Three weeks earlier, I’d seen Marie Lorenz’s extraordinary show at Jack Hanley, which includes videos of the artist rowing a small homemade boat around the rivers, waterways, and bays of New York City, exploring unknown reaches of the city, landing on unpeopled beaches. The work is personal; there’s nothing corporate about it. It’s not a commodity—it’s hardly a thing at all. Quietly insubordinate and seditious, Lorenz is a one-woman nomad, reimagining the city, letting us see New York anew through a larger, more mysterious lens.
Not long after, I watched Sarah Michelson journey into time and whirling-dervish-dom at the Whitney, choreographing her dancers to twirl in unison, mirroring one another’s movements in widening gyres. A dozen people walked out. Yet I saw many happily breathe in. A similar thing happened at Derek Eller Gallery as Liz Magic Laser had two actors mime the body languages of Barack Obama and George H.W. Bush giving speeches. In this small gallery, no one left; instead a room full of people gaped. Alex Israel’s videos have left me similarly speechless: Israel reads deadpan questions to people like Phyllis Diller, Paul Anka, James Caan, Marilyn Manson, and Jamie Lee Curtis, asking them non-things like, “What do you like to do to pass time on a long flight?” and “Is all fair in love and war?”
At the peak of these personal mountains is the late Mike Kelley’s tremendous three-and-a-half-hour unfinished Whitney Biennial film. We see a mobile-home replica of Kelley’s Detroit childhood house being driven up and down a long stretch of Detroit’s Michigan Avenue. Along the way, Kelley’s interviews with everyday people are spliced in, folks trying to get along, living lives in unique, amazingly creative ways. Watching it, I saw documentary film sprouting new tentacles. Kelley had the instinctive understanding that reality isn’t just something that can be made into art. If seen in the right way, everything already is art. His loss is huge.
Some see the fissuring as the split between market and anti-market forces. Yet we all claim to be on the same side. Nobody is willing to admit to being Establishment anymore, since at this point the Establishment itself acknowledges that all the energy is on the romantic fringes. Even Jeff Koons, whose work is utterly salable, is about art first, at the same time that he’s trying to create a $25 million hanging-locomotive sculpture to hover above the High Line. Hirst, maker of the $100 million skull bauble, says, “Art is more powerful than money.” And those of us who claim to shun or be shunned by the market exist in a larger system that rewards us with money, time, space, grants, residencies, recognition, or respites from full-time-job hell. Not to sound like a holistic hippie, but there are no insiders and outsiders anymore; everyone is both at once.
Now, of course, there remain many dinosaurs, lingering on after the meteor strike. It’s hard to imagine the purpose of Zhan Wang’s huge stainless-steel copies of a 1,000-year-old Chinese scholar’s rock, other than as swimming-pool sculpture or lobby decoration. What possible meaning can we ascribe to the kicked-over motorcycles by Dan Colen, smiley faces by Fang Lijun, or happy, shiny garnishes by Takashi Murakami and Hirst. The era of boat-size paintings and sculptures, spotless installation extravaganzas, and other lobbylike spectacles produced by well-funded artists and teams of assistants may thankfully be fading. A few craven museum directors and a handful of dealers will fight to hold on to this sort of work. May they all thrive in Dubai.
Not to say people shouldn’t get rich from art. I adore the alchemy wherein artists who cast a complex spell make rich people give them their money. (Just writing it makes me cackle.) But too many artists have been making money without magic. This isn’t alchemy; it’s cagey gamesmanship and clever complacency. And it’s trickled down. These days, newish art can be priced between $10,000 and $25,000. When I tell artists that a new painting by a newish artist should go for around $1,200, they look at me like I’m a flesh-eating virus.
It remains to be seen whether high prices are the global warming of the art world, imperiling an entire ecosystem. Perhaps the planet will adapt. Perhaps not. But shouldn’t we be alarmed that one work by Murakami now costs more than masterworks by Constable, Courbet, Delacroix, Fuseli, Géricault, Ingres, Rubens, and Turner combined? It’s not a joke: I know markets are mirages and unrelated, but good work by all of these older masters recently sold for a total of around $3 million; one Murakami fetched over $15 million. From an edition of three. Plus two artist’s proofs.