Thirty years ago I was in the painting studio at school, an undergraduate art student, working away along with my fellow art students, while our teacher D.J. Hall walked through the studio and read from Tom Wolfe’s slim volume The Painted Word. D.J. made photorealist paintings (I especially liked her painting Thanks for the Memories) and in our class she had us try several different painting styles. In the strictest sense, the objective of the photorealist style was to make a painting that looked as much as possible like a photograph. It was considered a kind of “ hyper-realism” given the shared belief that photographs were the ultimate expression of realism.
This always seemed a little strange to me. I always thought of photographs as fictions, like all other ways of making images and telling stories. Some people started making paintings that looked like “ distorted” photographs and that seemed very interesting – to make a very carefully rendered painting of a distorted image produced by a camera. It called into question thereliability of realism. Were such paintings less realistic? But how could that be if they were faithful copies of the photograph?
The Painted Word was a slightly hysterical attack on modern art in general and Conceptual art in particular. It was strange because Wolfe’s earlier book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a novel about San Francisco in the 1960s and the Merry Pranksters – (“ are you on the bus or are you off the bus?”) was so cool. Perhaps Wolfe had started the decent into masculine middle age which often seems to be paved with disappointments, broken dreams, and fear of impotence which is then translated into a longing for a more dependable past when art was art and there were universally-accepted standards of quality, or so they say.
Photorealism appeared at the end of The Painted Word as a kind of realist rebellion against the tide of Conceptual art. It gave such pleasure, an in-your-face revenge for Wolfe to note that “ [Richard] Estes is reported to be selling at $80,000 a crack” in the galleries of New York or London. The greatest artistic absurdity imagined by him would be an exhibition in the year 2000 in which the words of art critics would be reproduced in huge panels in the gallery while the artworks under discussion — by Jasper Johns and Morris Louis — would appear as visual footnotes to the text, little postage-stamped sized reproductions. Actually, that sounds to me like it could be an interesting exhibition, although to tell you the truth I think an exhibition of photorealist paintings could be interesting, or an exhibition of work by Jasper Johns or Morris Louis could likewise be interesting.
The greater absurdity to me is the stratospheric heights of the art market. $80,000 for a painting by Richard Estes sounds so quaint in this moment of hyper-capitalism we inhabit. The auction houses routinely display their latest broken records in the art magazines; a million dollars for this photograph, a few million dollars for that painting – not for “ blue chip” artworks but for recent work by living, younger artists. The magenta heart by Jeff Koons is probably very impressive but was it worth twenty-five million dollars? Who knows, maybe it cost thirty million dollars to produce and the artist and his investors took a five million dollar bath at auction. Not to be outdone, Damien Hirst achieved the coveted distinction of producing (and investing in) the highest priced artwork by a living artist: the diamond-covered skull that sold for one hundred million dollars. Perhaps art has lost its power to shock and the only shock that’s left is the price at auction. I’m waiting for the artwork that will sell at auction for one billion dollars.
A week ago I walked into the Medtronic Gallery at Walker Art Center and encountered a work by Tino Sehgal. A young man, following the directions issued by the artist, was sort of crawling, sort of turning around on the floor of the empty gallery. He was moving his body in slow-motion and had his hands up to his face, sort of framing his field of vision with his fingers while he looked straight ahead or closed his eyes. I asked him what he was doing and he said something, so quietly, that I couldn’t quite understand him. Maybe he said “ I see it there” or maybe he said “ Tino Sehgal” or maybe he said something else, I’m not sure.
I watched him for a while. It was beautiful. It felt like fresh air filling my heart and mind, reminding me of Stevie Winwood’s high, thin voice singing “ Can’t Find My Way Home.”Just when I thought the art market had stolen from art its power to shock, I was shocked by this project. I was shocked by its subtlety, its quietude. Watching the piece was like reading a poem. The poem operates at a different standard of time than the one we normally inhabit. Reading the poem forces us to get out of that normal time and into a slower time. Watching the piece stopped the normal time. It interrupted the normal expectations of what “ should” happen in the gallery, and this was a great pleasure for me.
Why must everything constantly make sense? I loved Tino Sehgal’s piece because it refused to make sense.The piece refused to make sense, and what shocked me was its subtlety, its quietude. I thought of other Conceptual or Performance artworks, other projects that were so different. I thought of Through the Night Softly, performed by Chris Burden in 1973, in which he crawled over broken shards of glass without a shirt and Vito Acconci’s Seedbed from that same era, in which he was hidden under a ramp in the Sonnabend Gallery, masturbating. Such projects seemed to me like the artists had something to prove, kind of an artist-manhood hazing ritual. Chris Burden once said that he wanted to be taken seriously as an artist and having yourself shot in the arm with a .22 is certainly one way to do that.
I saw another piece by Tino Sehgal in the Burnet Gallery at Walker Art Center. I’ve seen this one performed several times, by different women wearing the gallery guard uniform, in which the guard sings sweetly “ This is propaganda.” Indeed, museum and gallery exhibitions are a form of propaganda — all art is a form of propaganda, including the piece by Sehgal which sweetly announces this dichotomy. Again, I loved the work for its quietude, its poetry, its music.
I thought of another project, The House with the Ocean View, performed by Marina Abramovic in the Sean Kelly Gallery in 2002. She lived in the gallery for twelve days without eating or speaking. It seemed to me to be a kind of purification ritual after the horror of the attack on September 11. There is a quiet tension in the work; the self-negation is balanced with an equally powerful self-affirmation. I find the quiet tension in these projects bySehgal and Abramovic to be very powerful.
Our experience of an artwork occurs within the context of our own assumptions and expectations, our own hopes, fears, and ideologies. Perhaps I responded to Sehgal’s work the way I did because of my need to counter the stratosphere of the art market, the hyper-capitalism of this moment we inhabit, the hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives wasted to prove a point that never can be proven because the point keeps changing. There is too much nonsense out there; I need something that doesn’t make sense.
Conceptual art did not overturn the art market, but neither can the art market rob art entirely of its power even as it endlessly absorbs and converts art to higher levels of capital. Tino Sehgal’s work is wonderfully atmospheric and ephemeralbut neither is it immune from the market. It is now entering the market, where it will be bought and sold. Nothing is pure, clean or easy. But the work has the power to shock, in its own gentle, quiet way. It doesn’t make sense and that is beautiful.