These days a lot of people say contemporary art is going to hell, that we’re just rehashing stuff in shallow ways, or that everything is hype. Obviously, this isn’t the Renaissance, and hype is epidemic. Market baloney reached new levels of ridiculousness last month when Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s worldwide chief of contemporary art, whom The New Yorker breathlessly described as having a “beautiful head,” exclaimed to Artforum that “the best art is the most expensive.” By this cuckoo logic Marlene Dumas and Yoshitomo Nara are better than Donald Judd and Robert Smithson. Whatever, Meyer’s “beautiful head” went on to gush, “the market is so smart.” Talk about having no distance.
Inanities and twaddle regarding the art market aside, there is more and more work around that is either really something or at least something unexpected. Some of it is fated to be here and gone today. Fleeting or not, however, it can change the way you think. This happened to me not long ago when 35-year-old ex–School of Visual Arts student Ted Riederer showed me a project he made involving Max Huber, frontman for the hardcore punk band the Swinging Utters, smashing his guitar to smithereens in Riederer’s studio. My first reaction was “Not more testosterone and nihilism-is-us post-adolescent male punk.”
Then Riederer led me through the crucial next steps of this initially dead-in-the-water exercise. As he did, a quasi-religious, art-historical life-and-death parable took form that made me understand that this artist was trying to shift from an aesthetics of reaction to one of reconstruction. After Huber destroyed the guitar, Riederer gathered all the bits and pieces, numbered every one, and cataloged them in a notebook. Next, he painstakingly reassembled all the fragments (setting aside tiny splinters and needles), putting the guitar back together again, the worse for wear, cracked and slightly odd-looking, but so that it could be played again. He then took the instrument and strummed it for me, attaching the new-old thing to a device that created a beautiful, haunting melody. This tune kept playing after he placed the instrument on its stand. When I left, it continued to play. It may be playing still.
There are serious-to-the-point-of-deadly presentational problems with Riederer’s beguiling project. The documentation of the destruction exists only as a series of ambiguous glossy photographs—pictures so generic that they could be homemade shots of some basement band going through the macho motions. Worse, Riederer hasn’t recorded the gathering, cataloging, and reassembling processes at all. The finished cracked guitar is simply placed in a stand so that you have no idea what happened. It’s almost as if the juju in Riederer’s work is so mysterious that he doesn’t know how to translate it. Still, because I knew the backstory, it seemed like Riederer was doing something that a lot of young artists are beginning to do these days: trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Hype notwithstanding, in the last few decades art has had a sort of near death experience. Painting, especially, passed through what has been called by my wife, Roberta Smith, in The New York Times “the eye of the post-minimal conceptual needle.” No one actually believes that any kind of art or painting is dead, but much work these days is either about art being dead or near death. This has caused a kind of feedback loop of infinite regress to form, along with a new batch of self-reflective critique art. Curators seem to love this hyper-self-consciousness—presumably because it’s about the institutions they work for. Art that critiques the art object, the artist, the institution, or the market is lauded. Much good art has arisen from this position. So have questionable gestures. Just last month, the Whitney independent-study program—long a hotbed of institutional critique art, one that operates under the wing of an institution—rented a vanity space in the Chelsea Museum, in the center of the art market, in order to flaunt its anti-market aesthetic.
Riederer’s project, titled Three-Quarters of an Ounce, reminds one of experiments carried out in 1909 by Duncan MacDougall, the Massachusetts doctor who quantified the weight of the human soul at 21 grams by placing terminally ill patients in specially made beds designed to take measurements of them the moments before and after they died. MacDougall did the same with dying dogs and observed no such weight loss. Similarly, it might be argued that Riederer is looking for a phantom limb or phantom self of art. His project made me empathize with and admire a generation of young artists who have arrived on the scene only to find modernism and postmodernism dismantled and deconstructed to death before they’ve even had a chance to take the stage. Their every gesture is subject to scrutiny. Someone is always there to say what you’re doing has been done or that it isn’t cool. Either way, Riederer’s piece made me grasp how stultifying it must be to have all these before-the-fact art police around and how desperate one might feel when everything you want to believe in has already been pronounced pointless or suspect.
Artist Jake Chapman has written about “using destruction as a creative force rather than an end in itself.” Riederer, like many artists these days, is trying to get beyond paradigms of rebellion, revolution, and punk. He and others are trying to rearrange the aftermath of a nihilistic, overeducated deconstruction into something—however awkward, simple, silly, or slight—that will play the song of art again.
Seeing It All
It’s difficult to see one’s own time. To most of us, things look the way they do simply because that’s the way things look. Stephen Shore’s genius was that he saw and photographed his own time with uncanny insight and visual allure. His pictures of America in the early 1970s encapsulate that decade as perfectly as Pollock’s drip paintings epitomize the early 1950s.
Shore saw America through a sort of acerbic-visionary-poker-faced Rockford Files–meets– The French Connection lens, capturing the bleached-out, avocado and ocher, tan and fuchsia of the decade. Just as Walt Whitman voraciously tried to feel everything around him, Shore attempted to see everything around him—or rather all that could be viewed while traveling in a green two-door Plymouth with a large-format camera.
Initially, this exhibition of 49 photos and a video seems like a daunting amount of information to process. It is, but stick with it. The images were made on one of two cross-country trips Shore took 30 years ago when he must have been in a state of photographic grace and simultaneously lost in some heady haze. Shore pictures things that would never be seen on this earth again, an amazing twilight moment in America when traffic was lighter, hair styles could be silly, smorgasbords were just appearing, TV dinners were still ubiquitous, gas cost 36 cents a gallon, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show was on TV. Shore combines the lucidity and dead-on vision of Walker Evans with the deadpan blandness of Andy Warhol. He then adds something caustic, clairvoyant, audacious, blithe, deeply original, and very American.