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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
THE ART OF BUYING
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.
WORK OF ART
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.
Herbanddorothy.com/Fine 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
THE MUSEUM AS FAIRY TALE
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.
PART II:BRAVE NEW WORLD
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?”
PART III:THE WHITNEY REBORN
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.
The Joan Mitchell Foundation is excited to announce the Emerging Artist Grant Program, a new initiative designed to assist emerging visual artists across the United States. This pilot program will award a diverse group of ten artists with an unrestricted grant of $12,000 per artist in addition to professional support throughout the year.
The Foundation seeks to award visual artists who demonstrate excellence in their work, a commitment to their careers and artistic communities, and a willingness to engage in the varied support provided by this program. Recipients will have the opportunity to build relationships with one another, the Foundation, and an expansive community of arts professionals. The combination of funding and supplemental programming is intended to further recipients’ artistic practice, encourage career sustainability, and best equip them to make their own artistic choices and forge a unique career path.
A primary purpose of this program is to provide artists with access to opportunities that can effect positive change in their lives and, in turn, the field at large. Historically the Foundation has supported emerging artists through our MFA Grant Program; this program was suspended in 2013. As an organization that values cultural equity, we hope through this new initiative to benefit a population of artists beyond just the sphere of higher education, a system that can suffer from homogeneity and a lack of equity. We will thoughtfully engage a broad group of emerging artists and prioritize diversity in all areas, including artistic practice, geographic location, gender, age, background, socio-economic level, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and all levels of educational attainment.
The Foundation defines “emerging” as those early in their artistic careers (regardless of age), who are gaining momentum, and may be at a critical juncture in their career when this support would be the most impactful. These artists demonstrate potential in their practice through risk-taking and pushing their work in dynamic ways, and are not yet considered well established professionally by indicators such as major gallery representation, significant exhibition history, awards and commissions, or sustaining an income derived solely from art sales.
The Foundation will engage nominators nationally to recommend artists and an independent jury panel will select the program finalists. Nominators will include visual artists, curators, and professionals from arts organizations and the academic community. Nominators will be selected by the Foundation and participate anonymously: we cannot accept unsolicited requests or applications.
UPDATE: For expanded thoughts about this grant and our nominator process, please visit our From the Foundation page.
Established in 1993, the Joan Mitchell Foundation is an artist-endowed non-profit organization. The Foundation celebrates the legacy of Joan Mitchell and expands her vision to support the aspirations and development of diverse contemporary artists. We work to broaden the recognition of artists and their essential contributions to communities and society.
For more information on the Joan Mitchell Foundation and its recipients, please visit our website at joanmitchellfoundation.org.
A Video Game Lets You Navigate Giorgio de Chirico’s Surreal Cityscapes
With their long shadows and lonely colonnades, Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings possess a strange allure. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to wander through them.
Now, there’s a way to enter and explore his surreal world. The Brazilian designer Carlos Monteiro has developed SURREALISTa, a free computer game tribute to the Italian artist that simulates it in three dimensions. The goal is to find the secret gateways from one level to the next (there are five), each just a bit more eerie than the one preceding it.
The first level begins on a deserted terrace beneath the night sky. I found myself bumping clumsily into walls, topiary trees, and lifeless Roman statues as I tried to find my way out. Feeling virtually trapped amid the illusionistic, frustrating architecture, I had a sudden sense of why de Chirico didn’t put people in his paintings. It was the sort of place that made you feel heavy and tired, as if you wanted to just lie down and take a nap. Eventually, I noticed a staircase leading to the stars — had it always been there? — and climbed it, though not without falling off a few times. Poof! I was in the next level.
The game captures the disquieting reality of de Chirico’s paintings, which is that they’re completely uninhabitable — more representative of a spiritual state than a physical one. Or maybe that’s just a failure of my own imagination. As the artist himself once wrote: “To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.”