At their best, photographs of artists can be totemic: They establish status within the tribe, produce value, dazzle with allure, and manufacture myth; as Barbara Kruger wrote in her 1988 essay “Picturing Greatness,” they “freeze moments, create prominence, and make history.” Sometimes these pictures take on talismanic lives of their own, becoming fetish objects, what philosopher Francis Bacon called “idols of the mind,” as with photos of Pollock painting or Warhol doing almost anything (or nothing). We’ve all been transfixed by Picasso in his underpants at the beach, Bacon in his grimy studio, de Kooning studying his paintings, Leon Golub’s huge head, Hockney’s Dutch boy grin, Kahlo’s unibrow, Schnabel in his pajamas, Mapplethorpe’s image of Louise Bourgeois holding a giant phallus, and his self-portrait as a faun. In our collective mind’s eye we see Beuys in his hat, Baselitz in his castle, and Basquiat in his designer suit; the young and beautiful Johns and Rauschenberg, the rakish Duchamp, and the ruddy Robert Smithson.
Whether or not these photographs contribute to these artists being chieftains of art world nation begs the question: If there’s no iconic image of an artist—as is the case with Braque, Baziotes, Leger, Gris, Motherwell, or Hofmann—does an artist’s work risk becoming fuzzy in the mind? Obviously, this photo-centric formulation wrongheadedly confuses cause and effect: Art only gets fuzzy if it is fuzzy, not because there’s no clear image of the artist. Yet it’s easy to imagine why artists might participate in and control the branding of their own image, even if this branding sometimes takes over, as with Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Francesco Clemente, or even Warhol—who at some point in the late 1970s became a walking photo op. Conversely, these days many artists and artist collectives seek to retard or, in Duchamp’s term, “delay” this branding. They want to thwart the marketability of both the image of the artist and the art itself—the idea being that if you avoid having your likeness “captured” your work might stay fluid longer.
Two current exhibitions, the first a sort of celebratory walk-in family album, the second a revelatory glimpse of fame in the making, allow us to examine these ideas more fully. “Portraits of Artists,” at Luhring Augustine, is a warm if academic walk down artistic memory lane in which one can bask in portraits of ancestor figures like Dalí and Duchamp, then scrutinize recent arrivals on the shores of renown like Janine Antoni balancing on a police barricade or Sarah Lucas being sprayed by a can of beer. More gripping, because it’s more vulnerable and clairvoyant overall, is Lina Bertucci’s exhibition of photographs of what amounts to a graduating class of artists who came to prominence in the 1990s. Although only two of Bertucci’s photos are iconic—a doe-like-looking James Lee Byars and the grizzly Mario Merz—most of her pictures are handsome, empathetic, and self-possessed. Bertucci, 47, avoids the passport photo approach of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and the theatricality of David LaChapelle, grazing Mapplethorpe’s classicism as she arrives at a whimsical mix of ambition, innocence, sympathy, and showmanship.
Maybe Bertucci was lucky; more likely she had a premonition. Either way, what is most memorable about her pictures from the early 1990s is that a lot of these artists seem to sense they’re about to emerge from a nascent state; Bertucci captures the electric instant before many of them went on to have their moment. Many of her subjects exude a coltish impatience or a resolute quietude. Often, the rooms they’re in don’t seem big enough to contain them. There’s Rirkrit Tiravanija in his East Village apartment, Elizabeth Peyton in her storefront studio, Kiki Smith surrounded by plaster casts, and an intense John Currin standing in his East Houston Street studio. We see Chris Ofili, Charles Ray, Alex Bag, Maurizio Cattelan, and Massimo Bartolini in bedrooms or hotels. Everyone seems to be waiting for something. Some of the best pictures, including one of a princely Piotr Uklanski on his bed already looking like an Elizabeth Peyton painting, have a Nan Goldin noir quality about them.
Bertucci doesn’t do much with already famous artists like John Cage and William Burroughs, but she really clicks with some of the younger artists she shoots. Together they take control: There’s Michael Joo with a poster of himself in drag, Haim Steinbach as a Haim Steinbach sculpture, Mark Dion as a nerd, and Mariko Mori in matching black bra and panties. Sometimes it looks like the cast of a Fellini film. Rudolph Stingel resembles a movie star, Sean Landers a brooding poet, Matthew Barney an iron man, and Sylvie Fleury a 1960s fashion model. Not surprisingly, Jeff Koons takes the most control of all, posing as a tattooed leather boy with a tattooed biker chick. Lack of icons notwithstanding, the surplus of budding energy on hand lends a thrilling air to Bertucci’s show.
Speaking of icons and fetish objects, my friend and colleague Kim Levin, who was an art critic at the Voice for more than 20 years, has filled the Ronald Feldman Gallery with what I consider to be almost holy relics. Pinned to the wall of the main gallery are more than 500 of Levin’s gallery itineraries. The effect is like a library, a sea of frozen prayer flags, and a journey through time. Each list has the names of galleries and artists color-coded and organized geographically by neighborhood. (One has a note that says, “Call Jerry Saltz.”)
Lining the walls of the rear gallery are Levin’s gallery notes on press releases and exhibition checklists. Artists should pay attention to her spot-on haiku reviews of their shows. An early Lisa Yuskavage one reads, “Chicks with jugs/Manned engines of ambivalence”; a Sarah Sze invite mentions “soaring/less improvisational”; a Jules de Balincourt note simply says, “still in school.” Levin is an adept sketcher, as can be seen in her delightful drawings of paintings and sculptures. More than 500 gallery announcement cards dating from the 1970s to the present allow you to trace the history of the art world in exhibition announcements and to behold the names of galleries that no longer exist and artists who have passed away.
This show is a reminder that what may be most ephemeral about the art world is the art world itself. Objects remain but everything else will one day be gone. Levin lets you see how one critic lovingly keeps track of it all.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the low visibility of women artists in some quarters of the art world. Among other venues I singled out
Artforum‘s Top 10 lists. While my mail has been quite supportive, some have taken my words as an attack on the magazine itself even though I noted that “editors shouldn’t police writers.” In fact, over the past few years
Artforum has dramatically increased the number of women featured in its articles and among its contributors. Also, a quarter of the picks on
Artforum‘s list were devoted to group shows or pop culture phenomena, so the 10 percent women artists figure I cited, while ghastly, isn’t the whole story—although these choosers still managed to name almost five times as many men. Finally, as I wrote, “I don’t exempt myself.” To wit: Of 18 solo exhibitions of living artists to which I devoted lengthy reviews over the past year, a barely acceptable six have been of women artists.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 10, 2006