The Year in Art Was All in the Details


Grand narratives appear to make sense of the world, but the world doesn’t hang together as neatly as all that. Rather than honor and applaud a sum total work of art or culture, I’d rather tip my hat to the explosive detail, a move that proposes a possibility outside itself, and throws down the gauntlet to others. Some of the most vivid to me from 2017:

YOU MUST HATE BLACK PEOPLE AS MUCH AS YOU HATE YOURSELF. These words emerged from — or were otherwise drowning in — the inky blackness of the great artist Kara Walker’s canvas “Storm Ryder,” one of many gut-punchers in her fall exhibition “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to Present the Most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!” The damning word in that sentence: you, unnamed, unspecified. Standing before her work, no one is exempt from the poisoned tines of hatred — of black people, of oneself, each a mirror for, and measure of, the other.

Choreographer-slash–human hurricane Sarah Michelson shattered the quiet of West 19th Street as she welcomed her audience to the Kitchen for her performance October2017/\ by pointing at each of us and shriek-shouting “HELLO! HELLO! HELLO! YEAH!” as we took our seats. Her relentlessness smartly sharpened the edge between rah-rah enthusiasm and look-at-me desperation, taking aim (for one) at art and artists — performers and performances — for whom attention-seeking might in fact be their only real talent.

Total silence seized the audience in the moments before Doreen Garner’s harrowing performance Purge on November 30, part of her exhibition “White Man on a Pedestal” with Kenya (Robinson) at Pioneer Works. It felt as though all were held in suspended animation, not unlike the spirit of J. Marion Sims, “father of modern gynecology,” a statue of whom was — at the hands of Garner and her assistants — about to experience a taste of his own medicine: a vesicovaginal fistula, which he performed without anesthesia on Anarcha, an enslaved black woman, more than thirty times between 1845 and 1850. (The man remains honored here in New York City for his contributions to science with a public sculpture.) Garner’s re-enactment of his violence wasn’t healing so much as it was the long-overdue reopening of a wound that demands to be tended to properly.   

Laura Owens’s hare-brainy clock paintings that hang high on the wall at her outstanding retrospective at the Whitney Museum sound no tick-tocks as the hands spin at their own pace, keeping no time except their very own. (Another possible punchline: The power of painting, like comedy, is all in the timing).

The Wooster Group at once found and lost the momentum of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s radioactive 1971 documentary, Town Bloody Hall, which recorded an unwieldy and almost unthinkable public debate on the subject of feminism between Jill Johnston, Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, and Diana Trilling, moderated by Norman Mailer. The aim of the Wooster’s deconstruction was off, but shimmered for a moment with the appearance of Greg Mehrten as the literary critic Trilling. His eyes round and tired like hers, a haughty bun pinned to the back of his head, he embodied both her nobility and her vulnerability — her snoot, her self-possession — even as she was held up to the audience for comic relief.

“Everywhere I go I see losers. Misfits like myself who can’t make it in the world,” wrote the singular artist and writer and performer Constance DeJong in her iridescent 1977 novel, Modern Love, which was republished this year. She wrote then not about the well-documented world of men, but of a world with men, reimagining the romance novel by mapping the magnetisms that push people together, then pull them apart, in time and out of time, in characters who collapse into one another all around the I of the storm.

Joan Didion, too, in a few sentences and with a candor that was somehow surprising if not at all unexpected of the iconic woman of letters, rewrote the genre of the love story. “I don’t know what ‘fall in love’ means,” she said of her marriage to John Gregory Dunne in the tender documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. “It’s not part of my world. But I do remember having a very clear sense that I wanted this to continue. I liked being a couple. I liked having somebody there.”

“Of all stupid art, the poem is the most stupid,” quipped poet Lisa Robertson at the symposium Never the Same: what (else) can art writing do? hosted by Contemporary Calgary. There, Robertson read a passage from a titillating work-in-progress titled “The Baudelaire Fractal,” in which she imagines waking up one morning to realize that she is in fact the author of the complete works of Baudelaire. Poetry, like stupidity, obeys no outside rules, bending history and good sense to its own agenda, its own desires: another reason to pick up a pen, twist it, and see what spills out onto the page.  

Or the grass. After her father’s death, performance artist Michelle Ellsworth launched Manpant Publishing. Instead of using paper and ink, she spells the 111 words of each of her commissioned texts with her dad’s trousers as well as other pairs from the Salvation Army, laying them out on a beautiful clearing by a river in Colorado, and recording it all by tapping into a live weather cam. To think of absence as a new alphabet with which to write and circulate the words of others seems a most generous use of grief.

In conversation with the New Yorker’s David Remnick and playwright Tony Kushner one evening before a recent performance of A Room in India at the Park Avenue Armory, the French theater director Ariane Mnouchkine talked about the responsibilities of being an artist. “I am not paid to be desperate. I am not paid to be blind,” she explained, her current production in part mocking ISIS as inhuman and ungodly, while also taking us all to task for the fear that holds us back from the risks inherent in the creation of wonder, beauty. What is an artist to do in these harrowing times, then? “To continue to have faith in people,” she said, giving much-needed instructions on how to best rise from the ashes.

Poet Eileen Myles places her faith not in God, but in dog — right-minded creatures who allow the world to be what it is, without heaviness, just following their noses from moment to moment to moment. Her exquisite slapstick tragedy Afterglow is a radical memoir about and for and by her now-deceased but forever-beloved pitbull Rosie, who the poet believes is a dead ringer for her dead father. Myles’s words of goodbye — to her, to him — are simultaneously a hello to her own unknown future.

“Travel well, I said. All the seeds of you; and the dream of you, the rot.

“Then I stepped back into the world.”