late author whose notebooks were included in the biennial. Druecke’s work is, after all, ephemeral and doesn’t fit the gallery system, Frank said. The biennial never seemed like an option.

Many of the Grabners seemed drawn to the expressive, colorful paintings by women, of which there were many. Sterling Ruby’s giant, womb-like ceramic basins were a hit, as was a huge spill of yarn, a sculpture by Sheila Hicks.

Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” intoned from a back corner, a video work by David Robbins, Grabner’s longtime friend and intellectual compatriot. It was a comedic TV commercial for contemporary art featuring an entertainer plunking at the keys at Milwaukee’s airport.

When the tour was over, Grabner’s parents stepped into a room that had been turned into a giant camera obscura by artist Zoe Leonard, who placed a lens in a window, causing the Manhattan skyline to spill backwards and upside down onto the walls, ceiling and floor. The experience takes time. They waited for their eyes to adjust.

Throngs had crowded into the museum by that time, many consuming art voraciously and fast, racing through Leonard’s installation before their perceptions could possibly catch up.

Rosie and Michael Grabner sat on a bench and whispered about what they liked, works of art that reminded them of home for reasons they couldn’t quite pinpoint. They liked the “big stumps,” a glittery curtain with farm implements hanging from it, whittled pencils and rows of humble pots that seemed more poetic as a collection.

“Shelly likes simple things,” her mom said, adding that Grabner had meticulously kept collections of plants as a girl. “She’s always been like that.”

Small acts of labor

After hours of work, Grabner had completed a fraction of her tondo, a work that no matter how subtle and contemporary has the faint echo of all of those circular paintings of the Madonna and child from the Renaissance.

Black. Abstract. Minimalist. She’s been making these artworks for a decade now, using her formulas, a series repetitive, mundane moves. It’s like handiwork, one line after another, one dot after another.

It’s as if she’s making a point, there’s no dramatic, testosterone-fueled flourishes here, just small acts of labor, the kinds that make the world, like stitches sewn and seeds planted.

“Specialness is for others,” she once wrote.

She was making a tondo for every artist she included in the biennial, an act of friendship, the kind of non-institutional move that raises hackles among some about conflicts of interest.

Ceal was with us still, content and watching “Gilligan’s Island” with her headphones on.

It was not long after the biennial had opened but before Grabner would become a controversial figure a few times over, first for being dismissed as “soccer mom” by a New York Times critic and later finding herself at the center of a poignant discussion about race.

A predictable barrage of biennial takedowns had been hitting the press. Grabner’s contribution to the show, which had two other guest curators, each taking a floor of the museum, had fared the best. Still, the show was called “unadulterated (expletive deleted)” by the Huffington Post and the biennial of “angry women” by The New Inquiry, to name a few chestnuts.

Grabner, the first working artist to curate the biennial, which got its start in the 1930s, was angry that day. Too many critics had been caught up in the curatorial conceits rather that the art.

“It’s just lazy ass,” she said, in a kind of motherly defense of artists. “Throw me under the bus, I don’t care, butlook at what these artists have done.”

She hoped her curatorial choices would crack open some important discussions, including about institutional racism. She suggested a symposium on the subject, in fact, but the Whitney didn’t bite. Reactions in the press were delayed and hotheaded, she said.

For Grabner, who is about to open her first solo show at an encyclopedic museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Milwaukee is a “reset button.” It is a welcome distance from an art world weighed down by its hierarchies and orthodoxies, a bunch of people working a clearly failed system.

Milwaukee represents a hand-built system, one that is both subversive and sincere. It is a place to get things done. It’s a place to work, she said.

Mary Louise Schumacher is the Journal Sentinel’s art and architecture critic. Email her at Follow her on Twitter (@artcity) and Facebook (

About Mary Louise Schumacher

author thumbnailMary Louise Schumacher is the Journal Sentinel’s art and architecture critic. She writes about culture, design, the urban landscape and Milwaukee’s creative community. Art City is her award-winning cultural page and a community of more than 20 contributing writers and artists.

Advising Info.

Hi Art Department Students!
Just a reminder to register for fall classes if you haven’t already. Classes are filling up!
If you haven’t met with your ART advisor, do so asap, noting that we (advisors/faculty) ARE NOT here after 5/15 to help you—sorry, but we don’t get paid after then. . . . If you don’t know who your advisor is, please check your SOLAR account or check in with me.
Here are some basics to have on your radar when registering:
  1. ENROLL ASAP as ART classes can fill (and close) QUICKLY!
  2. Get all your required ART 100 level courses out of the way ASAP
  3. Take no more than 3 studio or graphic design courses in one semester; aim to take at least two each semester.
  4. This fall our upper division Art History Selected Topics course focuses on design. What a treat for the graphic designers—and everyone, really!!! TAKE IT!!
  5. JUNIORS: Take Professional Practice, ART 392 during your junior year in the major(By junior, I mean when you’re about 2/3rds- 3/4s through the Art/GD major, with several studio courses and the two 100-level art history courses under your belt.)
  6. If you’re planning on graduating during the 2015-2016 academic year, check with your art professor or advisor about which capstone course you need to take. For “general” art, you should take Critique Seminar, ART 497; for Graphic Design, you should take Design Portfolio, ART 487 (and you can take this twice for credit!!); for Art with Concentration, you need to register for Senior Studio, ART 493.  (For ART 493 in the fall, you should sign up for Kristen Bartel as your primary prof since she’s leading the course; I’ll be leading it in the spring and you’d sign up with me then.)
Good luck with upcoming finals!
Check out the graduating senior shows coming up this next week!
Lisa Marie Barber
Associate Professor, Chair
UW-Parkside Art Department

Please join us tomorrow, Wednesday, April 22, 5-8pm, for two opening receptions at UW-Parkside Galleries

Please join us  tomorrow, Wednesday, April 22, 5-8pm, for two opening receptions at UW-Parkside Galleries
24th Parkside National Small Print Exhibition | April 9 – July 15, 2015 | Fine Arts Gallery
Opening Reception: Wednesday, April 22, 5-8pm
Juror Presentation: Wednesday, April 22, 6pm 

by Michael Barnes, Professor of Printmaking, Northern Illinois University
Annual Student Juried Exhibition | April 1 – 29, 2015 | Foundation Gallery
Opening Reception: Wednseday, April 22, 5-8pm
Also in the Mathis Gallery
A Scenic Designer’s Travelogue: 30 Years at Parkside | March 21 – June 25 | Mathis Gallery
Opening Reception: Saturday, May 2, 6-730pm



Distinct Prisms in an Ever-Shifting Kaleidoscope – TONY CENICOLA/THE NEW YORK TIMES

With female artists more visible than ever, here are five who have put their stamp on the current gallery moment. They work in studios from Sunnyside to Crown Heights to Paris, in paint, porcelain and pixels.

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Clare Grill

When Clare Grill started painting in college, she ran into a problem. Her school, the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minn., did not have an art department. She signed up for courses at the College of St. Catherine nearby. By her senior year, she was the only student to enroll in advanced painting.

She did receive encouragement. “When I graduated, my art adviser said, ‘You should get your work in coffee shops,’ ” said Ms. Grill, interviewed in her studio in Sunnyside, Queens. “I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do that.’ ”

New York beckoned. On Ms. Grill’s first day in painting class at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, her teacher told her to check out the galleries in Chelsea. “I had never heard of Chelsea,” she said. “I didn’t know what she was talking about.” She figured it out. Zieher Smith & Horton in Chelsea is now showing nine of her contemplative abstract paintings, medium-scale works with floaty, interwoven patterns, shapes and marks in palettes that range from misty pale greens and lemon yellows to pulsing reds.

Ms. Grill, who grew up in Western Springs, Ill., outside Chicago, worked her way toward abstraction gradually. In retrospect, this evolution looks like a deliberate series of steps. Ms. Grill describes it as a protracted struggle. “I was overthinking everything,” she said, describing one low point. “I felt kind of paralyzed.”

She started out as a figurative painter, working from photographs. Art byMamma Andersson and Peter Doig helped redefine her relationship to her source material, which she began relying on for mood rather than imagery.

“I was still looking at photographs, but I started to let what was happening on the surface of the painting determine what the final painting would be,” Ms. Grill said. “I let the little decisions become the main thing. The painting still had an available logic, but not anything that you could explain. The story started to fade.” Her current paintings allude to early American sampler embroidery, with hints at leaf forms and letters.

Until recently, Ms. Grill painted on small canvases, but in 2014 she was given a solo show in a large Los Angeles gallery, forcing her to go bigger. The works in her current exhibition are about four feet by five feet. She lays out her canvases on a big table and scoots around them on a rolling chair, working small sections at a time.

She is fond of an expression that a friend once used: You know a painting is a painting when it has a face and looks back at you. She has come up with her own version. “It’s like an important conversation,” she said. “A conversation you don’t forget.”


Jamie Isenstein is known for revealing herself, if only in parts. CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

Jamie Isenstein

Presence and absence weave their way through Jamie Isenstein’s work. Absence more than presence, in the case of her show “Para Drama,” at theAndrew Kreps Gallery in Chelsea. The installation, a constellation of “performance sculptures” evoking the paranormal, has as its centerpiece “Mechanical Bed,” a neatly made twin bed whose quilted blue cover and top sheet, manipulated by an invisible hand, peel downward, as if a ghost were arising from slumber. The same unseen hand then remakes the bed. The entire process takes about 40 minutes.

Normally, Ms. Isenstein reveals herself, if only in parts. In “Arm Chair” (2006), her limbs protruded from a green chair, forming its front legs and arms. In “Rug Rug Rug Rug Rug” (2009), her arms and legs stuck out from underneath a three-rug overlay — wolf, sheep and bear — with an Oriental rug on the floor.

In one of Ms. Isenstein’s earlier works, “Magic Fingers,” a gilded oval picture frame with an opening allowed her to thrust her hand into the frame, where it struck a graceful pose, in the manner of a tableau vivant.

A couple bought the piece and installed it in their home. Ms. Isenstein would turn up on special occasions — say, a dinner party — and put her hand in the frame. Then, pushing the logic of the piece to its natural conclusion, she began visiting the home when the owners were away. “I think of it as sculpture in which I use my body as a ready-made,” she said in an interview. “Performances require an audience, but sculptures exist all the time.”

She eventually dropped the experiment. “They had a housekeeper who let me in, and she was really confused,” she said.

Ms. Isenstein studied art at Reed College in Portland, Ore., her hometown, and gravitated early on to a blend of performance art, installation art and body art, to which she applied a Surrealist, witty spin in the manner of Magritte. “What I’m doing now is not that different from what I was doing in college,” she said.

After moving to New York, she became an assistant at the Andrew Kreps Gallery, a more orthodox job than her stint in Portland painting prosthetic teeth. “I was paid by the tooth,” she said. After earning an M.F.A. at Columbia in 2004, she began showing in New York, Los Angeles and Berlin. Wherever the work was, she was, or at least part of her: a foot, a hand, an arm or a leg.

Even during breaks, Ms. Isenstein’s presence is implicit in a “Will Return” clock-sign hanging from the sculpture. The artist is out. But the artist will be in.


Shirley Jaffe in her studio on the Left Bank in Paris. CreditNicola Lo Calzo for The New York Times

Shirley Jaffe

At 91, Shirley Jaffe feels she might be slacking off a little. She is not happy about that.

“I have done a lot of work,” she said, speaking by phone from her apartment and studio near the Sorbonne in Paris, reflecting on more than a half-century at the easel. “I do work practically every day now, but a lot less, which disturbs me. But I do try to keep to a rhythm of doing at least something every day.”

There are numerous somethings in her show at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in Manhattan: four oil paintings, including one completed this year, and 18 works on paper from the past six years. The paintings are done in a geometric abstract style that Ms. Jaffe adopted in the late 1960s, abandoning the gestural brushwork with which she began her career in the early 1950s. The works on paper, in Flashe vinyl paint, show a looser hand but the same Matisse-esque brilliance of color as in her paintings.

She has worked in both formats simultaneously for most of her career. “Every now and then I have a rapid idea and I start doing something on paper,” she said. “The oil paintings force me to have a conclusion that is more tight and fixed. Paper is closer to free brushwork. I go as far as I can, but I don’t push the idea as much as I do in oil.” The paintings, she said, have a different goal: “multiple exactnesses.”

Ms. Jaffe, a native of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, set sail for Paris in 1949 after earning an art degree from Cooper Union. She did not much care for that city, but her husband did. She stayed on even after they divorced in 1961. “I found Paris very provincial,” she said. “And it still is. But I have been able to live and to show.”

She formed part of an artistic circle that included the Americans Sam Francis, Norman Bluhm and Joan Mitchell and the Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle. Acceptance was slow to come on both sides of the Atlantic. After she embraced geometric abstraction, the French critics disowned her for decades. Not until 1990 did she have her first solo show in New York, at the Holly Solomon Gallery. Her work is now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Pompidou Center in Paris.

“I haven’t demanded very much,” Ms. Jaffe said. “Just to produce.”

Hito Steyerl

Hokusai’s wave, crashing in sparkling pixels, shares a giant video screen with images of martial arts fighters. A Hellfire missile turns out to be first cousin to a bank lobby designed by Frank Gehry. An insurgent with an AK-47 finds common cause with the contestants on “American Idol.”

In her documentary videos, installations and multimedia talks, the German artist Hito Steyerl splices opposites, forges unlikely conceptual alliances and creates conundrums. “I like the combination of two different ideas that connect at an unexpected level,” she said in a recent telephone interview from Berlin, where she lives and is finishing a video installation for the Venice Biennale in May.


Hito Steyerl likes combining ideas that connect unexpectedly.CreditRoland Weihrauch/European Press Agency

Called “Factory of the Sun,” it tells two stories simultaneously. The first is a documentary account of a couple, one a YouTube dancer, the other a video game programmer. The second is the fictional tale of a video game in which players must escape an information dictatorship where every human emotion turns into sunlight. “It’s funny and dark,” Ms. Steyerl said. “It’s also a musical.”

Ms. Steyerl’s work is having a comprehensive showing at both locations ofArtists Space, in SoHo and TriBeCa. The big-bang production, at the main gallery in SoHo, is “Liquidity Inc.,” which gives free play to Ms. Steyer’s thoughts on water as a metaphor for the movement of capital through international markets, or the fluid motions of martial artists.

In other video works, Ms. Steyerl delivers her version of a TED talk. As projected images light up around her, she describes a “Matrix”-like hall of mirrors in which power flows to the lords of digital media, information technology is a tool of oppression and arms manufacturers strike unholy alliances with corrupt political elites.

Ms. Steyerl grew up in Munich and studied cinematography and documentary filmmaking with Shohei Imamura at the Institute of the Moving Image in Tokyo. “It was the last stronghold of Japanese lefties from the ’70s,” Ms. Steyerl said. “People were running around in berets.”

After working with the German director Wim Wenders on “Until the End of the World” (1991) and “Faraway, So Close” (1993), she did postgraduate work in philosophy at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. She became a fixture on the European art-festival circuit with “November” (2004), about a never-completed feminist martial-arts film she tried to make with a teenage friend, and “In Free Fall” (2010), which uses an airplane junkyard in the Mojave Desert to parse the circulation of cultural commodities.

“I can’t describe what I do, I just potter along,” Ms. Steyerl said. “But I do like the notion of an essay, something that can be text, or video, or something else altogether. Also, it means an experiment.”

That’s still the program. “I’m trying to continue exploring a little bit,” she said. “I think I’m still relating to the outside world and what I look at and what I hope that other people will look at as well.”


Simone Leigh’s ceramic and multimedia sculptures are on view at Tilton Gallery.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

Simone Leigh

Simone Leigh was happily taking courses in philosophy and cultural studies at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., when she made a fatal error. She began making ceramics.

This was not part of the plan. “I tried not to be an artist for a really long time,” she said in an interview at Tilton Gallery, the site of her current show, “Moulting.” “But at a certain point I realized I was not going to stop doing it.”

The studies did not go to waste. Her sculptures, videos, installations and performances draw on her reading in feminist theory, anthropology, postcolonial theory and the politics of race and identity. “It wouldn’t be interesting to me to make the work if I only had a formal interest,” she said. “The artwork is more about the theory part than the materials.”

The materials are arresting. “Moulting” includes several of her signature shapes and forms, notably the plantains and cowrie shells that allude to her Caribbean heritage, the tiny blue porcelain rosebuds that she arranges into African hairstyles and the giant hoop-skirt armatures that invoke not only the antebellum South but also the Herero tribe of southern Africa, which adopted the style, and Cameroonian huts.

Ms. Leigh, who lives and works in Brooklyn, grew up in Chicago, with Jamaican parents. After graduating from Earlham, she held on to the idea of becoming a social worker, but an internship at the National Museum of African Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution, pulled her back into the world of ceramics, as did a stint near Charlottesville, Va., where she lived in a yurt and learned how to use a Japanese wood-fired anagama kiln. Art took over.

Her first important show, scheduled to open on Sept. 13, 2001, at the Rush Arts Gallery in Manhattan, was postponed and then ignored after the World Trade Center attack. “I had worked really hard for that show, I had just gone through a divorce, and I didn’t know how to pick up the pieces after that,” she said.

She rebounded with an exhibition at Momenta Art in Brooklyn in 2005, which included “White Teeth.” The work, five panels of sharpened porcelain teeth, honored the memory of Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy with pointed teeth who was put on display at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition and the Bronx Zoo. She has exhibited steadily ever since.

This summer, at the Denniston Hill Art Colony in Woodridge, N.Y., she plans to reimagine the 1964 Japanese film “Woman in the Dunes” as a large-scale installation, replacing the male lead with a woman.

“It may not even work,” Ms. Leigh said. “But I’m O.K. with it when my work fails. When you’re a ceramist — .” She stopped, and burst out laughing.

The Vogels

How a Working-Class Couple Amassed a Priceless Art Collection


By Jed Lipinski

Herb Vogel never earned more than $23,000 a year. Born and raised in Harlem, Vogel worked for the post office in Manhattan. He spent nearly 50 years living in a 450-square-foot one-bedroom apartment with his wife, Dorothy, a reference librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. They lived frugally. They didn’t travel. They ate TV dinners. Aside from a menagerie of pets, Herb and Dorothy had just one indulgence: art. But their passion for collecting turned them into unlikely celebrities, working-class heroes in a world of Manhattan elites.

While their coworkers had no idea, the press noticed. The New York Times labeled the Vogels the “In Couple” of New York City. They counted minimalist masters Richard Tuttle and Donald Judd among their close friends. And in just four decades, they assembled one of the most important private art collections of the 20th century, stocking their tiny apartment floor-to-ceiling with Chuck Close sketches, paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, and sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy. Today, more than 1,000 of the works they purchased are housed in the National Gallery, a collection a curator there calls “literally priceless.” J. Carter Brown, the museum’s former director, referred to the collection as “a work of art in itself.”

The Vogels had no formal training in art collecting. They didn’t aspire to open a gallery or work in museums. They bought art the way any amateur collector shops: for the love of the individual pieces and the thrill of a good deal. But you don’t accumulate a priceless collection of anything by accident. Herb and Dorothy developed a methodical system for scouting, assessing, and purchasing art. When it came to mastering their hobby, the Vogels were self-trained professionals. This is how they did it.


Herbert Vogel was born in 1922, the son of a tailor and a homemaker. A rebellious teen, fond of jazz and zoot suits, he dropped out of high school because “I hated people telling me what to do,” he said. Instead, he worked in a cigar factory before doing a stint in the National Guard. When a dislocated shoulder resulted in a medical discharge, he enrolled in art history seminars at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where legendary art historians like Erwin Panofsky and Walter Friedlaender held court. In the evenings, Herb frequented the storied Cedar Tavern, listening in awe as artists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline roared at each other over the meaning of abstract expressionism. He decided he wanted to be a painter. To subsidize his new passion, he landed a job at the post office, working the graveyard shift in the dead-letter department.

In November 1960, Herb, then 38, went to a dance at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Manhattan. Scanning the crowd, his eyes fell on a pretty, bookish young woman 13 years his junior. This was Dorothy Faye Hoffman, the daughter of a stationery merchant from Elmira, N.Y. Dorothy had moved to Brooklyn two years earlier, after receiving her master’s in library science at the University of Denver. Herb thought she looked “intelligent.” Dorothy found him “cuddly” and liked his dance moves. It was love at first sight.

Herb and Dorothy were married in 1962 and spent their honeymoon in Washington, D.C, where they made their inaugural voyage to the National Gallery. “That’s where Herb gave me my first art lesson,” Dorothy said. At the time, she knew next to nothing about art, having always preferred music and theater. But her husband’s enthusiasm inspired her. She enrolled with him in painting and drawing classes at NYU. That same year, they bought a small sculpture made from crushed car metal by the artist John Chamberlain. They had no idea that the joint purchase would be the first of thousands.

The Vogels rented a tiny studio in Union Square, painting there at night and on weekends and using the vibrant, abstract products to decorate their new apartment on 86th Street. But by the mid-1960s, the couple realized that their artistic ambitions outweighed their abilities. “I wasn’t bad,” Dorothy claimed, adding, “I didn’t like Herby’s paintings.” Herb, an unfailingly modest man, admitted as much: “I was a terrible painter.” They decided to concentrate on collecting instead.

At the time, Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism were in vogue and too expensive for the Vogels. Minimal and conceptual art, on the other hand, had yet to be embraced by the art world establishment. The Vogels made a pact: Her salary would go toward living expenses, his toward art. Under these new terms, they visited the SoHo studio of an obscure artist named Sol LeWitt and walked out with the first piece LeWitt ever sold: an untitled, golden, T-shaped structure. “He had more than average potential, and I felt it,” Herb said. LeWitt would later become a titan of contemporary American art.

But Herb and Dorothy’s obsession was just starting to kick in. The couple began visiting dozens of galleries and studios each week, becoming what artist Chuck Close called “the mascots of the art world.” In making purchases, they functioned as a team. Herb, the impulsive Dionysian, searched for art “like a truffle hound,” said the artist Lucio Pozzi, who has more than 400 works in the Vogel collection. Dorothy, the Apollonian librarian with the encyclopedic memory, was more passive, hanging back and calculating the financial realities. They had only a few criteria: The work had to be affordable; it had to fit in their apartment; and it had be transportable via taxi or subway. Not part of the equation? The artist’s reputation. “We bought what we liked,” Dorothy said. “Simple as that.” And they continued to lead their double life—racing from studio to studio to gallivant with artists and to scout their next big purchase every night, while keeping their passions private from their work colleagues. Still, assembling such an incredible collection on such a tiny budget required a few other tricks.


Many in the art world call the Vogels’ method cheating. That’s because the couple never dealt with galleries and art dealers. Instead, Herb and Dorothy negotiated with hungry artists directly, arriving at studios with cash in hand. Artist Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009, remembered receiving a phone call from Herb back in 1971, when the creators of “The Gates” were still broke. “It’s the Vogels!” Jeanne-Claude cried to her dispirited husband and partner in art, Christo. “We’re going to pay the rent!” But the Vogels didn’t just take their cash to big-name artists; they were equally passionate about unknown talents, often helping them to develop. David Reed, now a famous conceptual artist, said the couple encouraged him to make more drawings, which later became a central part of his practice. “The Vogels made you aware of what you were doing as an artist,” he said. “They had artist sensibilities.” When they spotted something beyond their means, they’d find a way to make the purchase: They’d buy on credit; they’d forgo a vacation; they’d even throw in cat-sitting to sweeten a deal. And the artists loved them for it. As Chuck Close told Newsday, “You knew when you were selling them something it was becoming part of an important collection.”

It wasn’t long before the artwork overtook their home. By all accounts, the 450-square-foot apartment on East 86th Street was more of a storage facility than a place to live. The Vogels’ collection gradually replaced all their furniture save the kitchen table, some chairs, a bureau, and the bed, which concealed dozens of drawings by Richard Tuttle and Lynda Benglis. Visitors cracked their heads on clay Steve Keister sculptures hung from the ceiling and discovered typographic texts by Lawrence Weiner on the bathroom wall. And while they stashed the pieces wherever they could, Dorothy has repeatedly tried to squelch one persistent rumor: The Vogels never stored art in their oven. Line Media Inc.

It wasn’t just the masterpieces that were crammed into the space; the Vogels shared their storehouse with 20 turtles, eight cats and an aquarium filled with exotic fish. To protect the artwork from kitten claws and rogue turtles, the couple boxed and wrapped the pieces not hung on the walls, further diminishing the available living space. “Art is Herby’s only interest, except for animals,” Dorothy once said. (Fittingly, they named their cats after artists, like Matisse, Renoir, and Manet.) When National Gallery curator Jack Cowart first saw their apartment, he was stunned. “It upset all of my alarm systems as a curator,” he said. “I began to think: What if there’s a fire? What if one of the mega-gallon fish tanks that Herb keeps his fish in springs a leak?”

By the mid-1970s, the Vogels were famous—at least in New York City. The Clocktower Gallery, run by Alanna Heiss, the founder of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, staged the first exhibition of the Vogels’ collection in April 1975. The opening coincided with a profile in New York magazine called “A New Art-World Legend: Good-by, Bob & Ethel; Hullo, Dorothy and Herb!” The title referred to Bob and Ethel Scull, a vulgar taxi magnate and his Vogue model wife. After a messy divorce, their entire collection of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionist was auctioned off for an eye-popping $10 million. The Vogels, by contrast, never sold a thing. “We could easily have become millionaires,” Herb told the Associated Press. “We could have sold things and lived in Nice and still had some left over. But we weren’t concerned about that aspect.”

Pozzi offered an alternate explanation. “To ask them to sell a piece of their collection would be like asking me to cut off a square yard of one of my paintings,” he said. “They were artists, and the collection was their work of art.”

Herb retired from the post office in 1979 and, naturally, used his pension to continue buying art. But the increasing size of the collection threatened to overwhelm the Vogels, like hoarders crushed to death by towering stacks of The New York Times. In the 1980s, they were forced to admit that their apartment could no longer contain their beloved art. They began meeting with curators and evaluating their options. They knew they wanted to donate their collection instead of selling it, and they liked the National Gallery, which is free to the public and maintains a policy against deaccessioning objects, meaning the collection would never be sold. In 1990, the year Dorothy retired, the Vogels followed through on their promise: Art handlers from the National Gallery transferred an astonishing 2,400 works from the Vogels’ tiny apartment, in a move that required five 40-foot trucks. In fact, unloading the works from the trucks and into the gallery tied up the museum’s freight elevators for weeks!

Realizing that the Vogels hadn’t invested for their future, Jack Cowart, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art at the time, paid the Vogels a small annuity in exchange for their generous donation. But instead of saving the money for medical expenses or splurging on a better retirement, the Vogels couldn’t help themselves: They immediately started collecting more art. The annuity helped the couple purchase another 1,500 or so items. As Dorothy put it: “If we wanted to make money, we would have invested it in the stock market.” This led the grateful if overburdened institution to create the Fifty Works for Fifty States program, in which 50 museums across America will receive 50 pieces from the Vogels’ collection.

In 2008, Herb and Dorothy, a documentary about the couple directed by Megumi Sasaki, was released to rave reviews. Sasaki, a former field producer for Japanese public television, had met the Vogels years before while filming a series about Christo and Jeanne-Claude. “I couldn’t believe it was a true story, that such people exist,” she recalled.

It wasn’t until 2009, when Herb’s health began to fail, that the Vogels ceased collecting. “It was something we did together, and when Herb was too ill to enjoy it, we stopped,” Dorothy said with typical matter-of-factness. Herb died in July 2012, at the age of 89. Dorothy’s job now, she says, is to make sure people don’t forget the collection she and her husband built, which is considered not just the most impressive art collection to have been housed in a tiny apartment, but one of the most important art collections of the 20th century. “I have no regrets,” Dorothy said. “I’ve had a wonderful life. And I believe Herb and I were made to be together.”

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

February 14, 2013 – 11:40pm


How the Whitney might just solve the impossible problem of contemporary art.


I’ve spent much of my life in and in love with museums. When I was 10 years old, there was no mention of art in my home. But then my mother began driving me from the suburbs to the Art Institute of Chicago. There, she looked at art on her own for hours, leaving me to do the same. At the time, I liked being alone but hated museums. I felt they were old and dead, places where people just stood and stared. But one day, waiting, bored, brooding, I found myself absorbed by two beautifully colored adjacent old paintings. On the left, a pair of men standing outside a jail cell talk to a haloed man, inside the cell, while an incredible leopard guards nearby. After a long time, I looked at the right-hand panel, where the setting was the same but the time was different. In place of the leopard, there is a man returning a huge bloody sword to its sheath; the haloed man inside the cell stoops down, both hands on the sill to support his body, extending his neck, which has been severed, through the bars. His head is on the ground, on a platter, as blood spurts all over. I looked back and forth; left, then right. Then something gigantic hit me. These images were telling a story. The paintings were from the 15th century, just when Renaissance painters were beginning to understand perspective. And yet they were not dead, they were alive, at least when I looked at them. Two paintings from the 1450s, still working their magic on me. Amazed, I looked around the gallery and saw gates open. I thought each work was the same — a voice, yearning or in pain or proud, but speaking to me, in visual tongues, down through history. Maybe everything in this suddenly amazing building was telling a story, I thought, a story I could discern just by looking (and without going to school). I wanted to spend forever in this cacophony, this living catacomb. A few months later, my mother committed suicide. I didn’t return to a museum until I was in my 20s.

By then — in the 1970s, with no art in my background, just inchoate need — I had gathered together an idea of what a museum was supposed to be. That is, a place where old art is stored, preserved, and celebrated (sometimes only dutifully). I also knew that museums could be problematic, that they made imperious judgments, that they excluded whole vital populations. Of course they did: Museums were invented as royal showrooms, triumphal demonstrations of the power of some very brutal states (Napoleon’s France, colonialist Britain) to gather up the cultural patrimony of the wider world. When museums first truly came to the United States, it was part of an American effort to claim a seat at the table of Western civilization by brandishing collections of antiquities and masterpieces (the Met, our first world-class institution, was meant to be encyclopedic like its cousins the Louvre and the British Museum). Later, with MoMA especially, the museum itself would become an arm of aggressive cultural diplomacy, promoting Abstract Expressionism as a campaign of the Cold War. So I knew early on that museums were not fairy-tale places — that the practice of enclosing and curating a history of art within marble walls enclosed prejudice and even bloodlust, too. But I also knew that those buildings enclosed touchstones, benchmarks, cultural skeleton keys, divinations, extraordinary probings of the human imagination, and masterpieces like that St. John the Baptist cycle by Giovanni di Paolo that had floored me in Chicago. I knew, in fact, that they contained something ecstatic and represented something eternal.

Maybe it’s naïve and romantic, but, beyond the testimonies of robber barons, princely privilege, enforcement of accepted taste, colonialism, and worse, I do still see the museum’s Platonic ideal: a communal effort, conducted over centuries, to preserve, interpret, and commune with artistic ancestors, archetypes, traditions, genres, and methods. Sumerian kings collected antiquities (one scholar interprets a second-millennium-b.c. tablet as “a museum label”). Collecting and display surfaced in China 3,500 years ago. The Greeks created a pinakotheke in the fifth century b.c. to honor the gods. Museums have been with us as long as memory has been with us — “quiet cars,” in the words of New York Times critic Holland Cotter, places where looking is a way of knowing the world and ourselves. And where the past is always alive, sometimes even more vividly than the contemporary moment, the two coalescing into the out-of-body grace of eternal presentness.

Robert Gober’s “Untitled” (1991) being installed at the new Whitney (the cones and warning sign are to protect the artwork, not a part of it). Photo: Tim Davis


But museums have changed — a lot. Slowly over the past quarter-century, then quickly in the past decade. These changes have been complicated, piecemeal, and sometimes contradictory, with different museums embracing them in different ways. But the transformation is visible everywhere. Put simply, it is this: The museum used to be a storehouse for the art of the past, the display of supposed masterpieces, the insightful exploration of the present in the context of the long or compressed histories that preceded it. Now — especially as embodied by the Tate Modern, Guggenheim Bilbao, and our beloved MoMA — the museum is a revved-up showcase of the new, the now, the next, an always-activated market of events and experiences, many of which lack any reason to exist other than to occupy the museum industry — an industry that critic Matthew Collings has called “bloated and foolish, corporatist, ghastly and death-ridden.”

The list of fun-house attractions is long. At MoMA, we’ve had overhyped,badly done shows of Björk and Tim Burton, the Rain Room selfie trap, and the daylong spectacle of Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass case. This summer in London you can ride Carsten Höller’s building-high slides at the Hayward Gallery — there, the fun house is literal. Elsewhere, it is a little more “adult”: In 2011, L.A.’s MoCA staged Marina Abramovic’sSurvival MoCA Dinner, a piece of megakitsch that included naked women with skeletons atop them on dinner tables where attendees ate. In 2012, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art paid $70,000 for a 21-foot-tall, 340-ton boulder by artist Michael Heizer and installed it over a cement trench in front of the museum, paying $10 million for what is essentially a photo op. Last year, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago mounted a tepid David Bowie show, which nevertheless broke records for attendance and sales of catalogues, “limited-edition prints,” and T-shirts. Among the many unfocused recent spectacles at the Guggenheim were Cai Guo-Qiang’s nine cars suspended in the rotunda with lights shooting out of them. The irony of these massively expensive endeavors is that the works and shows are supposedly “radical” and “interdisciplinary,” but the experiences they generate are closer, really, to a visit to Graceland — “Shut up, take a selfie, keep moving.”

In this way, an old museum model has been replaced by another one. Museums that were roughly bookish, slow, a bit hoity-toity, not risk-averse but careful, oddly other, and devoted to reflection, connoisseurship, cultivation, and preservation (mostly of the past but also of new great works) — these museums have transformed into institutions that feel faster, indifferent to existing collections, and at all times intensely in pursuit of new work, new crowds, and new money. We used to look at these places as something like embodiments and explorations of the canon — or canons, since some (MoMA’s and Guggenheim’s modernism collections) were narrower and more specialized than others (the Met’s, the Louvre’s). But whatever long-view curating and collecting museums do now — and many of them still do it well — the institutions that are sucking up the most energy are the ones that have made themselves into platforms for spectacle, as though the party-driven global-art-fair feeding frenzy had taken up residence in one place, and one building, permanently. Plus, accessibility has become everything. More museums are making collections available online — sad to say, art is sometimes better viewed there than in the flesh, thanks to so much bad museum architecture and so little actual space to display permanent collections. Acousti­guides have become more and more common, and while there’s much good they can do, it often seems their most important function is crowd control — moving visitors through quickly to make room for the next million.

The museums of New York can already feel alien with this new model taking over. And we’re really at the beginning rather than the end of the transformation. All four of Manhattan’s big museums — the Met, MoMA, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim — have undertaken or are involved in massive expansion, renovation, and rebuilding. These are more than just infrastructure updates: We are witnessing a four-way competition for supremacy in the new art-museum universe, where the Whitney is moving downtown, near the heart of the gallery district. The stately Met has taken over the Whitney’s old Madison Avenue Breuer building, making use of the new space not for its unrivaled permanent collection of 50 centuries of art but for contemporary work — to reimagine itself, for the first time in its 145-year history, as a serious contender for the postwar-and-contemporary-art crown (an ambition complemented nicely by the ascent of its Costume Institute, whose galleries are now named to honor Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour). MoMA bungled one renovation in this direction in 2004, producing inadequate galleries for the permanent collection but ample party space; a decade on, it’s doubling down, building an even worse edifice oriented around event spaces it calls “the gray box” and “the art bay.” And the Guggenheim’s crazed obsession with making more Guggenheims continues with a behemoth Frank Gehry in Abu Dhabi, presumably to be finished before sea levels rise to swamp it.

What makes this all so startling is that these museums have never been all-out competitors before. Until now, they had distinct missions, collections, and curatorial identities: The Met specialized in 5,000 years of art; the Whitney was about American art; MoMA was modernism’s Francophile Garden of Eden; and the Guggenheim — well, the Guggenheim has always been a bit confused, mostly distinguished by its incredible building. But now, all of a sudden and for the first time, it is not unusual for curators to speak of being unable to do shows because “that artist is already taken.”

Each of these museums still preserves, collects, and exhibits the art of the past. But with the action and big money centered on contemporary art, galleries, auctions, art fairs, and biennials, each is more committed than ever before to the art of the now and the cult of the new. I love the new. I am a member of that cult, in part because the art world has become my surrogate family of gypsies and dreamers (yes, I’m a mush). But that cult, and the ascendance of spectacle, may be the end of museums as we know them and has been the subject of countless conversations I’ve had over the past year with curators, artists, gallerists, and collectors, all of whom acknowledge a major shift under way. “The problem is museums trying to be as up-to-date with contemporary art as galleries are,” says painter and critic Peter Plagens. “The cultural distance between what a museum preserves (Cézanne, Joan Mitchell, etc.) and how it spotlights the present (Björk, interactive art, etc.) is greater than ever.” As former Venice- and Whitney-biennial curator Francesco Bonami puts it, “They’re like those in the fashion world who only follow the last collection and are content to have their shows look like those of other museums.” Plagens says that a few years ago, ex–L.A. MoCA director and impresario Jeffrey Deitch told him that “museums needed young audiences and that what young audiences wanted to see is events, whether the events are fashion shows, rock concerts, or exhibition openings.” And now? “I mean, fucking James Franco is everywhere,” Plagens says. “Miley Cyrus is on art-world tongues, curators are courtiers, museums are the runway.” Of course, he acknowledges, “museums will survive. But in what form?”

Willem de Kooning’s “Woman and Bicycle” (1952–53) during installation. Photo: Tim Davis


The new Whitney, opening May 1 and designed by Renzo Piano, is the first totally new museum to be unveiled — an angular, asymmetrical, ship-shaped building at the base of the High Line, deep in tourist country and adjacent to the heart of the art-market beast, the bluest-chip gallery district in the world, Chelsea. The move marks the first time one of the four major Manhattan museums has abandoned its flagship for another neighborhood since 1966, when the Whitney moved into the Breuer Building (it moved in 1954 to West 54th Street from its original West Village brownstone). The move downtown is itself significant, returning the museum to its roots in a place of bohemian tribal identity, even if the downtown it’s returning to has been built by developers for the very rich, and the move itself will help make the area tonier still than the Upper East Side. For what it’s worth, the museum looks directly down on the pier where Titanic survivors disembarked (the ship itself would have docked five piers north).

The audacity of the building shows that, yes, the Whitney will survive the new era. But the better question is whether it has found a way to thrive in it. And, believe it or not, I am in love with what this building represents — and with its perfectly titled inaugural show, “America Is Hard to See.” The show includes 600 works by around 400 artists, drawn entirely from the museum’s collection of over 21,000 works by 3,000 artists, and it makes me think this museum might just point to one way through the current morass.

Why? Let’s start with the building. I don’t care what it looks like. It’s “likable enough,” but my only concern as an art lover is with the inside of museums. Were I to judge the new Whitney exterior, I’d say it looks like a hospital or a pharmaceutical company. (Our architecture critic, Justin Davidson, gives his opinion of the new Whitney.) But, for me, the genericism of the building suggests that what matters to the Whitney isn’t vanity, grandeur, showboating, celebrity, or destination architecture — it’s what goes on under its auspices.

COMING-OUT PARTYEight especially exciting works from the new Whitney’s first show, drawn from its permanent collection, that have not been seen in public since at least 2000.
CHARLES WHITEWanted Poster Series No. 4, 1969
MALCOLM BAILEYUntitled, 1969
CHIURA OBATAEvening Glow of Yosemite Fall, 1930
DOROTHEA ROCKBURNEDrawing which Makes Itself, ca. 1973
HUGO GELLERTThe Fifth Column, 1943

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.