In Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton showed the extent to which the art market is “buyer-driven”. It is, seemingly, the buyers who are determining what “great” art is and often which pieces of art get into museums. Some “blue-chip” gallery owners often will not even sell a piece unless they know it is going to a buyer who has established a reputation as a king-maker. So, no, you cannot win the lottery and buy the work of the hottest new rising art star – they probably will not let you. And how do these buyers buy? Does some hedge-fund guy or aging oil magnate look at a work and realize that there is such deep humanity and compassion embedded in the piece that if he looks at it long enough he might morph, somehow, into a more humane incarnation? No. He buys because the work is described to him (often by an art consultant) as “significant” “great” “a masterpiece” etc. He buys up what other people value and might benefit from, but cannot buy.
Thornton’s book, at times, implies a virtual con game that commercial art can fall into, sometimes paradoxically based on the deep, humane meaning a work might have. But mostly the price of a work of art depends on the smoke and mirrors and circular reasoning and mutual admiration society of reputation building and thus the price is due to the fact that something can be called “great” or said to have been completed by a “great” artist by all the “right” actors. Which brings us to the frenzy of Armory Show Week (last week) in New York City. Numerous art fairs occurred in which clumps of galleries from around the world gathered in one place so that art buyers could meander from one to another more easily, perhaps determining what would look best in their dining rooms. Financial risk is often greatly removed as these fairs often provide the best in “market-tested” art.
The Art Show usually kicks things off and this year it got started one week before the Armory rumpus. Many of the galleries in the show are the larger, better rooted galleries in Chelsea, which often show thoughtful and engaging work and which are open and accessible to anyone who wants to wander through the gallery district in Chelsea. The irony is that tourists will pay $25 to get into the Met Museum or MoMA (OUCH!!!!!!), but will often stroll by some of the best in contemporary art sitting there absolutely free under the Highline Park. The Highline raised rents and property taxes and forced numbers of galleries to relocate or go out of business, and the tourists will not even come down to look at what they have not destroyed yet. I picked three galleries from this show for purely subjective and personal reasons:
Tomás Saraceno at Tonya Bonakdar – Saraceno uses actual spider webs in his sculptures, as well as creating geometrical figures inspired by these webs. Looking at Bonakdar’s and Saraceno’s websites we see that he does this in order to study “alternative constructions” which might provide clues for a more sustainable relationship between humanity and nature under “utopian conditions”. So these are not floating Fourier phalanxes which comprise a new type of social organization to create harmony among a social group semi-divorced from nature. This is a vision that demands that the ethical be extended beyond a social concept, indeed, an implication is that ethical concepts and allegories of humane and social development have done nothing to ensure a proper relationship with nature. A basis of Saraceno’s vision seems to be the need to free vast populations from the requirement of fossil fuels, so that spider webs represent a type of “ethical collaboration” with our environment pointing to a state in which humanity might become airborne in “collective sustainable environments”. Yes, the Bonakdar website said it was “utopian”.
So, to me, this type of prospective environmental structure literally points to the need to elevate humanity beyond the type of economic and scientific mindset and proclivities that have pushed us beyond the parameters of a sustainable relationship with the Earth, and life within this structure will provide us with new attitudes and metaphors, perhaps, to fulfil a greater cognitive/emotional evolution so that the airborne environment offers an irrevocable feedback loop between sustainability and humane development.
Chris Marker at Peter Blum – Marker made one of the greatest experimental films of all time Sans Soleil, which seems, at times, to be a reflection on what Melville called the “mystery of iniquity”. The film often shows a world in which the frail bonds of morality and compassion have been abandoned and, as Sophocles puts it, good has become evil and evil has become good. Among one of the scenes I will never forget is footage of hunters in a helicopter chasing after and shooting wolves in a pack as they helplessly try to outrun the airborne hunters. At one point, as the helicopter hovers over a wolf, the wolf spins around and seems to make eye contact with those in the helicopter. The snarling and exhausted wolf shows a type of incomprehension but also rage, or outrage, at the gratuitous cruelty as the hunters laugh gleefully.
Blum has a series of photos by Marker from North Korea during the year of 1957. Some folks have written that this is a type of contemporary political statement, compelling viewers to see North Koreans as something other than enemies. Yet, I believe we all feel great sympathy for the North Korean people and their current situation, especially for those languishing under torture, brutal treatment and starvation in political concentration camps. Political and diplomatic engagement to change this seems to be a moral imperative for every civilized country. What folks writing about these photos have missed is that North Korea was, to some historians, a better place to live than South Korea for a substantial amount of time. It might have been Marker’s intention (righteous instigator that he was) to show this. Thus, the images become a reflection on another failed social experiment and why this one went so wrong and, frankly, a reflection on the extent to which dominant nations like the USA, China, Russia and Japan contributed and may continue to contribute to the horror there.
Janice Biala at Pavel Zoubok Gallery – one of the highlights of the whole show, for me, was seeing Janice Biala’s abstract collages. Biala (1903 – 2000) is still a somewhat neglected genius who did visually arresting work which Stuart Preston once said is “…the happiest result of an abstract training governed by a humane concern with the values of the world about us.” She never received the acclaim she deserved because she suffered from being a woman during a time of male domination in the art world. Yet her experiments with color came before those of the male Color Field folks and, judging by the interest shown by visitors at the show, viewers are still immediately visually seized by the strength of her compositions and her insights into the effects and potency of color combinations.
In her collages she seems to realize that by removing descriptive lines you increase direct engagement and impact from color. In much of her work she seemed to start off with an actual object or still-life materials, or a landscape or sitter, and work with the color balances to remove the figuration and replace it with something that defied the mediation of the intellect so that the work gently affects you beyond interpretation. She once said that from the first spot of paint she put on a canvas, her image was developed into a type of movement which unified all the colors into a coherent whole. Only after this emphasis on color was she concerned about “forms, lines and texture.” In this amazing display, even when using torn pieces of colored paper, her images flow and show movement due to the way Biala harmonized the colors. Just as her work foils stagnation through a sense of movement, Biala also undermines the forcefulness that often leads to the visually arresting. The engagement of her work is a welcoming and reachable engagement, her pieces are enticing and inviting as her colors are subdued, supple and loaded with insight and compassion.