Thursday, April 26, 2012

"Seven Days in the Art World," and One Day at the Hess Art Museum

There is no date.  Some people say it was the 1860’s.  It could have started in the Renaissance.  Perhaps it began in Venice, or maybe later, in Paris or New York.

Art got loose.  It found a hole in the fence.  And it wouldn’t -- anymore -- be judged by how gently the artist draped painted lace falling over a hand, or the shadow thrown past a vase, or those columns receding in perfect order, diminishing to a horizon line.

And as everybody began to chase after Art, and put it back in some kind of order, two things happened.  A bad thing, but also a couple of good things.

The bad thing is that auction houses, blue-chip galleries, and art fairs are now the arbiters of artistic “worth.”  Art is only valuable when someone buys it. And what makes people pay more for one painting rather than another?  The artist’s text: the lengthy bio, the MFA, the awards, the “buzz.”  The written lists and hype now trump the actual image (see posts here from January 20, 25, 31 and February 8, 2012). 

So, continuing with that bad thing that happened: I just read Seven Days in the Art World.  It isn’t new -- Sarah Thornton’s research was done in 2004-2007 -- but she was allowed into all the back rooms the rest of us can’t find. And I suspect that not very much has changed since the book was published. Here are a few examples of what Thornton found.  As she sits in on a critique at CalArts, Thornton says the students say that using words like “creative,” “beautiful,” “sublime,” and “masterpiece” are all “embarrassing,” so these terms are not allowed.  No “value judgments,” they say (65).  But if not here, where?

Thronton interviews the finalists for the Turner Prize of 2006, a very small world, with overlapping text. One artist, Tomma Abts, who eventually won the prize, tells Thornton during the process that “I have been part of the London art world for eleven years …. There are 4 artists nominated [for this prize] every year. I always know at least one.”  Both Abts and another of the four finalists, Phil Collins [not the drummer], were awarded the Paul Hamlyn Award, both showed at the Istanbul Biennial and both showed at the Wong Gallery in New York.  The Turner Prize is such a major award that betting shops give odds on the winner.  And yet, it seems the choices, year after year, don’t range very far afield.  Thornton also writes a chapter on her visit to the offices of Artforum, where she talks to the editors and to one of their contributors, Tom McDonough, an Associate professor of Art History at the State University of New York at Binghamton.  McDonough says that critics “reward work not because they think it is the most important work being made … but because it’s a little corner that they can own” (170).  It’s not even really necessary to comment on this, is it?

Thornton watches the preparation for a 2004 auction at Christie’s and then sits in on the auction.  The interviews in her auction-house chapter seem more moderated,  the stated opinions more circumspect, but, still, the manipulation of the art market becomes clear.  One of the people Thornton talks to, Josh Baer, says that “without auctions, the art world wouldn’t have the financial value it has.  They give the illusion of liquidity …. If people thought they couldn’t resell … many wouldn’t buy a thing” (26-7).  The sales placed in an order according to what will sell and raise the level of excitement, as a staff member confirms: “we lay out a sale commercially. If we laid it out art-historically -- chronologically or thematically – it would probably bomb.  The first ten lots have to go well …. At around Lot Twelve or Thirteen, we’d better be entering a serious price point” (27).   The auction seems more and more orchestrated, the crowd worked in hushed tones.  An art consultant says that “People want to become part of the lifestyle …. To collect contemporary art is to buy a ticket into a club of passionate people who meet in extraordinary places, look at art together, and go to parties. It is extremely appealing” (34).  Thornton ends the chapter with this discouraging observation: “Even if the people here tonight were initially lured into the auction room by a love of art, they find themselves participating in a spectacle where the dollar value of the work has virtually slaughtered its other meanings” (39).

So that’s the bad thing.  So, now that art cannot be judged by chiaroscuro, or perspective, or established models of how to paint velvet, or a chalice, or the perfectly-proportioned body, is there a good thing that comes of this freedom?

A good thing: freedom.  Robert Motherwell said that the Abstract Expressionist artists thought that, since no-one cared what they did, they could do -- anything. 
But that’s the thing, isn’t it? How do you not care, as an artist, that the art world is so insane, and that no-one cares what you do?  

“Work engenders work,” Georgia O’Keeffe said, so that’s one good thing an artist can do: work, work in freedom.  Work, and not care how many or how few people see it or buy it. You don’t want your art to be like the art in the student critique, where no-one can say that it is “beautiful.”  You don’t want a critic to seize upon your work and award you a prize just because she has backed you into ”her” corner.  You don’t want your art to be a piece of a box-tour “lifestyle,” just another liquid possession.  Just keep working.  Maybe learn to play the accordion or knit or box, too.  

Another good thing that can come of this wide-open field is the ability to see art in open studio weekends, in cafés, in galleries, and … wineries.  We went to Napa and, up a residential and then increasingly twisty and fragrant road, we found the Hess Winery and Museum.  And they are not kidding.  It is a small, perfect museum.

We were directed up a stairway, carefully tucked with lots of glass and steel inside a massive stone building.  The art on display, we were told, is about 20% of Hess’s collection; he has other museums in South Africa and Argentina and another is planned for Australia.  We stopped along some drawings and paintings by John Connell, an artist born in 1940 who lives in Maine. The painting below, “For Yr Little Autumnals,” is from 1987. It isn’t actually in the gallery, but it is typical of the painted work by Connell:

Connell blends words, sometimes the title of the piece, and roughly-inked and painted figures or abstract shapes, on paper. The paintings and drawings were filled with an apparently spontaneous energy. My favorite title was “Pumpkin with Breath Knocked Out.”  Connell says the idea of “Wabi” is “my aesthetics, sensibility and inclination” and he quotes Jen No Rikyu: “Beauty concealed under a wretched surface” (Hess Art Collection catalogue, p. 82).  Alongside some of the drawings were small statues of Buddhas, like these, taking on the character of sandcastles:

And then there are more works lining the landing and we turn into the first room and there are huge paintings by Theodoros Stamos and Robert Motherwell, and then, continuing on, Frank Stella, Per Kirkeby, Anselm Kiefer.  We are already overwhelmed.  Among the Motherwells is one I had never seen. It looks like a combination of a Rothko and a Mondrian, with a purple stripe left, red blocks of color upper and lower right, and grey and black stripes in between.  Totally uncharacteristic of Motherwell … but then, next to it, as if for reassurance, is an “Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 160.”  Then we came to a room filled with 3 types of works by Andy Goldsworthy: “Surface Tension” from 1993, “Earth and Snow” from 1995, and “Rock Pools” from 2000.  I don’t expect to see Goldsworthy indoors.  This is one of the best installations I have ever seen, by anybody, anywhere. Here is a photograph by Paul Kirchner from the catalogue (spread over 2 pages):

The rocks on the floor are real rocks that have been placed in a kiln and transformed.  The hanging at the end of the room is “horse chestnut leaf stalks connected with hawthorn thorns” and it’s an amazing, delicate structure.  But then we arrive at a wall of Francis Bacon paintings: a triptych, a “Study of Pope Innocent X (1965)” and maybe the most perfect Bacon ever,  “Study for a Man Talking” from 1981:

The forms behind the figure are crisp, the shredded receipts at the man’s feet sufficiently mysterious, the suit blocked loosely in, with all the wear and tear of life etched into it.  The face is coming forward and receding, moving and blurred, flushed and graying.  And the catalogue gives us a single quote from bacon: “One wants to do this thing of just walking along the edge of the precipice.”  And the painting does just that.

There is also, by the way, a roomful of Rauschenbergs, really fine, and some work by George Baselitz.  There was another discovery for us, Frank Gertsch, a Swiss artist, both figurative and abstract, wood cuts and a piece made with “mineral pigment with Damar varnish used as a binder.”

I tried to find out how it was that Donald Hess found all these works of art, because each work represents its maker accurately and each one astonishes.  I never did find it.  Hess is to be congratulated for throwing the doors open. 

Art got loose. And these two good things -- making art, no matter what, and seeing art, no matter where – can, if we let them, more than balance out the bad things in the current art-as-commodity world.


  1. Thank you so much for stopping by The Hess Collection and experiencing the wonders of twin passions under one roof. It's a place to return to again and again and each time you'll find something new to consider. Donald Hess collects living artists he can personally get to know, and share ideas with. As a result, he focuses on a smaller number of artists, and goes in depth with their work. The happy result is the museum you just experienced. Please come back soon.

  2. You're welcome. It's that depth of the work, along with the quality and the new discoveries (at least for me) that really set the collection apart.