November 26, 2011

Survey Says?

Periodic ennui and occasional cynicism about the state of the “Art World” overtakes me now and again, especially when Real World crises and EU ultimatums render our quaint preoccupation with simulacra, irony and context negligible. Moreover, the range of disparity in “our” World reeks as much of artifice and chicanery as the shenanigans down on Wall Street. It goes without saying as well, that the Occupy movement, though deflated and adrift, clearly without well-defined “demands,” still has a core sense of moral certitude and social consciousness, desires and goals perhaps all but forgotten among the denizens of said “Art World.”

$61 million dollars for a Clyfford Still? $21 million for a Gerhard Richter abstract? How do we justify such auction prices, clearly the machinations of that “1%” that control all things, and that the young, old and intransigent Bohos protest against down at Zuccotti Park.

With such rambling thoughts as backdrop, I took in a couple of major New York “surveys” of living artists a couple of weeks ago: Sherrie Levine’s “Mayhem” at the Whitney and that Italian “idiot,” Maurizio Cattelan’s ”All” at the Guggenheim.(1)

Like others before me, I remain as suspicious of Maurizio’s work as I was from the start of his meteoric career. His earlier work, though hysterically hip with dead-on irony, often tended to be “one-liners” steeped in ex-Disney model-maker, drug-addled carnival panache. We forgave him because he was endearingly irreverent: he stole artwork from a neighboring gallery and exhibited it as his [Another Fucking Readymade (1996)] and has sent his curator friend Massimiliano Gioni as Cattelan doppelganger for interviews.

The approved talking points for Cattelan’s “retrospective” at the Gugg were:
1) Cattelan hated the idea of doing a “retro” as it signified that your career is over (more on that in a moment).
2) He couldn’t pass up the opportunity Nancy Spector gave him to fill the cavernous rotunda with “all of his artworks.”

So we have the wonderful spectacle of “All”, which “brings together virtually everything the artist Maurizio Cattelan has produced since 1989, and presents the works en masse, strung haphazardly from the oculus of the Guggenheim’s rotunda.”(2)

The third talking point which has emerged in Cattelan interviews during the installation and subsequent opening of “All” is that he plans to “retire” from making art after this show. As Duchampian as that sounds, and Cattelan is nothing if not Duchampian, it seems unlikely that this 51-year-old prankster can resist continuing to toy with the Art World, especially now that he has attained validation within the Sacred Guggenheim Rotunda.

The “Cattelan Problematic” is ironically revealed in his creative use of the Gugg’s oculus. With all of his jests, jabs, affronts, controversies and outright insults strung up side by side and chock-a-block, we can clearly see the emptiness of his postmodern gesture. His strength has always resided in bracketing within a contextual space – the Pope crushed under a meteor (“La Nona Ora”) needed the vastness of its environment to pummel us with Cattelan’s insane sacrilege. Here, it becomes lost amongst other effigies. Moreover, a cursory critical eye can begin to discern that the individual works, nearly all dependent upon taxidermy and model-making skills, begin to take on a “seconds” patina. Could it be that Maurizio goes to taxidermist and amusement-park warehouses to select “rejects” and then casts them in whatever sarcastic and mean-spirited vision he has? How else to explain “Him?” Cattelan supposedly told his assistants to sculpt Adolph Hitler as a child, yet the resultant form does not look child-like, but merely smaller scaled.

As impressive of an engineering achievement as it is, the rigging of “All” his works on individual platforms, suspended by pulleys and rope, somehow trivializes Cattelan’s output as amusement-park chaos, only missing the de rigueur carney “barker” detailing the various freaks, anomalies, animals and caricatures on view. Somehow the intelligence of Cattelan has been expunged within the spectacle of “more is more.”

More intellectually stimulating but just as perplexing is Sherrie Levine’s “Mayhem” up at the Whitney. Walking out of the elevator doors, we first see Levine’s claim to Art World fame, her “After Walker Evans” series of black-and-white “re-photographs.”(3) Levine’s critical support improves every year and this survey will only help solidify her reputation with its brilliant and spacious installation. There are piano and billiard table replications, the ornately translucent skull variations, an homage to Courbet’s “Origin of the World,” as well as her finest work, the checkered paintings. And here, as at Cattelan’s “All”, we find an artist seeking to “push back against the form of the museum survey.”(4)

Appropriation has been maligned, disemboweled and adored over the years, and I have posted on it and Levine before. In 1981, Levine took a page from the “Walter Benjamin Playbook” and made it her own. Suffice to say, that as the more challenging aspects of The Appropriationists became sanctioned by art critics like Rosalind Krauss and Craig Owens, the originary purveyors of this once avant garde action began to take on reverential proportions. Thus, sequenced galleries of Levine’s oeuvre within the Whitney seems, dare I say it, overdue.

We can fault the Whitney’s over-zealous security policies, which forbade us innocent museum-goers the simple pleasure of walking betwixt the billiard table or glass-vitrined skulls. Surely Sherrie herself would have allowed such obvious opportunity for a closer immersion within the mysteries of the authentic vs. the copy?

As I collected my gear from the ground-floor coat-check, I overheard an elderly gentlemen proclaiming to a young Whitney staffer behind the book-counter that, “This artist is a fraud!” Getting no real agreement or reaction of any kind from the staffer, he could only repeat his remark: “She’s a fraud…a fraud.” I stepped out into the nippy air of Madison Avenue with a reverie of repetition and facsimile merging in my mind. Yes, it’s clearly about doubt and the questioning of originality; fraudulence as authenticity.

IMAGE: Cellphone JPEG of “All” installation on November 12, 2011.

1. Cattelan’s description, not mine:


3. Various rumors, which I have been unable to confirm, suggest that the Walker Evans Estate purchased most of Levine’s initial re-photographs in 1979 – but here they are again. Needless to say, Levine’s “copies” still keep Evans’s work in the public eye.

4. Pollack, Maika. “Will the Real Sherrie Levine Please Stand Up? 'Mayhem' at the Whitney,”, 11-15-11.

November 7, 2011

Orders of Photographic Identity Construction

In 1865, photojournalist Alexander Gardner had six of the accused Lincoln conspirators brought up on the deck of the USS Montauk, an ironclad monitor anchored in the Potomac River, and posed them for a series of famous photographs. Irrespective of their historic value, these photographs additionally reveal Gardner’s desire for an “artistic” expression in his photographic work. The accused men were dressed in coats and ties, hair combed and styled, then positioned against the iron turret for the various shots.

The above photograph of Lewis Payne then presents quite a conflict of photographer, portrait subject and image. First, we have a young man accused of savagely attacking Secretary of State William Seward with a knife and conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to overthrow the Federal government. Moreover, the photographer appears to disguise Payne’s predicament, draping him in beige overcoat and hat. The Federal guard’s hands, holding a bayoneted rifle, are just visible at edge of frame and if we look closely we can see a chain hanging from Payne’s wrist.

This exemplifies the primary way a photographic image constructs identity and demonstrates first order identity construction, as authorial control by the maker. For reasons forever unknown, Gardner decided to cast Lewis Payne as a dashing but disheveled rake, handsome and mysteriously at peace with his fate.

The use of photographic image to wield fiction and create mystique was coincidentally used the previous year by a youthful Jesse James. In the 1864 photograph above, a sixteen-year-old Jesse attired himself in dandy tie, rolled-brim cap and Colt revolver to introduce his vision of what he was soon to become – an outlaw. The “Wild West” was waning by then but was being immortalized in newspapers and “Dime Novels” and these accounts may have inspired Jesse to present himself thusly, using second order identity construction as the photographic subject self-crafts their own identity, fictional or otherwise.

Warner Brothers and their careful control and dissemination of James Dean’s image in “Rebel Without A Cause” might best represent the final order of photographic construction of identity. In the motion picture, Dean portrayed Jim Stark, a troubled teenager, and the film studio costumed Dean in blue jeans, white t-shirt and red windbreaker in many of the prominent scenes. It is said that the red windbreaker was “over-dyed” by director Nicholas Ray to achieve luminosity for the color film.(1)

As quintessential depiction of teenage rebellion and angst, Dean’s persona in “Rebel” has no equal during the 1950’s. Perhaps this is due to its third order identity construction masterfully dictated by the powerful film company. The film’s influence upon American teenager fashion was further impacted by Dean’s sudden, unexpected and tragic death in a car crash:

“Teenagers who saw the film latched onto Dean’s look. Actress Steffi Sidney, who plays a bit character in the film, later remembered that how after Rebel came out she would drive by her old high school and all the boys hanging out in front would have on that same red jacket.”(2)


1. Bayse, Ali. “Cinemode: Rebel Without A Cause”.

2. Ibid.