Ten Years After

The Art World Now and Then

The Matthew Marks Gallery is celebrating its 10-year anniversary with two shows. At its upstairs emporium on 24th Street is an eclectically tasty exhibition of 100 works on paper (523 West 24th Street, through December 22). Though uneven, it is nonetheless up to Marks's usual high standards. In the airy former garage on 22nd Street, a group of 12 Willem de Kooning paintings from 1987 (only four of which have been exhibited in New York) negates questions regarding the artist's ability to make great work as he sank into the abyss of Alzheimer's. The show (at 522 West 22nd Street, through December 22) is ravishing.

Marks isn't exactly an aspiring dealer who inspires by making something out of nothing. He doesn't do things small and he doesn't seem to have to. Not only was he one of the first gallerists to open in Chelsea (on 22nd Street in October 1994), he opened big, and by November 1996, had expanded to an additional location on 24th Street. However, when he debuted at 1018 Madison Avenue in 1991, things weren't so rosy. The economy was in recession, everything was in flux, and no one knew what was coming next. It turns out these are ideal conditions to start a gallery. And many did. If all goes well, a number of them will celebrate 10-year anniversaries shortly.

Although it could be said of sundry others, it applies particularly to Marks: The 1990s probably wouldn't have been the same without his impressive blend of ambition, style, esprit de corps, and connoisseurship. His anniversary provides a chance to ponder what 10 years means in art-world time, where we were then, and more importantly, if less assuredly, where we find ourselves now.

Happy anniversary: Matthew Marks’s "100 Drawings and Photographs" installation with Ellsworth Kelly’s self-portrait at center
photo: Robin Holland
Happy anniversary: Matthew Marks’s "100 Drawings and Photographs" installation with Ellsworth Kelly’s self-portrait at center

For an art critic of a certain age, 10 years is and isn't a long time. Ten years ago this month, the art world was both very different and almost the same. Shows were mounted, galleries looked like minimalist chapels, invitations went out, dealers tried to tell you what to think and who was buying the work, reviews were written, egos were overblown, and feelings were hurt. The system, in other words, was essentially the same. But November 1991 was also something of a tipping point. AIDS was racking the art world, New York was no longer the center, Arts magazine was about to fold, and Frieze had just appeared. There was a strange sense of expectancy in the air.

My gallery list from Saturday, November 16, 1991 (OK, I keep them, and this one notes the weather was chilly and sunny), suggests changes were afoot. That day, I set out to visit many Soho galleries that are no longer open, including those of Leo Castelli, Pat Hearn, John Weber, Josh Baer, John Gibson, Bob Monk (of the Lorence-Monk Gallery), John Good, and Ealan Wingate—the last three of whom are now employed at Gagosian. I stopped by John Post Lee, whose owner is now in partnership with Jay Gorney, who had an excellent show of work by Michael Jenkins, who is now the director of Brent Sikkema, which used to be called Wooster Gardens. I went to fiction/nonfiction, which had just moved from Avenue B and was about to change its name to José Freiré, before moving to Chelsea, where it's now called Team. I was still boycotting Tony Shafrazi for spray-painting Guernica, but visited 303, where Gavin Brown was the moody director. Matthew Barney's New York debut was up at Barbara Gladstone, and Jeff Koons was about to be kicked out of the art world for his notorious "Made in Heaven" exhibition at Sonnabend. Carl Ostendarp and Cary Leibowitz, both currently attempting comebacks, had shows up, as did Richard Serra, whose huge sculptures filled Gagosian, just as they do today.

It's hard to say if that inchoate moment and our uncertain one are connected. Surely things are in flux again. Money is scarcer; confidence is shaky. Wherever we are, surely the future has never weighed so heavily on the present. Moreover, because that future is so unsure, it makes the past seem hazy. Everything is off. Everything, that is, except a deep human urge toward opportunism.

By November 1991, '80s-bashing was rampant, as people backpedaled from the decade. Similarly, '90s-bashing has begun—much of it, not surprisingly, from past participants. Since September 11, all sorts of '90s names have been acting as if they had always been in some secret resistance movement. It doesn't matter who they are (and none of them are that important), but in an article in this month's Art Newspaper, a '90s painting phenom calls '90s art "as nutrient-free as television"; an art-market analyst opines that "John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, and Elizabeth Peyton . . . could take a real hit"; a critic claims art "has become irrelevant"; and a dealer goes so far as to say, "The market downturn resulting from the attack is a good thing. It will wipe out the surface surfers and teeny boppers."

Needless to say, it remains to be seen whose art is really "nutrient-free" and who the real "surface surfers" are. Most would agree the system is in need of change. However, resorting to decade-bashing now is a self-congratulatory form of denial. It's like thinking you're a patriot because you fly a flag from your gas-guzzling SUV or luxury car. Ten years ago, the art world was on its own. In a way, it is again. Good things came of that time. Good things might come of this one. Either way, people need to get over themselves and act with a little more humility.

 
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