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Ed Ruscha gets his Calvin Tompkins close-up

L.A. artist Ed Ruscha gets an in-depth profile by Calvin Tompkins in this week’s New Yorker. Tompkins is his usual thorough self, drawing connections between Los Angeles’s art history and Ruscha’s idiosyncratic, multi-media approach to making art. Tompkins lacks a point of view, though, which may be attributable to Ruscha’s evasive qualities. It’s a bit of a paradox to try to capture an artist whose defining characteristic is their ability to escape definition.

Ruscha, whose works can be cold and impersonal, has always been a hot personal influence on me. When I was a teenager, I fell in love with the painting he has at the Virginia Museum because it seemed to do something. It’s not a picture of something as much as it is a picture doing something.

It has  minimum of elements. Their relationship is tenuous and must be supplied by the viewer, which must happen over time and thus creates a kind of narrative experience of the picture. The pencil that’s repeated gets broken and even the smallest parts of the broken pencil are painted on canvas as if you are watching the pencil break. The word “Noise” can be connected to the sound of a pencil breaking or leafing through the Western comic book. It can also be connected to the unbroken pencil, which makes no sound.

That sound of no sound is what I always settle on. In the end, I hear the sounds that are happening in the gallery when I look at this painting. This can’t be experienced online, when a thousand things are vying for your attention.

That word – Noise – is brought in with such aplomb! The perspective renders the lettering into a space that the rest of the painting, which is painting as flat as a board, resists. I see this painting coming out of abstract expressionism’s insistence on the painting surface as a place for action but heading towards the post-modern insistence on art as something conditioned and prepared in our heads. Good stuff.

The reproduction kills the effect, but just so you know the piece:

Ed Ruscha, Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western, 1963. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Ed Ruscha, Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western,
1963. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Number of spot paintings in the Hirst Empire

Damien Hirst /
Damien Hirst /

You might say an artist is bad when a newspaper graphic about their work makes you feel more than their work ever did. The New York Times has a story today about artist Damien Hirst’s spot paintings, which have been a subject of much speculation and argument. They are basically polka dots made with house paint. Most of them are done by Hirst’s assistants. And they fetch a handsome price on the market, which could cause some unease among those looking to protect their “investments.” NYT:

For buyers, dealers and auction houses, the prospect of an unlimited supply was a complication. A flooded market might affect the paintings’ future value — not a small worry when they can cost as much as $3.4 million.

Now the number is out. There are 1,365 spot paintings — for now. Hirst and his assistants are still making them so that number is going to go up. Their value to me most likely will not change.

The NYT has produced a nice graphic for those looking to see trends. The graphic confirms artworld values we already know: the bigger the painting, the more it will sell for (most likely). The earlier and the later work isn’t worth as much as the prime period (mostly). Amanda Cox’s graphic says more than Hirst’s paintings ever could:

Damien Hirst's spot painting prices / Amanda Cox,
Damien Hirst’s spot painting prices / Amanda Cox,

Success is a job in Greensboro

Regionalism is dead. Long live regionalism! But seriously: if you are an artist you need to be in New York. Or LA.

So went the panel discussion with Lilly Wei, Peter Plagens, Miles Manning at Green Hill Center tonight. The three New Yorkers were brought in to talk about the art world and give a cosmopolitan take on what’s happening with artists, galleries, critics, and collectors.

Wei is a curator; Plagens an artist and critic for Newsweek; and Manning a gallery director (whose Elizabeth Harris gallery was always one of my favorite stops because they champion painting). They have come to town to meet with North Carolina artists.

The three surveyed the current show at Green Hill and approved. Plagens said “This seems like contemporary painting. Period.” Manning added that “Regionalism is over. This show could be in New York.” (It was understood by all that this is a good thing.)

The show, which includes work by Brett Baker, Mark Brown, Ashlynn Browning, Bonnie Melton and Philip Lopez, is full of good stuff (look for my blogging about it soon). I see what Plagens means; the work in Green Hill is in dialogue with work that a lot of Brooklyn abstraction is engaged with.

Wei kept it from being a sing-along of the Internationale by bringing the crowd back to earth, however. “It’s not the same art world,” she said. “If you want to be making work of its time, you do have to be at the center at some point.”

This argument permeates the presence of these three. It goes like this: The art world’s center is in New York. For artists in North Carolina to be relevant, they must have a relationship to the art world’s hub. These three are here to meet artists and make connections.

The panelists agreed that a lot of great art is being produced outside of New York, but how important is it for artists to live or go there?

Painting is “an in-the-flesh thing,” said Plagens. He explained that Manning’s gallery, Elizabeth Harris, which specializes in mid-career and mature painters, just couldn’t exist in Greensboro. But that doesn’t mean artists and galleries can’t use the internet to connect and share and use the digital world.

As a North Carolina success story, Manning pointed to Brett Baker. Artist-blogger Baker is in the group show currently at Green Hill and also shown by Manning’s gallery, which picked up on his work from a gallery-goer’s comment and followed the digital path to eventually see the work in person.

Tomorrow I will post Peter Plagens’s map to art world superstardom.

**Update: Here’s a link to the Plagens map on how to create an art career.

Success is a job in New York



Lee Krasner’s place among Irascibles

Photographer Nina Leen’s 1950 photograph of 18 American artists has become an icon of Abstract Expressionism and art history. All the big boys of New York mid-century modernism are there: Pollock, Rothko, Still, Motherwell, and de Kooning.

This generation has been lionized as a hard-drinking group of men who lived as hard as they painted. They came together to protest an exhibition at the Met that would ignore their work.

Irascibles' protest letter
Irascibles’ protest letter

One curious exception to this group of 18 has always bothered me: where was Lee Krasner? She has a tough-as-nails reputation and she was married to Jackson Pollock. Her paintings are great and she was one of the first artists in New York to work completely abstractly. If he could get in the photo, why not she?

There is one woman in the photograph, Hedda Sterne, and she is on record saying “They all were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.”

In a talk today at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, art historian/biographer Gail Levin helped shed a little light on this topic. According to Levin, who became pals with Krasner as a grad student in 1971 and even wound up moving to the Hamptons, it was Krasner who took the phone call from Barnett Newman when the photo was being organized. She passed the phone to Pollock and the rest is history.

So why didn’t Krasner get in? According to Levin, Krasner was bitter her whole life about not being included. There were 28 original signatories on the protest letter, so many relevant artists didn’t appear in the photo — Louise Bourgeois among them. Krasner’s name is not on the original protest letter, but she certainly had every right to belong in the group. So the fact that she passed the phone to Pollock doesn’t answer any questions.

Was she ever asked to participate? Did she ever ask to participate? Is this a case of self-censorship caused by a sexist environment?

A different story Levin told at the Weatherspoon might relate. When she was a child going to synagogue in Brooklyn, Lee Krasner hated the fact that men and women were separated. She had to sit in the upstairs gallery with all the women and girls while the men sat downstairs. When feminists in the 1970s organized separate shows for women, Krasner balked. Becoming a separate group left a bad taste in her mouth and reminded her of the separation that occurred in her childhood.

Could Krasner have restrained herself from joining the Irascibles out of a distaste for joining separate groups? After all, the group of 18 were explicitly setting themselves apart as different kind of artists.

Hedda Sterne, meanwhile, said being in the photograph was the worst thing that happened to her. She said she became known more for that photo than for the 40 years of art work she did afterwards and that her membership in that group defined her.

According to Krasner, the only reason Sterne was in the photo was because her gallerist Betty Parsons made it happen. This could be Krasner’s sour grapes because she had no such advocate, or it could also be a disapproval of how groups work in the first place.