A pair of weeks in late February, early March that in now feel like they were monopolized by cold panoramas and high profile art exhibitions consisting of straight lines, strict volumes mixed with diffuse, poorly focused imagery. The first week was spent in Canada, in an industrial area abutting Toronto airport, which I was wistfully told on a slippery drive to the local fast food restaurant, was “just fields” three decades ago. Today, thanks to town planners with a Roman preference for straight roads, there are precise blocks of square buildings, largely indistinguishable from one another with the exception of a beaming corporate logo on the side of the office, announcing familiar brands.
I walked around these severe streets in the early evenings, sometimes with snow settling around me and finding its way inside my hood and while trucks and cars growled past, treading carefully on sidewalks which hide their perils well. Snow brings back early childhood memories and I stuck my tongue out to allow a flake settle and then melt onto it. It was a week lacking convergence yet full of anxieties that had grown since arrival and which seemed to play out subconsciously at night rather than during waking, work hours. One morning I woke suddenly at 3.00 am to the sound of the roads being de-iced by a fleet of heavy vehicles, but the suddenness of waking allowed me to grasp hold of the tail of an escaping dream; I was staring at the desert sky, surrounded by a small group of people under the intense clarity of the stars. It was quickly apparent that reflected into the sky was the rest of the planet, I could make out the outlines of Scandinavia, Europe and North Africa, all slowly revolving as if there was a reflector projecting the image of the world into the blackness above. The others around me were expressing wonder, but I was already fearful, attempting to work out what had shifted in the planets but hiding my panic by casually pointing out the countries I could recognize. It was this celestial paradox that occupied my thoughts over the next hour or so as I watched the snow coming down, making the car park and the urban boxes seem new, the world refreshed for a while, the pure snowflakes circulating the lamps like a swarm of mosquito’s. Is this a dream of death? I had concluded it was over the next few days and it became a constant dark companion during the trip, slowing my movements and steadying my walk, when I studied menus it insisted on healthy options; how easy it is to embrace the disquietude of the elderly.
It all disappeared as I arrived back in New York. Even as the taxi sped back into the city and I saw the inky skyline lite up in that ultramarine night my worries subsided. I remembered it was a week of art fairs, gallery openings and all the social life that swirls around it despite threats of Chinese viruses. During my Friday lunch break I had promised to pick up a little artwork at the Marian Goodman gallery that they had been holding for us. It was by the Italian artist, and sometime prankster, Maurizio Cattelan. He was recently in the news for exhibiting a banana taped to the wall in an art fair in Miami and the press and social media addicts waited in line to photograph it. Somehow it stole all the headlines, and sucked all the air out of the fair for its silliness and absurd price, confirming every ones worst fears about contemporary art.
The piece I was collecting was a “multiple” consisting of a light bulb in the shape of his head, something I confess bought less for its artistic merits and more in the manner of an optimist buying an underrated stock. But I enjoyed the fuss being made of me by the gallery staff and even more when I bumped into the artist himself a few minutes later walking down one of the narrow corridors. We chatted for a while even though it is clear that he only vaguely recognized me from brief meetings over the years and didn’t know my name, yet still I was the subject of his considerable charm, how proud he was of the piece and how happy he was that we had one. He has the physique and haircut of a soccer player and is undeniably handsome in an almost cartoonishly Italian way and presumably he now is very rich. But I have seen him in action over the years, strategic in his alliances, socially calculating, attending art events where the crowd was sparse and we have talked until someone more important arrives, I guess everyone does this but I am over conscious of etiquette in such transparent arena’s.
The gallery was full because it was the first day of the Gerhard Richter exhibition. One of the gallery employee’s, a friend, walked me around the show which was almost identical to the one last year. She whispered to me that only three paintings were for sale and I felt surrounded by serious groups of men who looked as if they could afford to buy one. But this work, the paintings he refers to as “Abstraktes Bild” are to my mind pure (but gorgeous) decoration, now status symbols that are on par with an owners car or wrist watch and can be swooned over with the same kind of desire. They feel industrialized and carry the weight of their price tag which most of us can make a reasonable guess at based on auction results. I once asked the monochrome painter Marcia Hafif what she thinks of them and she just scoffed.
There is one body of work that I love in Richter’s past. This is the exploration of German history through paintings based upon black and white photographs. There is a series of paintings based upon Baader Meinhof images that I covet and also deeply personal family images including his Uncle Rudi, a smiling optimistic young man in a Nazi uniform. Not only are they visually seductive, but the notion of elevating an image that might normally occupy a police report or newspaper clipping onto canvas and playing it in a gallery or museum was a risky move at the time and the power of the transformation was unexpected. He seemed to be partially answering several questions in this body of work; How to make a painting in the era of photography? And even what is the purpose of painting? Using a photograph as a base is political in itself, beyond its inflammatory, painful subject matter. This guilt is paired down purposefully by the imperfection of the image, deliberately blurred. “Distressed” might be the word used by an interior designer, deliberately aging an item to add a layer of time despite the artifice that is surely apparent to all.
It’s not just Richter, the city seems like it is heavy with nostalgia thanks also to Donald Judd, who is flexing his posthumous muscle in MoMA, the cold elegant forms which are brash and bullish in their authority. Like with Richter his work triggers memories of my past and I sometimes feel I am stuck now in this aesthetic, of raw plywood and simple volumes, and unfocused images. One of the ironies of my love of Judd is that it less because of his severe sculptures and more because his warm interiors and architectural interests. I love perusing his bookshelves, his drinks cabinet and kitchen fittings, his wardrobe….and so I’m drawn to his decorative sensibilities yet find myself criticizing the popular abstract work of Richter for exactly the same reason.
Following on from these two masters I attended, against all good judgement, the “Spring Break” fair, an event showcasing the new in contemporary art. Within an hour I had quietly renamed it the Spring Break despair. What does it tell us about the minds of young artists? That they despise the market, that they make art that is sloppy and relate to childhood in both execution and subject, they are not interested in exploring large themes or making luxury totemic commodities? I’m making this sound better than it is….. There is a punkish-ness to this puerility, the bad, lazy paintings, the dollar store materials, my annoyance left me grasping for a word that I don’t think exists in the English language, a word that describes that intransigent moment in life when you have derision for the young and the new. And while searching for the word memories crept up on me.
A day in 1973 or 1974, it must have been a Sunday and we were on a family drive, my sister and I both newly in possession of teenage anger. We might have been drifting directionless on the roads by the side of the Thames looking for an unpopulated foot path, the gnarly thick trucks of Burnham Beaches or headed to Stanley Spencer’s village to look at his paintings. It might have been raining, it probably was, and the humidity inside the car made the trip stifling and the landscape outside washed out through steamed up car windows. My father as always was in control of the radio and that meant Brahms and Beethoven, our childhood objections over ruled. But for a moment my Mother stepped in with some diplomacy and allowed a switch to Radio 1 the pop channel and miraculously to my delight “Angie” by the Rolling Stones came on. My father must have been in his early forties then, quite young by today’s standards to despise his contemporary culture, but I suspect he knew vaguely who the Rolling Stones were and what they represented and snapped off the radio after the song started, and we suffered in silence as if I had committed an unmentionable crime.
Not so long ago, a few years perhaps, we had been invited to a dinner party in Connecticut. The hosts were generous in their entertainment, a wonderful historic modernist house in the woods, one a talented chef placing her energy into the meal, the other an artist. Again the topic of music came up, and their love of Neil Young and music from the 1970’s which became the predictable soundscape that evening. Trying to engage them with more modern music was pointless, a discussion that was cut off with ridicule, as if it was shameful to go beyond their established tight parameters, and I took this personally and left in a silent fury.
Famously two UK artists got into a fight about being open to new ideas in art. One was Tracey Emin, a moderately successfully, questionably conceptual artist prone to self-promotion and the other a painter called Billy Childish who borrows heavily, and inexpertly, from Edvard Munch and Peter Doig. Childish’s dictatorial position is that all artist must paint and Emin’s reply was that he was “stuck, stuck, stuck”. So he created an idea of a “Stuckist” movement that enjoyed a brief few minutes of fame thanks to the overly generous English newspapers during slow news days.
They wore their stuckism with pride, whereas my own I am a little concerned about, I hope I can over it and find some enthusiasm again for the young art world. I hope that I don’t become someone stuck in a particular era for music, or in a fixed period for art and most of all – like many of us – that I don’t turn into my father.