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Cocktail Culture

The European megashows, under the glitz, are all about the power of the unexpected mix.

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Pawel Althamer's Pfad/Sciezka, at Sculpture Projects Münster.  

The alchemy of good curating amounts to this: Sometimes, placing one work of art near another makes one plus one equal three. Two artworks arranged alchemically leave each intact, transform both, and create a third thing. It’s uncanny, and this uncanniness occurs to varying degrees in the season’s three leviathan megaexhibitions. They are, of course, the Venice Biennale, Documenta XII, and Sculpture Projects Münster. As I wrote in our previous issue, I skipped the frenzied opening blowouts; a famous woman artist I know calls these shindigs proms where the rich, powerful, and middle-aged get to cop a feel from young artists who paint themselves up like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. Though I like openings and missed the schmoozing, seeing the shows in peace created a wonderfully charged space for doubt, ambiguity, and rumination. In Venice, I had whole pavilions to myself; Documenta hummed but was low-key; Münster returned to being a small German city with tens of thousands of bicyclists.

What did I determine, other than that I need to improve my left-turn biking etiquette? For one thing, Venice’s custom of divvying up pavilions by nation-state is a nineteenth-century relic. (Pavilions should be given to hip young curators from wherever, to do shows divorced from nationalism.) Also, there are now so many biennials that art is suffering from overexposure, and we do curators and artists a disservice by seeing these shows only at the openings. More than that, though, I found that each of the three super-shows offers a snapshot of the strategies and styles of those professionals who have been called the men in black. I’m talking, of course, about the curators.

The organizer of the 52nd Venice Biennale is Robert Storr, who in his years in the art world has worn many hats. (I’ve known him for decades; he used to let me sit in on his excellent lectures.) From 1990 to 2002, he was a curator at MoMA, then a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU; he’s always been an artist and is now the dean of the Yale School of Art, a consulting curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a contributor to several art magazines. Storr is a well-known supporter of such artists as Bruce Nauman, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman, Louise Bourgeois, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Susan Rothenberg, Jenny Holzer, Giovanni Anselmo, and Elizabeth Murray, as well as Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Thomas Nozkowski, and Nancy Spero, every one of whom is in his show. His résumé is impressive. In some ways, this Biennale is his résumé.

Storr’s exhibition is titled Think With the SensesFeel With the Mind. Art in the Present Tense. The Think Feel part of the title presupposes that a mind-body split exists in the art world. There may have been one a while back, when theory and academicism were becoming monolithic. But this dichotomy feels false now. Most would agree with philosopher Mary Midgley, who wrote, All reasoning is powered by feeling and all serious feeling has some reasoning in its skeleton. Thought and feeling are not opponents. Yet the installation re-creates that very bifurcation. Almost all of Storr’s A-listers, and much of the painting, is displayed in the airy Italian pavilion at the center of the grounds, whereas most of the lesser-known conceptualists and photo-based artists are placed in the quarter-mile-long Arsenale.

As elegant and uncluttered as it is, and even though many of Storr’s regulars really shine, ThinkFeel is a decorous, antiseptic, strangely straitjacketed affair. The Italian pavilion begins with Nancy Spero’s chilling Apocalypse Nowish maypole of cutout heads. Two rooms later are the knockout quasi-abstract paintings by that old magician-artist Sigmar Polke. Nearby are six electrifying new Richters, followed by a room of Nauman’s horrifying face-shaped fountains, then galleries of Ryman, Kelly, and Anselmo. Not far off are rooms of riveting videos by Kara Walker, Steve McQueen, and newcomer Joshua Mosley.

Much of this work is compelling and poetic. But often, there’s an accumulation of thought (in Storr’s version of shock and awe) with little curatorial alchemy or skin-on-skin sensuousness between works. Indeed, Storr seems to have abstained altogether from mounting one of the ball-busting, conjectural, venturesome whales we call biennials. Instead, he mustered his big guns, stayed faithful to his BFFs, showcased some new names, and presents something like a mainstream museum survey. Some critics may have called ThinkFeel anti-market, but the Italian pavilion is so packed with blue-chip artists that it often resembles the home of a very wealthy collector. It’s classic rock or power chords, a firing of the canon.

Everyone agrees with Storr’s stated argument for the present tense, of selecting artists regardless of age, reputation, or hype, and I love many of the artists he does; they’re my peeps, too. Even so, if I were in my twenties or thirties, or even (alas) my forties, I can imagine being impressed but also a bit let down and oppressed by it. I’d wonder if this wasn’t partly history being told from the point of view of the victorsa business-as-usual shoring-up rather than research into the mix and morphology of the moment. As Glenn O’Brien observed about German painter Albert Oehlen, who would have added something to this show, There’s only one right way [to do something] but [Oehlen explores] a million brilliant errors. Those brilliant errors are missing here.


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