Saturday, March 3, 2012

U.S. Tour 2012, Part Three: Art, Travel

I wasn't quite sure what to do. The hotel required me to check out by noon, and my plane didn't leave until 8:20pm. I'm an avid enough museum-goer, but was without an idea for one to go to. Sort of out of cowardice about having to make a decision, and after finding out that the Museum of the City of New York was way the hell uptown, I settled for the Museum of Modern Art.

MOMA has always been an odd place for me. For one thing, it was the only museum in New York that I went to that charged money. Big money, too: something like $8, when I was a kid. When I worked at the Metropolitan, though, we got a Museum Employees Identification Card which got us in free to any museum in town charging money, so I'd go frequently, and ogle a first-rate, if stuck in time, collection.

Now there's a whole new building with an apartment tower stuck in the middle of it, and the reviews when it reopened were devastating, although it was so long ago now and I hadn't had any recent experience to judge the criticisms against that I can't remember what the foofaraw was about. But I had about six hours to burn, so I figured why not. There was also something I'd read in the New Yorker about a photo exhibition of John Cohen's work, so I scrawled the info onto a pad, left my luggage with the bellman at the hotel, and headed uptown.

It was a good choice. I took the elevator to the top floor, and went into the current blockbuster, the Cindy Sherman retrospective. Sherman has always fascinated me, an artist who takes pictures of herself made up as any number of other people, but never pictures of...herself. (A recent Times story had a picture of her by someone else, the first I'd ever seen. She doesn't look anything like those people!) She came to my attention via her justifiably famous series of "Untitled Film Stills," back in the punk era, but I'd only paid attention sporadically since then. Her stuff didn't seem to come to Europe, or at least not at the shows I attended, so I knew her mostly from the odd photo reproduced in the press. Seeing them all together, though, especially the post "Film Stills" period, with large, glossy color prints, paradoxically made me less, not more, interested in her than before. Other than finding newer and cleverer ways to disguise herself, was there anything happening in these pictures? There were ideas explored -- Cindy as a bunch of classic paintings; Cindy as clown; Cindy as rich women -- but besides Cindy, what was there? Invoking feminism, it seems to me, shuts off the discussion prematurely: yes, she's critiquing how women are portrayed in photography, but that's easy enough meat, and are those many shots of (Cindy as) middle-aged Long Island dowagers even critiques? Furthermore, critiques aren't exactly art itself. It stops short of art. After walking through the gallery (and love her or hate her, you'll find ample material to support your view), I felt like...I'd seen a bunch of glossy photographs of Cindy Sherman made up as a bunch of stuff. Um, okay. What's downstairs?

Oh, what was downstairs was James Rosenquist's F-111, one of my favorite paintings. It was hung in Leo Castelli's gallery in 1965, and was the subject of a brutal review in Time magazine, which I read. Some weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon, three high school students from the suburbs walked up the stairs to Leo Castelli's gallery to see it, only to find the gallery closed. Castelli heard one of them trying the door, and opened it. "Can I help you?" he asked. I stammered something about wanting to see F-111 for myself, since I didn't believe it could be as bad as Time had made it sound and he ushered us all in to the gallery to take a look. And it wasn't, although all three of us were devoted peaceniks and compeltely against the Vietnam War, so we were inclined to be sympathetic. But we got the consumer critique along with the anti-war message and the message of the bright poppish colors, plus, of course, the mammoth size. Boy, is that sucker big. "Do you like Robert Lichstenstein?" Castelli asked, whipping out a soon-to-be-shipped copy of Dante with illustrations by the renowned Pop pioneer. And there was more. It was a magical afternoon, and I sure can't say anything against Rosenquist or F-111 to this day. Or Castelli, for that matter. It was nice to see.

From there it was a quick trip through the remembered favorites in the 20th Century Paintings and Sculpture galleries greeting other old friends and, as with the mammoth DeKooning Woman, meeting new ones I had ignored or hadn't figured out yet on previous visits. And I have to say, right up to where my frequent trips to MOMA ended, the collection is absolutely first-rate. The policy of switching works off meant some of my favorites weren't around (Yves Tanguy's Multiplication of the Arcs! That huge-ass black swipe of a Motherwell!), but there was certainly enough that I didn't feel cheated.

(There's Tanguy for you).

It's only when the collection gets into the era in which I wasn't visiting, basically from 1970 to the present, that I begin to wonder what's happening. Was there a boat they missed or something? Because my memory of that era doesn't really jibe with theirs. Hell, even the Metropolitan's work from that era beats some of these lackluster things. It's like there's some dull obligation to recognize AIDS and reply to the Gorrila Girls when they reminded them of how few females were in their collection, but the best works to remedy those situtations had already been sold. There are some good things, make no mistake: a first-rate Keith Haring mural, for instance, and three floating basketballs courtesy of Jeff Koons. Or maybe I was suffering from visual fatigue, although I don't think so. Anyway, from there I found the photographs, and a huge amount of space devoted to Sanja Ivekovic, one of the tiresome hectoring Eastern European post-Communist "political" artists I moved out of Berlin to avoid, and I began thinking about lunch.

Oh, but I also thought about John Cohen. Hm. Ten short blocks north on Madison. Okay, why not?

My decision was motivated by my discovery that some of the photos documenting Happenings I'd seen the day before were taken by Cohen, whom I'd first discovered as 1/3 of the great folk group the New Lost City Ramblers. I knew he made films and photos and also did field recording, but I'd been ignorant of the degree to which he'd been involved in the larger Bohemia of his era (he turns 80 this year). I also knew he was currently (sometimes) playing with Peter Stampfel (and Stampfel's 20-something daughter and some other crazed types) in a band called the Ether Frolic Mob, which I hope to see some day. It seems that Cohen gets more interesting by the day, so I rang the bell of the L. Parker Stephenson Gallery, was buzzed in, and entered a room hung with black and white photos like the above (used without permission but with a plea for forgiveness), of Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, and Gregory Corso, all no doubt plotting something nefarious. I was given a tour of the photos -- the earliest of Cohen's work, showing some street scenes in New Haven, taken when he was still at Yale, pictures of gypsies, and some remarkable shots grabbed at storefront churches during gospel programs -- by L. Parker Stephenson herself, which formed a nice framing parenthesis to my memories of Castelli. Gallerists: they're not all in it for the money, no matter what yesterday's stroll in Chelsea might lead one to believe. Anyway, this show's up until April 12, held over by popular demand, so get up there and check it out if you have the chance. Yes, it's early days, and yes, he'd get a far sight better, but this is still good stuff.

* * *

This proved the perfect way to waste the afternoon before heading to Austin. It occurred to me, typing the above, that the museum I need to hit next is the Whitney, because then maybe I'll get another clue to contemporary art acquisition politics in New York. I'll be back at the end of the month, but, after a 90 minute delay getting out of the gate, a short trip through the weather systems that spent most of yesterday destroying the Midwest and South, and a lot more flying, we landed in Austin after 1am, the rental car counters were all closed, and I took a cab to my friends' place. I scored a car this morning, and now I'm ready to rock, so maybe the next post will be...later. But there'll be one, no worry about that. See you then. 


  1. I really enjoyed this post and hope you enjoy your time back in Austin. These pieces from my blog might possibly interest you based on what you write about here:


  2. Dang, clearly great minds are thinking together here, Curtis. Very nice blog; I'm going to bookmark it. Thanks.

  3. That Tanguy piece is my ipod wallpaper piece for the last year.

  4. Thank you, Ed. Traveling with you is always a pleasure. Curtis


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