Vija and Damien


Yesterday, on a perfect early fall day, Mary and I cycled up to Hamilton Heights through the leafy passageways of Riverside Park, the sun still blinding so late in the year, drawing indistinct patterns on the path which was largely unpeopled, even at that lovely, gentle time of day, there was the promise of a fresh breeze  from the Hudson. Also in the air was a mild sense of anxiety which permeates a halfheartedly planned day in Manhattan, somewhere that demands structure and purpose and has no time for dormancy in its restless, tightly gridded streets. Two double lattes didn’t help our mood, there was snippiness in our exchanges, irritation, a feeling that the day could turn bad if we didn’t expend our energy fully, so to remove the guilt of an unfocused day and purposefully blind to its pleasures and potential, we pedaled vigorously down along the river as if this might absolve us in some way.  Mary was much more enthusiastic. I saw her disappearing ahead of me proceeding at a furious pace and so would have to stop from time to time to let me catch up, it proved slow progress for her and heavy in symbolism for me. We turned south and rode as far as 26 Street, passed quickly through the flea market which was already closing for the day and up to Madison Avenue on foot where we predictably got into a fight that materialized from nowhere, about (of all things!) the artists Damien Hirst and Vija Celmins.

Although the noise from this familiar street is loud, it didn’t justify her emphatic passion or the forceful narrative Mary offered, at least in my opinion. It is pointless to suggest that arguments are never properly won by verbosity, that rational discourse is more sustainable, I tried but by then she had already pulled out the emotional card, which I am no match for, and so was not entirely unhappy when my voice was drowned by the mechanical roars of the buses and trucks reverberating from the glass and the high buildings around us. I was reluctant debater anyway, irritated why we would care about the reputations of two already rich and successful artists, and I didn’t want to sail in that Ocean of frustrated sensibilities on a day like this; there is no way of predicting which currents will pull you into deeper, stormier more treacherous seas. And also in the back my mind, even then I had suspicions that the real conflict was going on beneath the surface, crawling along the Ocean floor: did she perceive of lack of respect for her judgement or the value of her opinions? I sensed in her voice the wash and waves of a different unresolved conversation that had taken place days or weeks ago. Yet still I saw myself as the loser in this argument and that it provoked me during the following day, even knowing I had no stake in its outcome.

I knew of course why Mary gets upset and heated when hearing criticism aimed at Hirst, it is because from time to time she has been pulled into his tight circle of friends and has occasionally been the recipient of his kindness, is keenly aware of his generosity towards his close friends, something that holds deep meaning for her being of Italian American descent and fearlessly no stranger herself to authentic, unfiltered feelings; something that I, and others, envy incalculably and respond to each in our own way. For most who know her well it is profound love, but in others a petty meanness can surface, you learn that insecure people can be resentful towards those with big hearts and I have the protectionist impulse for her to tone down her generosity sometimes. Here is the issue. Both Hirst and Celmins are successful living artists of different generations, both we admire tremendously, however at the root of our disagreement is my assertion that Hirst has largely damaged his reputation in critical circles whereas Celmins has only increased hers year by year and I think most people in the small, closed art world probably agree at this point.

Vija Celmins is an artist who is in the news today because of a museum show at the Whitney Museum and therefore there has been much press; profiles in the New Yorker and a rave review in the New York Times, both of which I am surprised to sheepishly admit annoyed me a little. Part of the problem is that I have been an over possessive fan of her work for many years and, childishly, find it irritating to have to share her with a wider public, and so now characteristically contrarian, find myself searching for faults. If you are not aware of her work then it is best summarized as being almost photorealistic images of the Ocean, the night sky and spider webs. There is more of course, early pieces of prosaic household objects, a foray into sculpture replicating rocks, but it is images of the surface of the sea that are the most well-known and have been made repetitively over the course of her long career. Whether she approves or not, this is her brand.

Perhaps we are drawn to her work for a couple of reasons, that old fashioned sentiment “skill”, and that more contemporary fad of single minded determination. The skill is undeniable and something I understand personally as I tried myself several years ago to make similar drawings. Realizing how much I loved her seascapes, and realizing also that I couldn’t afford even a print, I went about my project using photographs taken from the bow of a ferry on the way to a Scottish Island, on what impulse I cannot say exactly, something about capturing a moment and view point that was atypical, a perspective that might suggest reflection. Staring first at the photograph and then back at the blank sheet of drafting paper, I was jolted back to that moment, the after taste of a bacon sandwich which was salty perfection, the unexpected rockiness of the boat from the sea’s turbulence, the laugher coming from Mary and her artist friends who were having the show on the Island. Once I started, it was painstaking work and I never imagined it could be so hard to draw something apparently so simple. After a while you drown in the Oceans complexity, it takes you out of yourself and into a darker, more frustrating place. In my case a black mood crept upon me, the end results were clumsy and inexpert, I had committed a joint crime of being incompetent and derivative, if not worse. Attempting to replicate an artist’s work is one way of gaining an insight into their psyche, I’m not sure I can claim that by this somewhat embarrassing exercise, but it did give me the greatest respect for the techniques involved, and even now, when I walked recently around her show of prints at Matthew Marks Gallery, I felt a degree of discomfort and awe at the tiny crests of waves, made in their hundreds by her hand on a small eight by ten sheet, for the time and labor involved.

This notion of persistence and discipline to do one thing perfectly is much, and overly, admired in our society. A few years ago I had another cynical idea of writing an airport novel for no other reason than to make money, my enthusiasm lasted about a week and I finished two paragraphs before self pity, or perhaps it was self loathing, crept in and the idea was abandoned. But it took me into a different world, skimming these throw away texts. One outcome was the realization that each book had a hero, and each hero had a defining characteristic; a single mindedness and determination towards a goal. It makes me wonder if Celmins triumph might be considered as much a human achievement as it is an artistic one. Her work embraces its inner seriousness and could only be achieved through singular absorption, a lack of distraction and self doubt, it took bravery and to be undeflected from this monumental sense of purpose and I might argue that these are the foundations to our admiration, after all if we love artists we live through their lives a little. Her output is undeniably impressive, to see a large body of her work awe inspiring, but I suspect it is both the combination of the quality of the work and the commitment we esteem.

In a way this leads the argument against Hirst. No one can deny his energy and creativity, the work he produced starting around 1996 and for the next a decade made him the most exciting artist in the world. He explored multiple mediums to question the biggest themes; life, death and the fragility between those two states….sometimes at the mercy of science and at others by nature. He used both poetic imagery and conceptual ideas to elevate these visual mediations. On the poetic side there was the extraordinary performance of butterflies hatching and flying into wet canvasses for their brief lives to be memorialized, the nihilistic processes of “spin” painting, using an industrialized version of a child’s toy to make random paintings by the childish act of pouring paint onto a revolving canvass. On the conceptual side, he had developed a rule based process for making spot paintings, all spots must a certain size and the space between them consistent, no color could be used twice, but beyond the these guidelines nothing else; everything was open, the outcomes highly variable and the amount of work vast. These paintings hint at the language of science, a visual representation of chemical compounds, some life or mood altering illustrating both the acceptance and randomness of our faith in chemical substances. Something similar was playing out with medical cabinets containing surgical devices and branded pills, there is a compelling beauty to these corporate logo’s and a primal fear and curiosity towards the instruments purpose. What gave him fame however in the eyes of the public was the device of placing dead animals within metal structures usually soaked in formaldehyde for preservation. Using a metal structure as a frame was not new, it was used by Joseph Beuys and others, however placing animals in this context was altogether unique and to recall that over used word at the time; sensational. Displaying a tiger shark in this manner became a phenomena and the caught the interest of the branding expert and collector, Charles Saatchi, who bought the work at that time and helped secure his career.

By 2007 it was clear something was wrong, to the outside world it seemed he was intoxicated by wealth and fame. He made a diamond skull, an expensive foible, a decorative item that ironically had to remain inside a safe; it withheld rumors of joint ownership and market manipulations, which might have made it interesting at any other time. But that was the beginning of several terrible years when much money was lost, houses repossessed, for the middle and working classes, a time of economic hardship. For the next twenty years he seemed to make one tactical blunder after another artistically and personally while getting wealthier and wealthier. I felt that the work he produced was laughably poor and yet destined for the rich, for the moneyed tasteless classes rather than discriminating collectors. His face appeared regularly in British newspapers with younger women in expensive restaurants.

I had seen him around several times and had shaken his thick workman like hand, mainly in London during the key public openings and events of his ascendancy; his restaurant Pharmacy, the major Sotheby’s solo auction, the Saatchi Gallery openings. In New York I had waited for him with Mary and her friends in the lobby of a hotel in SoHo. It was a large meeting place and already, earlier in the evening I heard that there had been some loud verbal exchanges across the polished space between the artist and a pop singer whose name I have forgotten. As we were arriving at the hotel a taxi pulled up and a well-known art dealer literally fell out on the wet cobbled streets on his knees and already the grotesque comedy of the night began. When Hirst and his business partner eventually arrived, it was clear he was impassioned…he raced across to where we were sitting, leap on the back of a chair so that it would deliberately fall backwards, a teenage ploy, and then peering down at his body amongst the mess I saw he was crying. Quickly surrounded by friends and dealers he focused his attention on me, being the only unfamiliar face, and went for me with fists clenched, now a boxer…but pulled back at the last minute. We decided to leave, the last words I heard from him that evening was “they were laughing AT me…”. (Later it was rumored that they had visited a London art dealer and a curator who had moved his gifted painting in her home and replaced it with one by Gary Hume).

On Valentine’s Day of 2008, when he enjoyed almost universal credibility, Hirst joint hosted an auction with the U2 singer, Bono for charity called “Red”. Together they raised huge sums of money at that event even when the US economy was on the brink of turmoil. I attended the auction for the breathless prices and its spectacle. Directly in front of us was a family with a child, a young boy of about ten dressed as an adult with tie and jacket, who had been given the bidding paddle from his father and permitted to bid while the paintings price drew towards a million dollars. It was, I suppose, an excellent educational moment for a young person, and a quite a thrill….but I remember whispering to Mary that I hope he grows up to be a social worker in the Bronx.

The evening afterwards we attended a small party in midtown, an entire pig was being conspicuously roasted, a band that Hirst sponsored were playing, already he had Warhol in his sights. For a while I sat next to an attractive woman about my age enjoying the food, it wasn’t until midway into our conversation that I discovered she was Joe Strummers widow but she didn’t seem so enthusiastic to hear about my own youth, following the Clash around when I could, preferring to leave her own history behind while she was in New York. I moved to a bench when the band announced that “we need an Irish singer for this party” and Bono sprang onto the stage to sing Beatles songs for an audience that I would guess didn’t exceed a hundred people. I turned to my right and saw Hirst alone, with a soft drink and a plate of pork, a person who at that moment seemed to have achieved everything, conquered the art world and all that suggests, but more importantly an unshakable place in art history, I smiled over and he nodded back.

Some instinct told me that this moment was his pinnacle and that he would now embark on a descending spiral, he would lose his critical standing at the expense of chasing the desires of the rich. Or was it something else? that all creative forces run out of steam and there must be a period of self-destruction, a necessary component, that real creativity is an arc? At some point Bono came over in his platform flip flops, scrutinized me for a few seconds for signs of recognition, to see if I was someone, and eventually said “hello” but I didn’t give off that electric spark necessary when one celebrity meets another, and he correctly detected that I wasn’t one, so he quickly moved on and I felt relief when I saw him turn and disappear into the crowd.

I decided to re-read the New York Times article on Celmins, as on first pass I was struck by its absolute lack of challenge, and where a feminist angle could be predicted as its central theme not least because at its beginning and at its core still her work exists outside of the fashions and norms of the times which is still primarily driven by male artists. Additionally there is the feminine aspect of care and detailed craftsmanship, the trompe l’oeil conceit of making one object look identical to a real one.  I love her work for its intensity and its beauty, its decorative power, yet any intellectual or conceptual bent is in the process of making the work rather than ideas behind it. The problem is that there are a host of photorealistic artists and sculptors, it is hard to set her apart other that the grail of repetition. It is very telling when the artist, the curators and the critics all agree that in the Whitney show, and its predecessor in San Francisco, that there is too much work on display. Meaning too much of the same work and for me at least raises the question about what “creativity” actually means.

We sense in the museum world and the critical and collector circles, she is loved and Hirst derided a little, at least by some. It’s with growing alarm we repeat opinions with conformity and are fearful of challenging the consensus. I have a brief insight into the mind of Trump supporters who cry “fake news” and the “failing New York Times”; it isn’t failing of course; but perhaps we are, for the lethargy of group think, the clubby coziness of being part of an elite. Maybe we are all wrong, perhaps an artist like Celmins is not at all interesting in the long run, making formulaic versions of a similar image on repeat…and instead we should be celebrating Hirsts restless imagination, his creative self-destruction, something that fueled every truly great artist, a desire not to sit still and to take unsettling new roads and to re-evaluate his recent work rather as a conversation to see if we still care and possess the capacity to forgive. It pains me to say it, but maybe Mary was right after all.


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