Friday, January 30, 2009

Walter Benjamin Snack

Written in 1935,  by Walter  Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," contains the following paragraph notable for its relevance to the current state of the Internet and for its coherence:

"For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers.  This changed toward the end of the last century.  With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers --at first, occasional ones.  It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for "letters to the editor."  And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing.  Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character.  The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case.  At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.  As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship." 

Monday, January 19, 2009

Omit Needless Paint

I recently re-read Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, the classic guide to writing.  E.B. White gives us an image, "Will [Strunk] felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope."  The book's rule number 13 for saving the reader is: "Omit needless words."

Josephine Halvorson's still life paintings save us from the swamp by omitting needless paint.

I was not familiar with Halvorson until I ran into her work at the Perception as Object exhibition opening, January 8, 2009, at Monya Rowe Gallery.  I saw a row of five, modestly sized, immaculate trompe l'oeil paintings.  Fortuitiously, Alyssa Pheobus, a draftswoman I know, was at the opening and is friends with Halvorson.  We were introduced and talk about her work.  Halvorson offered that I can see more paintings down the street at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., but the exhibition closes soon.  

There is suspense and stagecraft in the presentation of the objects in Halvorson's still lifes -- a whiff of Hitchcock.  I  am intrigued by the way they are structured and by the paint itself.  Each of the five works at Monya Rowe Gallery: the envelope, the boarded window, the puzzle, the math worksheet, even the farm machine have a finite space you could measure with a ruler. Within these shallow spaces, however, there are puns and jokes embedded into the paint strokes.  A playfulness abounds.  The colors are somber, humble, as if from an earlier, more simple time, but the compositions are sophisticated, witty and dry. 

Halvorson paints each work in one sitting and in situ.  Her method is exacting and it is not always easy or straightforward to locate her subject and finish the work.  I hear from her about one of the paintings, "Farm Machine (Squeeze Chute.)"  Sitting in front of the machine, in  a barn on a farm she "thought she had permission" to visit, she is interrupted by the farmer.  An inquisition ensues.  It goes both ways; the artist secures permission to paint and learns what the machine does (it holds the cow in place during vaccination.)

Another painting at the Monya Rowe Gallery is "Envelope Back."  The painting was made on the first day of January, 2009 -- we know because the date is written on the painting -- just days before we are standing in front of it.  There is a story about the envelope, but I don't know what it is.  I can only guess.  It has been openend two ways, slit open at the bottom with an opener, and also at the top.  But is has been taped shut.  I surmise one scenario:  what is inside has been sealed, opened, resealed, sent and opened by someone else.  Or was it returned after opening, did it come "back?" What is inside the envelope?  What does the year ahead hold for us?

Several days later, I take in nine of Halvorson's paintings at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.  They are the same modest size.  The list of titles reads like a poem" "Batterie Allemande," "Chateau Souvenir," "Dirty Window," "Hot Coals," " Crumbs," "Three Photo Albums," "Momento Mori," "Meter," "Fireplace Farm."  Unexpectedly, Halvorson walks into the gallery,  I've been speculating about if she works larger?  There is a restraint in her work, and I wonder if it ever takes flight.  Halvorson offers that the work is intentionally small (in "relation to the body") and in keeping with still life tradition -- it is portable work originally intended for a middle class audience. 

Halvorson emphasizes that she often selects subjects that are "inconsequential."  The drama and commitment to the act of painting has consequences that imbue the overlooked objects with a presence.  I feel it is not so much that the subjects she paints lack consequence -- the farm machine certainly has consequences for the cow, the envelope for the sender and the receiver, the tombstone in "Memento Mori," for its owner  -- it is that the consequences are "off stage."  The audience is eavesdropping on the main characters, piecing the story together. 

I don't think I needed to have met Halvorson to have connected with her work.  But her emphasis on being with her subject and finishing it in one sitting is now tied to my experience of meeting her twice -- and of being with her and her work.  It feels like a balanced equation, the prerequisites for transferring experience and meaning.  The paintings don't have figures in them, they are strictly still lifes.  But, they have the evidence of people's actions, their presence imbued by Halvorson's disciplined approach to their creation. 

Image above:

"Envelope Back,"  2009, 14" x 17," oil on linen at Monya Rowe Gallery courtesy of the artist

Related Material:
"Josephine Halvorson", by Litia Perta, The Brooklyn Rail

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Collectors' Market in Times of Global Economic Turbulence

I came upon a story about a facet of our current economic environment as it relates to art:  A report from Sotheby's about the secondary art market.  I don't think it will significantly effect large numbers of people compared to, say, the recent report of staggeringly high unemployment numbers, but it seems like a telling detail for the art world.  In a press release from November 7, 2008, Bill Ruprecht, Sotheby's President and CEO states, "...our business is not immune from the unprecedented global economic turbulence."  This message is positioned for Sotheby's clients in a recent video report called "Contemporary Art Market:  A Candid Look from the Inside." 

By viewing the video we learn that auction sale prices are down and estimates for art auction sales in the future are also expected to be lower.  Tobias Meyer, Worldwide Head, Contemporary Art and Anthony Grant, Senior Specialist, Contemporary Art Worldwide, are using the November, 2008 auction most specifically, and their collective experience with several significant market cycles, to quantify recent changes in the art market.  There are exceptions, they were careful to point out, but overall, prices are back to where they were 3 - 4 year ago. 

The video report is based on the period between last summer, as artworks and estimates were assembled, and this fall, when Sotheby's large Contemporary Art Sales in New York City took place on 11th and 12th, 2008.  During this time period, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped over 3,500 points, or 30%.  Meyer saw the November  auction as a "very, very important event in the art market" due to the weakened economic environment.  Grant, observed a shift from "telling a collector how much they had to pay" for an artwork to "[the collector] telling us where they would be."

Beginning in November and going forward Meyer put special emphasis on the "presence of the object" for sale.  "A great work holds and exceeds its estimate." A tightening of standards is underway and collectors will be looking for works that are"rare, great and fresh."  The specialists observed that the buyers in November were established collectors who watch prices over time and recognize the opportunities presented.  Meyer believes that "there is a market, it is stable and has a long tradition" and for now "it is a collector's market."  

My takeaway from the report is that the financial market's volatility means art market assumptions will have to be checked more often, and possibly even thrown out and replaced with brand new ones.  A broad-brush approach won't work as easily in the future:  both in assessing the artworks to sell and the intentions of their potential buyers.  Even though prices for blue chip artworks are down, the market's capacity for buying must be down, as well.  I think, as with other markets, such as the stock and real estate markets, the level of uncertainty is high for the foreseeable future.

So, stepping outside the large, corporate art sales environment of Sotheby's for a moment (but staying safely within the art world):  will there be any increased opportunities for art sales in the primary market?  Will collectors who might not find the high level of quality or "freshness" that Meyer and Grant are suggesting they look for in the secondary market, look beyond Sotheyby's and buy quality art as it comes into the primary market though galleries and artists?  I noticed a recent comment from art critic Jerry Saltz that parallels the positives in the message delivered by Sotheby's experts, but from a more grass-roots point of view.  Saltz observes, "Now is a great time to be in the art world; chaos breeds art and life; artists don't have to open "big" anymore; small numbers are powerful again."  The chaos of the financial markets has disrupted the status quo of the workings of established art markets and that creates opportunities.  

Related Material:

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Smells Like American Post-War Spirit at the Robert Miller Gallery

NOTE:  The show is extended through today, Sunday, January 4th.

Walking through "Beyond the Canon: Small Scale American Abstraction, 1945-1965" feels odd -- oddly comforting.  The feeling resonates with our hopeful horizon for the new year, more specifically the short, 16 days we have left until Barack Obama's inauguration.  I know it's not the same.  We know more now; we know our indulgences, excesses, corruption and shortsightedness.  But, I think it was comforting to see so much work, by so many different artists working in a time when feeling hopeful and idealistic about American was more easily possible.

Overlooking Young's link of the show's time period to our current "time of national self-examination," Roberta Smith focused her review in The New York Times initially on questioning the accuracy of the show's title.  It seems ironic now (and probably did then, too) that the wild, inventive, explosion of painting that took place in Post-War America -- driven by ideas about breaking from European tradition, Existentialism, and Freudian thought -- attracted the controlling grip of two critics, Harold Rosenberg (1906-78) and Clement Greenberg (1909-94.)  They apparently needed to own, limit, and otherwise dominate a phenomenon that took its own shape and size despite their efforts.

It also seems troubling that even now at the distance of nearly 70 years (if you start in 1940) their "standards" are still such a strong point of contention in talking about this fertile period.  For example, the curator, Amy L. Young, states  her motive for assembling the work in "Beyond the Canon" is to break the hold of Rosenberg and Greenberg and "recover our diverse heritage."  Is it that the critics were so emphatic that even Smith is compelled to address the era's metrics? I'll add that the exhibition, and related documentation, at The Jewish Museum in May 2008, "Action/Abstraction: Pollack, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976" is a good point of reference in these matters.

But, back to the show itself.  I agree with Smith "Its relatively unfiltered view of art history is a wonderful thing to sort through."  Perhaps that is more to the point.  Labels aside, seeing these works in person, beautifully installed, allows us to make our own connections.  While the works are mostly small, there is a variety of painted surfaces: canvas both course and fine, masonite, board, cardboard, and paper that come into focus while cataloging the range of  media: oil, acrylic, watercolor, pencil, charcoal, collage and the variety of applications:  brushed, dabbed, smeared, whipped, scraped, splashed, and dripped.  

My list of favorites closely corresponds with Smith's.  I'll add a work on paper by Sam Francis, a larger oil by Philip Guston, a blue/green work by Ad Reinhardt (one of the only hard-edged abstract works) and a small work by Melville Price.  I found that despite Young's intent to fill out the picture with unknown artists, many of the most striking pieces were by artists we know well.  I realize its it not so much that the paintings bring forth a nostalgia for our country's earlier days of optimism, its that the works themselves, apart from where they may fit into any given categories, embody a spirit of confident, risk-taking.  I can almost hear a giddy, collective, "why the hell not?" walking  through the gallery.

Image above by Philip Guston, "Slope II," 1961, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 40" x  30", courtesy of the Robert Miller Gallery.

Related Resources:
New Yorker review of "Action/Abstraction," The Jewish Museum
New York Times review of "Action/Abstraction" The Jewish Museum
YouTube video of "Beyond the Canon" (starting at 6 minutes, 14 seconds)