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There’s little doubt that the art world still seems like it’s barreling off a massive binging spendthrift cliff. The art-buying behavior of the super-rich and the merely wealthy, coupled with obscene prices paid for a more or less preapproved group of around 75 celebrity artists, seems less and less relevant – and more odious. Yet art fairs, insane as they are, are still ways for artists and art dealers to maybe make money; gallerists to create connections with one another; newer dealers to heighten their profiles; the general public to see art outside a museum; and the art tribe to have a giant sleepover, stay up late together, and (as I often say) touch antennae.

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Jerry Saltz
New York Magazine


Finding the ultimate studio door

If I went to church I would never paint.

Aaron McMasters

This quote is included in a Blurb book put together by Jerry Saltz of signs for a studio, real and imagined.

Examine the rest in Art Studio Door Signs here.

Since reopening in 2007, the New Museum has raised a lot of hackles. At every level of the art world, people express chagrin and frustration with the place. Complaints always start with the terrible exhibition spaces in the new building and usually proceed from there to the idea that the museum is playing a zero-sum game of Art World Survivor: trying to outthink, outplay, and outdo other local museums. The common conception is that the institution is more about strategy than vision. I love the place, but there are problems.

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Jerry Saltz
New York Magazine

The cover of the 2010 Whitney Biennial catalogue displays a picture of Barack Obama as a Dapper Dan cowboy. Inside, guest curator Francesco Bonami and co-curator Gary Carrion-Murayari call the president “the coolest artist of all” and say their show is about “innovative forms,” “new relationships,” and “personal modernism.” After two biennials devoted to dealing with “failure” and “darkness,” this catalogue speaks of “renewal” and “optimism.” Yes, it’s the Obama Biennial: alternately moving and frustrating, challenging and disappointing—and a big improvement on what came before.

It is also historic: For the first time, there are more women included than men. How thrilling and important this is shouldn’t be overlooked or treated cynically, because this biennial isn’t about women’s art, feminism, or affirmative action. Nor is it about painting, although there’s more nonphotographic, handmade two-dimensional work here than I recall seeing for decades. Instead, it provides glimpses of American strangeness, of pluralistic grassroots experimentalism. It is rich in surprises and new names, doesn’t follow too many trends, and deals with the self and aesthetics in fresh ways.

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Jerry Saltz
New York Magazine


Jeff Koons, Puppy, Rockefeller Center

The aughts began with buzzing border-to-border energy and happy complacency. But instead of the love spreading and everyone becoming “famous for 15 minutes,” by decade’s end art-worlders fixated on a tiny clique of mostly male, mostly high-priced artists: Murakami, Hirst, Eliasson. Warhol’s dictum was infernally inverted to “In the future, only 15 people will be famous.”

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Jerry Saltz
Artnet Magazine

A week ago New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz launched a bomb on his Facebook page:

“The Museum of Modern Art practices a form of gender-based apartheid. Of the 383 works currently installed on the 4th and 5th floors of the permanent collection, only 19 are by women; that’s 4%. There are 135 different artists installed on these floors; only nine of them are women; that’s 6%. MoMA is telling a story of modernism that only it believes. MoMA has declared itself a hostile witness. Why? What can be done?”

After hundreds of comments from his Facebook Friends, he re-posted the original entry three more times to make it easier for readers to follow the discussion. Three or four additional follow-up posts on the topic brought in hundreds more comments and Saltz told his community that:

In the next month I plan to write a cover letter and amass all of your FB comments in regards to the paltry percent of women artists on the 4th & 5th floors of the permanent collection and send the package to the following MoMA officials…

Before he had the chance,the museum responded, sending a note to Saltz to post on his page:

“Hi all, I am (Kim Mitchell) Chief Communications Officer here at MoMA. We have been following your lively discussion with great interest, as this has also been a topic of ongoing dialogue at MoMA. We welcome the participation and ideas of others in this important conversation. And yes, as Jerry knows, we do consider all the departmental galleries to represent the collection. When those spaces are factored in, there are more than 250 works by female artists on view now. Some new initiatives already under way will delve into this topic next year with the Modern Women’s Project, which will involve installations in all the collection galleries, a major publication, and a number of public programs. MoMA has a great willingness to think deeply about these issues and address them over time and to the extent that we can through our collection and the curatorial process. We hope you’ll follow these events as they develop and keep the conversation going.”

This in turn let loose a whole new flood of comments, many criticizing the idea of a “Modern Women’s Project.” And the debate rages on as Saltz explained that now that the group has MoMA’s attention, it should press the museum to rectify an injustice. Saltz has nearly 5,000 Facebook friends, and he’s built his community by positioning himself as much as a discussion leader as a traditional critic.

There was a time when arts organizations (following good corporate example) stayed aloof from criticism, preferring not to respond publicly when criticized unless forced. Many’s the time that the subjects of negative arts stories we have posted on ArtsJournal have contacted me to try to correct the record as they saw it. In each case (maybe 20 over the years), I offered a chance for the institution to write a rebuttal to the story and said I’d post it on AJ. How many do you think took me up on the offer? Three.

Most figured that even though the story was wrong, it would blow over more quickly if it was ignored. But in the digital age these stories stay out there forever, and besides, I’d argue, responding is an opportunity to engage.

And so it is. And so MoMA engaged with Saltz’s group, and good for them. Except.

One of the great things about social media is that it encourages personal interaction. One of the challenges for institutions is to not sound so institutional. In MoMA’s official response, the unnamed “we” have been “following your lively discussion” with “great interest” could hardly be more institutional. Then there’s “this has been a topic of ongoing dialogue at MoMA” and the even more co-opting “we welcome the participation and ideas of others in this important conversation.” And finally: “We hope you’ll follow these events as they develop and keep the conversation going.”

Could it be any more condescending?: “We noticed you’re having this lovely little discussion over here at the kids’ table… pat, pat, pat… How charming of you…” If someone spoke to you like this in real life you’d roll your eyes and walk away. Moreover, the response doesn’t address the issue with either a direct acknowledgment of it (you’re right, only four percent of the artists represented on those floors are women) or that there really is a real disparity of gender. Instead, it’s an attempt to deflect the criticism by appealing to a broader context and sidestepping the issue as it was raised.

How could the museum think that anyone would be placated by such a statement? Indeed, I think it made things worse because the museum looks intellectually dishonest in front of a core audience that really cares.

My purpose here isn’t to debate the gender issue, but to point out that traditional PR notices are not only ineffective in this new era of many-to-many communication, but can make things worse. And what might have been a real opportunity to meaningfully engage this community has been lost. Just because this conversation didn’t bubble out in public earlier doesn’t mean that people haven’t been having it privately for years. To not confront it honestly and openly now that it has gone public this way does real harm to MoMA.

Not surprisingly, the debate roars on on Saltz’s page, and he’s even created a new group on Facebook Jerry Saltz; Seeing Out Loud to continue to press the issue. A day or so after it was created, it already has 587 members.

Douglas McClellan
diacritical

bacon090525_1_560
Bacon in 1951, photographed by Cecil Beaton. (Photo: Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s)

Francis Bacon, whose centenary is being marked by a Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective opening this week, is the Irish-born English artist whom the English consider their Achilles: a truculent hero rising from the turbulence, an outlaw god. Indeed, the first word of Homer’s Iliad comes to mind when thinking about his paintings and tumultuous life: “Rage.”

Those who knew the artist—some of them his friends—described him variously as “devil,” “whore,” “one of the world’s leading alcoholics,” “bilious ogre,” “sacred monster,” and “a drunken, faded sodomite swaying nocturnally through the lowest dives and gambling dens of Soho.” Bacon was no kinder: He called himself a “grinding machine” and “rotten to the core.” This hasn’t stopped admirers and critics alike from proclaiming him “the greatest painter in the world,” “the best … since Turner.” Never one to spare hyperbole, Robert Hughes wrote, “This painter of buggery, sadism, dread, and death-vomit has emerged as the toughest, the most implacable, lyric artist in late-twentieth-century England, perhaps in all the world.”

For me, Bacon—who may be the only artist sharing a name with one of his main subjects, meat—has always been more of a cartoonist. He’s an illustrator of exaggerated, ultimately empty angst. His early accomplishments are undeniable, and the Met’s survey of 66 paintings and a cache of never-before-seen source material is peppered with high points, especially the signature paintings of the forties and fifties: Canvases with twisted masses of faceless flesh and otherworldly homunculi, creatures of the id posed in living-room wastelands and Stygian prisons. The best of this work shrouds you in a sulfuric gloom where strange powers transform human souls into delirious monsters. These paintings make audiences stare as if they were looking at animals in a zoo, trying to come to terms with these merciless inhuman presences. You’ll see this at the Met: people blankly gaping in wonder.

To understand Bacon’s impact, look no further than the young Brits emulating him. Jake and Dinos Chapman place tortured figures in glass cases; Jenny Saville’s contorted Gargantuas are direct descendants of Bacon’s golems; Tracey Emin works with blood and guts; Sarah Lucas gives us spooks and deformities. Damien Hirst not only makes vitrines straight out of Bacon—he puts meat and carcasses in them. Like Dalí and Munch, Bacon is an artist we love when young. Tantalized by the urgency, angst, weirdness, blood, sex, and bodies, we think, That’s me! That’s how I feel!

You might have reconsidered feeling like Bacon if you’d lived in his skin. His love life is a study in emotional privation and degradation. “We are meat,” he often remarked—understandable, given his adolescence. Bacon, who was given morphine as a child for his asthma (the ailment that contributed to his death in 1992), always knew which way his erotic compass pointed, which is not to say that he approved of its inclination: He called his homosexuality “a defect” and a “limp.” And no wonder. When Bacon was 16, his father—the artist derisively called him “a failed horse-trainer”—caught the boy wearing his mother’s underwear. (“Fishnet stockings were an essential part of the artist’s wardrobe for most of his life,” one biographer notes.) As punishment, the father had him horsewhipped by the stable hands, whom, Bacon later claimed, he then had affairs with. Bacon Sr. asked a family friend to “straighten the boy out” by taking him to Berlin. The man complied—and subsequently bedded the younger Bacon, then abandoned him in the city that W. H. Auden called “a bugger’s daydream.”

Endless liaisons with rent boys and society types followed, until Bacon’s predator-prey notion of love and his “desire to suffer” reached new heights, in 1952. At the age of 43, he met a former RAF pilot, Peter Lacy, in London’s Soho. They spent a lot of time in Tangier, a refuge for gay men looking for freedom. “I’d never really fallen in love with anyone until then,” Bacon said. “Of course, it was the most total disaster from the start.” Bacon couldn’t live with or without him: “Being in love in that extreme way,” he said, “being totally obsessed by someone, is like having some dreadful disease. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.” They experimented with the far reaches of S&M. The end was horrid, too. On the day before his first Tate retrospective opened, in May 1962, Bacon learned Lacy had been found dead, almost surely from drinking.

Less than two years later, Bacon met George Dyer—reportedly when Dyer broke into his studio to rob him. For the next seven years the relationship rocketed up and down, then history repeated itself. On October 25, 1971, the day before Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris opened, Dyer overdosed and died in their Paris hotel room. Bacon, then 61, was again devastated. No wonder he talked about “the destruction” of love.

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Jerry Saltz
New York Magazine


Photo: Linda Nylind/Courtesy of Frieze

Two weeks ago, the Death Star that has hovered over the art world for the last two years finally fired its lasers. It was October 15, the day the stock market fell more than 700 points—again—and a month after Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch collapsed and Damien Hirst pawned off $200 million worth of crapola on clueless rubes at Sotheby’s. Against this backdrop, at 11 a.m., the gates of London’s Frieze Art Fair opened, and in streamed the international traveling circus of bigwigs, collectors, curators, advisers, museum directors, trustees, models, movie stars, and critics like moi.

Talk of financial doom filled the air. Karl Schweizer, UBS’s head of art banking, told one reporter, “We are in a liquidity crisis.” Money manager Randy Slifka added, “There is blood on the streets on Wall Street.” Collectors talked about “sewing up our pockets.” Yet much of the art world was playing on as if nothing had happened. A German dealer told Artforum.com, “This economic mess will all be over by January.” Christie’s Amy Cappellazzo spun her house’s recent sales: “If you bought something, you bought something real.” In truth, most of the speculators are buying something real bad or badly overpriced.

In fact, though, things were different. Those of us who have frequented Frieze could see that something was off. Dealers and assistants who in recent years were always busy with clients now stood or sat quietly. Sales were happening, but slowly, one at a time. The claim of “It’s sold” was replaced by “I have it on several holds.” Although the megagalleries like Gagosian and White Cube teemed with moneyed types and very tall women in very high heels, many younger dealers looked perplexed. A gallerist who entered the field in the go-go aughts and who had sold only two pieces by 5 p.m. that first day asked, “What’s going on?”

As I made my way through the 152 booths, I thought about the moment in Titanic when the designer of the doomed luxury liner warns Kate Winslet to find a lifeboat because “all this will be at the bottom of the Atlantic.” When I tried this idea out on attendees, several said I was “a buzzkill.” I asked, “Isn’t the buzz already beginning to disappear?”

If the art economy is as bad as it looks—if worse comes to worst—40 to 50 New York galleries will close. Around the same number of European galleries will, too. An art magazine will cease publishing. A major fair will call it quits—possibly the Armory Show, because so many dealers hate the conditions on the piers, or maybe Art Basel Miami Beach, because although it’s fun, it’s also ridiculous. Museums will cancel shows because they can’t raise funds. Art advisers will be out of work. Alternative spaces will become more important for shaping the discourse, although they’ll have a hard time making ends meet.

As for artists, too many have been getting away with murder, making questionable or derivative work and selling it for inflated prices. They will either lower their prices or stop selling. Many younger artists who made a killing will be forgotten quickly. Others will be seen mainly as relics of a time when marketability equaled likability. Many of the hot Chinese artists, most of whom are only nth-generation photo-realists, will fall by the wayside, having stuck collectors with a lot of junk.

Much good art got made while money ruled; I like a lot of it, and hardship and poverty aren’t virtues. The good news is that, since almost no one will be selling art, artists—especially emerging ones—won’t have to think about turning out a consistent style or creating a brand. They’ll be able to experiment as much as they want.

But my Schadenfreude side wishes a pox on the auction houses, those shrines to the disconnect between the inner life of art and the outer life of commerce. If they don’t go belly up or return to dealing mainly with dead artists, they need to stop pretending that they have any interest in art beyond the financial. Additionally, I hope many of the speculators who never really cared about art will go away. Either way, money will no longer be the measure of success. It hasn’t made art better. It made some artists—notably Hirst, Murakami, Prince, and maybe Piotr Ukla´nski—shallower.

Recessions are hard on people, but they are not hard on art. The forties, seventies, and the nineties, when money was scarce, were great periods, when the art world retracted but it was also reborn. New generations took the stage; new communities spawned energy; things opened up; deadwood washed away. With luck, New Museum curator Laura Hoptman’s wish will come true: “Art will flower and triumph not as a hobby, an investment, or a career, but as what it is and was—a life.”

Jerry Saltz
New York Magazine