Only Disconnect: Or, The Changing Same
So are the forces turning New York into a giant mercantile exchange too great to overcome? Are we doomed to being a trading floor but not a center of artistic production? Is a Death Star hovering over the New York art world? Many would say yes. Yet, as with most things, the situation is more subtle than it would seem.
Our moment is marked by a complex disconnect. Apprehension and grossness are tempered by expectation and belief. Cézanne once said, “We are a shimmering chaos,” and that’s what the art world has become. But chaos is nearly always good for art. In the early nineties—the last time the scene felt a little like this—the confusion came from near collapse: Money left, galleries closed, magazines folded, AIDS blotted out a generation, and everything seemed like it was ending. Attention fell away from the art world, meaning almost no money or fame was at stake, and there were no alpha art movements driving the discourse.
The past ten years, which began without much money around, were a time of large installations, Gesamtkunstwerks, and elaborate journeys into new states of mind. Materials and techniques were unleashed; video and sculpture exploded in a thousand directions. Artists took many of the ideas inherent in the video, sculpture, and performance of the late sixties and early seventies and ran with them. Money was only beginning to return after a decade-long drought, so artists and dealers found ways to raise their own capital, collaborating with scientists, filmmakers, composers, or whomever it took to get the work made. Dealers pooled information, formed informal coteries, maxed out credit cards, and made it up as they went along. They could do so partly because few outsiders were paying attention. Money only caught on later. By then, a new network had formed. In that nebulous lacuna, a new generation of artists, dealers, critics, and curators took the stage and remade that world.
This time, we’re in a much larger, internationally linked art world awash in cash. The chaos comes this time from abundance rather than poverty. Yet, even though the art world is paying too much attention to market talk and spin control, a shift is under way. There are so many different ideas and artists coming from so many places that, in a sense, almost anything is valid and in play. Not only does this add to the overall chaos of the moment—it means that, as in the early nineties, there are no dominant movements, no alpha artists hogging the airwaves. (Occasional cool cliques come and go, but they’re usually seasonal blips. The collectors who follow these mini-bubbles get so distracted they’re out of everyone’s hair for whole seasons at a time, and that’s nice, too.) Because of all of the activity, many more ideas can pan out. So much art is being made and shown that all of it is contributing to all the other art being made and shown. That in turn creates interesting cross-currents, internal stresses, and glitches, and something is bound to come of it. It’s akin to trickle-down economics theory, or maybe trickle-up.
This is not just a case of a rising tide that lifts all boats, however. Aside from the occasional Greeting Card–like debacle, young artists are working in new ways that are specifically driven by this overwrought moment. They aren’t making giant, expensive, space-eating installations. They’re not thinking small or becoming unambitious, but—adept at culling, sorting, reshaping, and plotting information—many are reacting to the scene, innately comfortable with the idea that while there may not be anything entirely new, there is an infinite variety of ways to create unique thought-structures and complex specificities. They’re employing a strategy of maximum diversity in minimum or multiple spaces, rather than the maximum diversity in maximum space of their immediate forebears. They’re attempting to merge seriousness, process, irony, intuition, language, materials, belief, and thought with lived reality, not just with pop culture. It’s the way an artist like Peter Coffin has pieced scores of color photos of rainbows together to make a giant Nauman-esque spiral; this shape connects to a real-life phenomenon, re-creates a familiar shape from recent art history, and remakes something out of things that already existed. Or the way that artist Karl Haendel makes velvety charcoal renditions of photographs of his father, George Bush, old political posters, and personal notes; Haendel weaves together his inner life, moments in time, and collective history in mysteriously alarming installations. Or the way that Klara Liden has walked in circles around a bicycle in an empty room before going at it with a crowbar; somehow you get the absurdity, anger, and the frustration of this urban self-attack. At first, these artists, like so many others, make you react with Henry Hill’s line in GoodFellas: “ … the fuck is that?” Then they make you think, Holy fuck.
Against expectations, all this money turns out to be useful—not just as a lubricant but as a smokescreen. Interesting growth is already occurring within the chaos. Small galleries can open, and while they may not be visible to large numbers of people for years, they are visible to just enough people with money so they can survive without having to toe any line. (This means there’ll be more bad art, too, but even bad art feeds the chaos.) Already, pockets of galleries have sprung up outside Chelsea. The Lower East Side has a handful of good galleries, more are on their way, and the New Museum opens there in December. Not all of these galleries are great, but many are trying to be alternatives to the big market. They operate out of storefronts; some are run by artists. Obviously, they are as dependent on sales as any other gallery. But their attitude feels more relaxed. At the same time, another cluster of galleries has appeared on the far West Side between Vandam and Bank Streets, not far from the vigorously revived alternative space White Columns.