At exactly 6 p.m. on September 7, what painter Jackie Saccoccio calls the “10-month tour-of-duty in the art world jungle” began when more than 150 New York exhibitions opened simultaneously. The “tour” ends this June in Europe with the once-every-decade harmonic convergence of the Venice Biennale, Documenta XII, Münster Sculpture Project, and Art Basel occurring consecutively.
Commenting on the crowds in attendance on that warm evening, Public Art Fund director Rochelle Steiner marveled, “It’s like someone turned on a spigot and people poured out.” The New York art world is now so big that no one person can see it all. Until it shrinks or goes belly-up no one person may ever see it all again. This makes for euphoria, false positives and negatives, confusion, and dissipation. It also makes consensus harder to come by.
Staggering numbers of people now complain about how “big” and “out of control” the art world, especially Chelsea, is. True, 300 galleries in one neighborhood is daunting. Still, it’s absurd to claim, as many do, that a gallery is bad because it’s in Chelsea or better because it’s not. There’s a depressing never mentioned reason for the bigness of Chelsea. Shockingly, among Manhattan’s big-four museums, only the Met has galleries devoted to the permanent display of the art of the last 20 years. Visitors to MOMA, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim will only see whatever rotating contemporary shows happen to be up. Works of contemporary art cannot be studied over time.
In other words, the very art these museums make such a fuss about being committed to is given almost no shrift at all. It’s great that these museums are buying contemporary art; it’s pathetic that they’re putting almost all of it into storage. Adding to the problem, Dia, one of New York’s most important institutions dedicated to rotating exhibitions of cutting-edge art, has moved out of the city altogether. Leaving Manhattan high and dry is unforgivable. Those who bemoan Chelsea’s bigness forget that whatever else it is, Chelsea is ipso facto the largest museum of contemporary art that we have.
Many of those carping about things being “out of control” are not only already bigwigs in the art world, they imply that newcomers on the scene are somehow less ethical and more crass than people active in the art worlds of 10 to 20 years ago. Trust me: While the art world of the 1980s and 1990s was smaller, it wasn’t “the good old days,” nor were things as open as now. Pecking orders were more established; power, more consolidated. We may be overrun with nuts, narcissists, and moneybags but complainers forget that the art world isn’t really that big at all—it’s small potatoes compared to big business and rinky-dink next to most industries.
There’s a wonderful side to the bigness. The New York art world is now like Wikipedia: It is vast, multilingual, collaborative, inconsistent, contradictory, and coming from everywhere. As with Wikipedia, anyone can participate. Contributions, or in the case of the art world, exhibitions can be bogus, but they can also be better than what you can get anywhere else. Critic João Ribas calls what’s happening here “a democratization of the conversation.” There aren’t only a few “official” encyclopedias anymore. It may be harder to get a handle on things, but having more shows by more artists in more galleries not only has the virtue of blurring boundaries, it poses a direct threat to the authority of many of those in power. Those in control are right to think things are “out of control”; it’s their control that hangs in the balance.
While having large numbers of people and so much money in the game is freaky-deaky, it also means more artists have a chance to make more money, at least for the time being. When the art world gets smaller again and money disappears, artists will find ways to survive. Or they won’t. Nevertheless, the bigness can be vexing and problematic. Surveying the new super-expanded mega-digs of David Zwirner, I wondered, “How big can Luc Tuymans and Neo Rauch paint?” Then I thought, “What can a great dealer like David Zwirner do in this half-block-long, triple-doored, brightly lit 30,000 square feet that he couldn’t do with his previous, beautiful 5,000 square feet?” Obviously, the answer is “More of what he was already doing.” Upping the ante this much is Zwirner’s all-out bid for preeminence and a not-so-veiled invitation to ambitious and disgruntled artists who have otherwise only been smitten with Larry Gagosian.
I’m glad Zwirner’s in New York, but a downside to the three-ring circus approach is already on full display. Currently, the intriguing drawer Jockum Nordstrom looks a bit stretched in Zwirner’s larger space. Next door, in the huge garage-like gallery, Yutaka Sone’s pointless windowdressing-like sculpture of a jungle island, large as it is, gets lost in a space the size of a mall. But Zwirner’s gambit pays off in the third gallery with the exhibition of 72-year-old sculptor John McCracken. Here, six black shiny sentinel-like columns exude an almost Egyptian majesty. Together, they’re like relics from some ancient minimalist civilization or beacons for extraterrestrial landing crafts. Walking past them, their presence cancels everything else out. For whole minutes at a time Chelsea slips away and the bigness doesn’t matter. This kind of experience is worth having whatever neighborhood you find yourself in.
On Friday, September 15, the exact day that Utah’s high-desert summer flipped into harsh mountain winter, I finally got to see a work of art that had previously only existed for me in the imagination and as a photograph. I went to see Robert Smithson’s touchstone earthwork, Spiral Jetty.
Smithson’s signature work was built in April, 1970, for around $8,000. Made of huge boulders and masses of dirt deposited (under Smithson’s watchful eye) by a small team of construction workers using bulldozers and dump trucks, the sculpture stretches about 1,500 feet from the shore at Rozel Point into the Great Salt Lake, in a long spiral configuration, a sort of arm making a curly fist. While it was built just above water level, from around 1974 until late 2002, Spiral Jetty has been underwater.
Recent reports placed it above water level again, so I went to see for myself. After three hours of driving north and west from central Salt Lake City and almost turning back at the last minute because the dirt road we were navigating was almost washed-out, Spiral Jetty came into plain view.
Because of the weather, the driving rain, the lighting bolts across the shore, and something else I’ll mention shortly, my first thoughts were a clutter of Edgar Allan Poe horror stories and Caspar David Friedrich paintings. The lake water was churning gunmetal gray and an unworldly salmon-pink shade. These extreme conditions not only made me put my boots on the wrong feet, they threw me into an ersatz sublime euphoria. I also felt fear. This, in turn, made me ashamed. I had come all this way to see a sculpture by an artist who is talked about as a theoretician, a scientist, and an aesthetician-geologist, and I was experiencing a romantic gush.
Then something amazing happened that made this rush make sense. Just off the main arm of the sculpture what I had thought was an abandoned car seat turned out to be a 6-7, 350-pound, totally naked man, alive, floating face up in the salt water. Whether he was taking his own spiritual cure or performing a self-baptism, he became a portal to think about this work of art. He was at once a device of awe and terror, as well as a representation of my inability to feel these feelings without shame and doubt. Either way I was freezing, wet, thrilled, terrified, and nervous that he was a mass murderer. I also took some great snapshots.