Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Blurring America

I went to the Guggenheim the other day. I stood in front of a still life depicting a salt & pepper shaker huddled together with a shiny chrome napkin dispenser, creamer, and a bottle of ketchup and cried.

It must have been an instance of nostalgia. Or perhaps what the Germans call “home pain,” Heimweh. As always, I turn to writing when overcome by a feeling that remains muddled in my mind. Writing helps me tickle out the inarticulable, which is usually a one-liner: I left the Guggenheim feeling “nostalgic.”

Art critics dare not use nostalgia as a point of departure. It even seems to have become a bit of a dirty word these days as many artists are accused of making nothing new under the sun. Instead their work is “nostalgic,” hence, lacking in originality, often harking back to the 60s and 70s, on the one hand, or the 20s and 30s, on the other. Indeed, in the critic’s vernacular, “nostalgic” is almost on par with “decorative”; that is, the anti-thesis of “critical” or “conceptual.”

So why did this “nostalgia” leave me with a feeling that these artworks were surprisingly good? Yet another simple feeling, this “good,” but it was the complex emotions stirred up by this good that made me go home to ferret out the reason I might have unwillingly become a fan of the much-maligned Photorealists.

In the 1970s in America, High Art was far from Photorealism. Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimal, you name it, that was High. Photorealism was low. It was so low, it wasn’t even Camp. But photorealism leaned towards an appropriation of the aesthetic adopted by Harley Davidson drivers or people in Chevy pick-ups, tits and ass and sunsets galore spray-gunned or airbrushed in glittery gloss along the side of the Slushy Shack. “Neon in daylight,” said Frank O’Hara.

And that’s just it. The photorealists borrowed from a “real” aesthetic but their subject matter was poetic, and perhaps even politically real. When Robert Bechtle depicts a family eating soft ice cream at an outdoor roadside hamburger and frankfurter joint, you see a lot more than just that. In Foster’s Freeze, Escalon (1975), the mother sits somewhat distanced from her children, as if buying them ice cream buys her the time to look through the booklet she’s just bought explaining the historical site just visited. The ice cream is the kids’ compensation, in turn, for having suffered through the historical site. It’s the father (or the stepfather, or the boyfriend – with the rampant rate of divorce-on-demand in the 70s) who takes the snapshot. His aviator sunglasses have been left behind on the table. He’s caught them by surprise. No pleads for a smile, look this way, “Say cheese,” no: instead he’s captured the moment, this in-between moment of a summer holiday road trip, before the map gets pulled out again, and “Mom, how much longer do we have to drive?”

We slurped blue-ice with abandon. We didn’t have to nibble at dainty pink, green or lilac macarons from Ladurée. We gorged on black-and-white cookies by the bundle, ripping them apart to eat the creamy stuff in the middle first and had competitions as to who could stuff the most Ritz crackers in their mouth and still sing, “Mary had a little lamb.” The world was … fun. These are the remembered emotions unearthed by a picture of a woman and two children eating ice cream.

And as for that diner shot? The diner was the democratic eatery, par excellence. It catered to the late-night shift, the to-go crowd, truck drivers and men in blue overalls. I was neither, but I was a part of the hedonist late-night Manhattan transfers, that is, a disco dancer, and the diner provided a hangout spot to recap and refuel. Our “last drink” at 4 a.m. was a water and a cup of borsch before hitting the sack. I miss that. I really do.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Inspector Clouseau Attends an Auction, November 2008

What a Contemporary Art Auction Is Depends on What Your Definition of ‘Is’ Is
by April Lamm
(a version of this was published on 20 November 2009 in the German edition of VANITY FAIR)

It begins before the herd is seated, and the un-herded few leave before it is over. It is not the opera nor the ballet but a staged battlefield where artworks are stock: up, down, out. There is no intermission, the pace is relentless, a “piece” sells for millions or is “passed” on in a minute. None have qualms about coming late or leaving early: leaving after the piece you wanted is bid out of your range. I’m bored, honey, let’s go.

It’s a quick and quixotic theatre of inconspicuous consumption. It’s conceptual and concrete: the artworks are abstracted but real and the people who acquire them are real but abstracted, that is they are not real people but “the lady here,” “the gentleman there,” “you sir at the back,” “yes, madam, I see you here on the aisle.” They hold paddles with numbers but all that one can see from the back – from where I sit – are the backs of well-coiffed heads. P.T. Barnum raised high in the chancel, the auctioneer, sways dramatically right to left and left to right like an amateur singer in an off-off-Broadway musical. The ring-leader of the spectacle gestures mostly to the first few rows of heads, the bigwigs. Some are seen, while others are represented by the pew dressed in black gripping old-fashioned landlines. And they have names: “Alex can I have one more? It’s Alex now against the lady’s bid. Alex, Charles is against you and the lady now. The lady is out. Charles are you still in? Can you go one more? Now it’s not yours Alex, no, fair warning, I can sell it at…. Sold to Alex on the phone. Alex may I have your number? Paddle number 0010, thank you sir.”

It’s a battle between invisible parties who communicate via secret agents bidding on their behalf. They hide behind aliases: Alex and Charles or Daryl and Warren. To further complicate matters, Alex is not always Alex 0010, but Alex 434, 1757, or 658. Alex is legion. There’s the rush of the beginning, the boredom of the middle, the blurriness of the end. Was that good, bad, medium rare? After so many artworks – 64 lots at Sotheby’s and 75 lots at Christie’s in an hour and a half – and so many escalating sums, you feel as if you have entered a search term and gotten lost in the links. Did that just sell for 9 million or 900,000?

It is the week of contemporary auctions in New York and everyone is on tenterhooks. This week defines the moment whether or not the art world is a submarine or a sinking wreck (while the rest of the world, or those who owned houses, are breathing “underwater”). “Many like to put their money in banks; I like to put it on my walls,” said rock-star art collector Lars Ulrich of Metallica fame, who is putting yet another of his Basquiats up on auction. It is because of this penchant, this trust in art as an investment that the art world lived out its own parallel market, largely through the wild sums reached on auction. I remember at one point asking myself whether or not 200 million was a lot to spend on an art collection (witness George Michael and partner Kenny Goss) if a single piece of art could potentially cost you 72 million? That was 2007, when what they call the bubble was big.

It remains a mystery to me why people buy art on auction when they can get it for much cheaper through a gallery or dealer. Why people sell, sure, that’s easy to understand. But buying? It makes no sense. It only makes sense to buy works on auction when they are works that are no longer available in a gallery, works that are rare or difficult to acquire. When they are what no one dares to call them: bargains.

For many auction-goers this week, Sotheby’s or Christie’s is Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Sotheby’s is Bacon, Basquiat, Hirst, Koons, Lichtenstein, Murakami, Prince, Richter, Stella, Warhol, Wesselman. Christie’s is Wesselman, Warhol, Stella, Richter, Prince, Murakami, Lichtenstein, Koons, Hirst, Basquiat, Bacon. The same but different. Why do the same artist names always come up on auction? This was the question that had long-plagued me. Was it only a matter of money making more money? When a Richard Prince Nurse, one of a series of 19 paintings that once sold in a gallery for $80,000 each, sells on auction for 8 million some 12 years later, what you have is a gain of , absurdly, 10,000%. Prince has just had a major retrospective at the Guggenheim, but there are 19 Nurses out there painted in 2003-2005, and recently I had seen drawings elsewhere. The artist is still alive and kicking and he might decide to take up a fancy for making yet another Nurse. Wouldn’t you just go to Barbara Gladstone to find out if she might find a collector who was willing to sell at a large profit but not quite so large as what one might get or might not get at auction? The matter is not easy as Prince is not Gladstone anymore, but Gagosian, you see. And a Richter is not a Polke, god knows why. Bidlo or Sturtevant is not Warhol, but Warhol is nearly cut from the list of all tomorrow’s parties. Sherry Levine is not Carl Andre, or at least not yet.

“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” Bill Clinton once said of his affair with Monika Lewinsky. "There is nothing going on between us." His reference to the present tense “is” made his statement true. I had always wondered why some of those same always-on-auction artists are represented by Larry Gagosian. Could one say, Larry Gagosian is Sotheby’s? And if so, is Larry Gagosian Christie’s too? Can Larry be more than Larry? Larry is Sotheby’s and Christie’s and, well, Larry too? Years ago, it was well-known that Larry on the auction floor is not really Larry but S.I. Newhouse. But now even Larry is legion. Larry might be Si, Charles, Ron, David, Aby, Francois, Steve, or Dave.

Which brings me to a new matter of the Importance of Being Lisa: she is not just any Lisa but a new acquisition in the ranks of Sotheby’s employees. Lisa Denison was chief curator of the Guggenheim for many years and destined to replace the director Thomas Krens, until she surprised them all by jumping ship and taking course with Sotheby’s. That is, when you are at Sotheby’s, Lisa is a warm gun, which might help or hinder her client. She is a Brand Name.
* * *

What’s in a name? A name is a name is a name, but that name is not always the name, if you know what I mean. The Pink Panther is a diamond and not Inspector Clouseau. This is clear; do not tell me what I already know, you say? But what becomes confusing is that a Rothko is not always a Rothko.

If you successfully bid on a “Rothko” you are only guaranteed “Rothko” for a limited time of 5 years. At 72 million divided by 5, that’s 14, 4 million a year, a mere 1,2 million per month for the belief in a Rothko. Should you discover that your “Rothko” is a fake after 5 years of having it above your sofa, you might have to re-define what the meaning of “is” is. What a million “is” is also a matter up for discussion, but that’s not an issue for a Marxist with Groucho leanings.

I had asked several people and no one could come up with an answer. It was a case of the missing MacGuffin, the necklace, the diamond, the mysterious papers, the brief case, which we always see but never know what is. Why do people buy at auctions when the guarantee is only a guarantee for the next 5 years? It depends on how you define “guarantee.” The auctions were full of MacGuffins, the plot being driven by the demand for more alone.

It was a case for Inspector Clouseau and his chaotic comic reasoning. Clouseau was at the auctions, that is, the comedian Steve Martin, whose connubial relations made him one degree closer to me than years before (after having married a colleague of mine last year). He was either in disguise, perhaps as one of the many European men in pin-striped suits and flamboyant scarves to frame their natural-looking wavy manes. Perhaps he was the lady with the purple fade to blue hair. “So very last-season Prada,” I heard someone say in snobby mockery of her hue. “Rothko could have done that,” said another. My question was “Is this Steve Martin in one of his many Chief Inspector disguises? “Comme des Garçon once dressed me as a hunchback,” a fine Southern lady collector confessed to me at a dinner after the auctions, “and when Rauschenberg saw how foolish I looked he said, ‘Just go to the bathroom and turn it inside out and I’ll sign it’.” Now that is a true collectible, a piece perfect for the auctions – according to the old-fashioned meaning of “is.”
* * *

“Look at it as a funnel. What you’re hearing is the very bottom of a funnel.”
“Like Pollock the painter?”
“Yes, he is… he is Pollock the funnel arranger guy.”

This is a description of a drummer getting his socks off about the playback of a drum-riff. He’s talking with his manager and a radio “personality” Crabby Cabbie. The drummer, at the height of his powers, is described as being Pollock. Jackson, that is, the piss painter, the angry man of the Cedar Tavern, the guy who painted on the floor.

Lars Ulrich is not a drummer. He is Pollock.

Inspector Clouseau reasons: if Ulrich is Pollock, and Pollock is selling his Basquiat, what this art market “is” now is not easy to define. A hedge fund manager described it to me like this: Call the $8M for a Prince painting in ’08 a spike and chart the long-term trend---remember this result is coming off a major retrospective and eight years of cheap borrowing. Will anybody have money after this crash is over? And then what are the 19 Nurses worth? Markets are very efficient over the long haul. My guess is that it will be like living in Apt 2-A – nice address but not much of a view, plus all the street noise.

Overnight at the Guggenheim as the World Turns


(a version of this was published in the German edition of VANITY FAIR on 20 November 2009)

My friend Natalie is chock-full of nuggets of esoteric knowledge. As we were standing in front of a vitrine of vintage Channel jewelry pieces at Bergdorf Goodman’s the other day, she said, “People who are attracted to circles are usually facing an onslaught of madness.” It gave me pause, for I was about to spend the next night, election night, in the middle of Frank Lloyd Wright’s magnificent monument to circular form, on a circular bed, that, furthermore, would be rotating slowly, round and round all night long.

Though it is imperceptible, we are always revolving, spinning, going round in circles, or at least, we are told that we are doing this without our knowing it, that our world is round, that we make one rotation around the sun every 24 hours (which is not to forget that the moon rotates around us) that is, we spend our life in going in circles, so to speak, whether we like it or not. What would it do to the powers of our mind to add a further revolution to our already rotating bodies? Was this the question circulating in the head of the artist Carsten Höller when he made the piece?

Over the years, I had become familiar with Höller’s genre—in 2001, I skinny dipped in his Giant Psycho Tank, a sultan-sized salt-water bath in the middle of the Kunstwerk Berlin, and I bathed in the color field created with the help of his Kiruna Psycholabor Instruments, a Lichtecke, at Galerie Esther Schipper; I’d donned his Upside-down Goggles, which turn the world upside down, and if you wear them for 7 days straight, right-side up. But never had I slept in his bed, no, which was occupied for many years by an artist extraordinaire, Rosemarie Trockel, who, in collaboration with Höller, once created a pig pen for the spectacle of watching human beings attending the documenta, back in 1997. Höller is an artist, you see, who doesn’t dawdle in the Laboratory of Doubt as we all do, passively curious but doing nothing about it. He makes things. He makes instruments, or artworks, if you will, that are designed to provoke a state of uncertainty in the viewer, to engender a feeling of helplessness as a cure for what Höller calls the "disease of certainty."

Getting an invitation to sleep in Höller’s bed was no easy certainty, mind you. He has a wife with whom he lives in Sweden, and a homemade aviary with a large collection of exotic birds to care for, and he is building a second home in Africa. The dates that I would be available to sleep in his bed – in the Guggenheim Museum, no less – were in direct conflict with some “Double Club” he had organized with Miuccia Prada in London. The conjunction of our planets, it would seem, or even the alignment of our bodies in the same hemisphere, was not a matter to be left to the stars. So when he sent me an sms saying “The 4th is now available” I jumped on the chance, forgetting for a nano-second, that the 4th of November was not just any night, but the night that would inaugurate a new era: when American could finally begin to be what she should have long been.

So I packed my bags in Berlin and my boyfriend, for good measure, and began to pout and fret that we would be stuck in an inverted ziggurat, a tomb of recent art history, free to explore the exhibition “theanyspacewhatever” sure, but not free to explore the Revolution and Evolution of my homeland just outside the revolving door. Would there be access to the Internet, a television, a radio? I began to regret that I had wished so hard to spend a night in Höller’s bed. Be careful what you wish for, or so the saying goes.

We checked in at 6:30 p.m. on the dot, via the service entry (how gauche!) at the end of a long ramp. The “concierge” would be our guide and constant companion for the evening, our butler armed with knowledge of this loose group of artists, and an earpiece, a coil that looked as if he was either a member of the secret service, or hard-of-hearing. It was a sign, a portent of things to come, yes, even our Guide was the bearer of yet more circles, a spiraling coil dangling from his ear! But first, we were asked for our I.D. and pasted with the kind of stickers one gets at conferences where they serve coffee in Styrofoam cups. We were then asked to sign a form basically stating that if we stole anything we’d be fully responsible, but if anything was stolen from us, well, tough luck. So we signed over our rights to the ownership of our property (as one-way Obama socialists in our Brave New World), and began the long labyrinthine journey through the hidden bowels of the museum, towards our room, some 8 stories above us. Occasionally Brendan would speak into his shirtsleeve to an unseen Big Brother, “Yes, I have them,” “No, I don’t think so…” Not only were we being assisted, we were being monitored from an unknown party in an unknown room somewhere beyond.

Exiting the elevator, “Ramps six to one,” the artist Liam Gillick’s sign informed us from above. “It’s better not to know,” Douglas Gordon’s wall text told us from below. There was our room, a square bed on a round platform in a truncated pie-shaped nook overlooking a cavernous spiral rotunda. (It was exciting to see that our new era would be ushered in on black satin sheets, another personal first.) Breakfast would be served at 7:30, and check-out was at 8:30 latest. “You may view the exhibition at your leisure,” or so we were told. “I want to see the exhibition whilst sitting in a wheelchair,” I politely requested our guide, who found my wish odd, and perhaps not politically correct, but nonetheless, he complied, speaking into his shirt sleeve to some unknown servant from afar, “We need a wheelchair.”

And then we made our Houdini escape, back out onto the streets to experience “theanythingObamaspace,” or so we prayed for an early victory, re-check-in being permitted until midnight. 9 p.m. Obama had it in the bag, but not Ohio, not Virginia, not North Carolina, and California polls had yet to close. Election elation delayed… ‘til 11 o’clock sharp, an hour before Cinderella’s wheelchair would turn into a pumpkin, we could at last rest easy; it was official, Obama would be our 44th President of the not red, not blue, but “purple” (said Oprah) United States of America.

Back at Starship Enterprise, our butler kept his distance while we quickly changed into our pjs; slippers and robes were provided, compliments of the “hotel.” The wheelchair never arrived and the exhibition looked empty – and I don’t just mean emptied of people – so we began to shuffle our way downwards past a nook filled with beanbags where we could have seen the film Pyscho slowed down to 24 hours, but didn’t; shuffling past a series of Swiss cheese cardboard walls by Jorge Pardo, featuring works on paper from all of the artists in the show (a mini-exhibition within the exhibition), yawning, jetlagged, ho-hum, but it wasn’t until we were amidst the sound installation of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster (the same artist who had recently put bunk beds for refugees in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern), that we truly began to live out the fantasy of being alone, luxuriously alone in a gargantuan temple. It was glorious. We closed our eyes and let our selves be surrounded by the romantic turbulence of sturm (without the drang), wind, rain, and thunder of this tropical Promenade, without getting the least bit wet or bitten by mosquitoes.

It was approaching midnight and Brother Brendan’s eyes were bleary, no doubt he was weary of accompanying our slow steps. José, we were informed, would take over from here, and we would be relegated to our own little hotel nook, but no further. And “By the way, if you want to use the bathroom, you’ll have to wave to José who will be watching you from the lower level.”

“I will believe in miracles,” Douglas Gordon punctuated our step. “I want my wheelchair!” I protested like a child. Brendan relented, at long last, accompanying us to the lower floor where we could catch a last-minute sit-down glance at the liar-par-excellence Pinocchio lying face down in the fountain, Mauricio Cattelan’s cruel joke… “Are we evil” was the question without a question mark writ large on the ground floor. “Truth” was writ small around the corner. It was time for bed, the revolving one, our first restful sleep in “Bamelot.”

Under a starry firmament, Angela Bulloch’s twinkling ceiling was the last thing I saw before feeling the reeling and slow twirl of the promised change. For the next 7 hours, we’d become sleeping twirling dervishes, the pathological effects of which could only be divined in the morning.

– April Elizabeth Lamm