Super Babylon


Most of us come to the art world as gypsies and outsiders. Filled with intoxicated, supple, brilliant delusions, we come, as Poe said, “splendid but dark.” But these days the New York art world feels more dark than splendid.

That world has been compared to a machine, a circus, a cult, and a club; it’s been called a brothel, a dinner party, and a high school with money. I called it a trading floor in 1999. In 2001, ultra-observant Frieze magazine publisher Amanda Sharp declared it “a wounded animal.” Regardless, the city’s art world is expanding, and money is conspicuous. Idealists open galleries to add to the discourse but are often turned into selling machines. Artists go from unknown to mainstream overnight. Youth is worshipped. Art fairs proliferate, although many who participate say they hate them. The underground is vanishing. Consensus stands in for criticality. Avoidance and denial are everyday things. Private dissatisfaction is rampant, yet this discontent turns passive in public. So many people have so much invested in the system that the New York art world feels as if it’s trapped in a paradigm it can’t escape.

Nowadays, different art worlds work differently. Glasgow, Leipzig, and Los Angeles are laboratories run by skeleton crews. London is the same, only crossed with a private club, a sparkler, and a sideshow. The New York art world has swallowed up all these paradigms and mutated into a kind of nebulous Super Paradigm. Think of it as a giant sponge: Bland on the outside, intricate within, it is extremely porous and permeable, takes advantage of any current, absorbs everything, and is capable of enormous engorgement. The Super Paradigm may be pluralism gone wild, or a giant oil spill—sprawling but not evolving. Whatever, there’s no avant-garde within it because there’s nothing to react against.

The Super Paradigm has overt weaknesses, including its vastness, lack of positive charge focused around change, an inability to form coherent groups, and a tendency to undervalue the local. Other art centers are scenes more than worlds; they generate artists in clumps and clusters and are enormously supportive of their own. The Super Paradigm processes everything individually. It is so large that it’s hard to get a fix on what’s going on in it.

The upside of the Super Paradigm is that while more bad art surfaces, everything is potentially viable within it. Artists over 35 have a chance. This is creating permutations and anomalies. An impresario like Jeffrey Deitch can run an underground gallery, a real undergrounder like Michele Maccarone can operate a kunsthalle, and dealers like Larry Gagosian and Matthew Marks can maintain blue-chip, mid-career, ’90s, emerging, and dead-artist galleries simultaneously. These abnormalities are causing ripples in the zeitgeist and rumbles in the infrastructure. The Whitney is putting its house in order, White Columns has hired the savvy Matthew Higgs as director, and Art-forum and Frieze—both with new editors—are already more rigorous and relevant. The clashing reactions to all that doodly “termite” art suggest that oppositional forces are forming inside the Super Paradigm.

These ripples are producing an aberrant trickle-up effect. In a reversal of a decades-old trend, Brooklyn galleries are moving to Chelsea. Bellwether owner Becky Smith, who relocated there from Greenpoint, says, “I was sick of my artists being ignored. Williamsburg has lost its schwang.” Christian Viveros-Faune, co-owner of Roebling Hall, disagrees, insisting, “Brooklyn is still the creative hub of New York.” When I asked him why he’s moving to 26th Street, he said, “We’re keeping our Brooklyn and Soho spaces and opening a Chelsea branch.” Trickle up, indeed.

Still, exasperating currents course through the Super Paradigm. Personally, I hope never to hear the following oft repeated, mind-numbing inanity again, whether it’s applied to John Currin, Paul P., Tim Gardner, Delia Brown, Graham Little, or whoever: “They have such skill.” I respect some of these artists but none are good merely because they excel at blending, rendering, or under-painting. Skill without vision and innovation is only competence or proficiency. In an inverted Bushian world, where appearances pass as core, many have forgotten that every original artist redefines skill.

Evidence that the Super Paradigm is waning can be glimpsed in the work of a pre-9-11 artist par excellence, Andreas Gursky, whose enormous, sleek images depicting our buzzing, border-to-border, air-conditioned essence made one feel the delirium of what George W.S. Trow called “the context of no context.” On September 11, 2001, that illusion was shattered as one context slammed into another. Now everyone says that “everything is different.” In fact, everything is more of what it already was. Gursky’s new pictures are more sensational but less conscious. Instead of getting high from them, we zone out. His recent work tells us that we can no longer position ourselves outside history because history is something we’ve all experienced. It won’t do just to critique, correct, or ogle it. We have to be more self-critical.

Meanwhile, as the Super Paradigm dissolves into something else, we need to remember that the system is not the same as substance; any one of us is bigger than it; show for show, New York is still the best place for gallery exhibitions in the world; vision, instinct, surprise (not for its own sake), and private experience are the lifeblood of art; and underneath it all we’re still gypsies.