Category Archives: Art & Money

The Artist’s Life

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Detail of cartoon from the February 1, 1989 edition of Irish World and Industrial Liberator

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I am one of myriad artists to have been interviewed by Noah Davis for his article, “How To Make It As An Artist in New York”, as seen in the current issue of Crain’s. You can hear an interview with the author and myself on a corresponding podcast, found here.

“Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The Lauder Residence; courtesy Habitually Chic

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Leonard A. Lauder has one nice apartment. This observation should be fairly self-evident. Lauder was, after all, chief executive of Estée Lauder, the cosmetics giant for which he is now Chairman Emeritus. His digs are likely to be spectacular—and not worth mentioning, particularly in an exhibition review. Still, the issue will be raised for anyone attending “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection”: the first items encountered are two huge photographs of the Lauder residence, its elegant environs festooned with myriad blue-chip artworks. Did the Met really need to remind us that the rich lead different lives? This introductory moment of hubris is offset by the exhibition itself and, not least, Lauder’s generosity. Given the supercharged state of the art market, he could have cashed in his collection of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Léger to the tune of—yes, that’s right—one billion dollars. Instead, the Lauder homestead has been emptied of its treasure trove. The paintings, works-on-paper, and sculptures featured in “Cubism,” eighty-one pieces in total, are a promised gift to the Met and the rest of us as well.

Truth be told, our greatest museum’s collection of twentieth-century art has never been that great. The Met’s relationship with modern and contemporary art has been rife with false starts, misguided decisions, and significant bungles. The collection is renowned as much for glaring omissions as for the scattering of masterworks it can rightfully claim. When the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing—the section of the museum dedicated exclusively to twentieth-century art—opened in 1987, the art critic Hilton Kramer, writing in The New Criterion, bluntly asked: “Who needs it?” The Met, Kramer went on, “does not even have the shadow of a twentieth-century collection of the size and substance which this elephantine facility calls for.” As architecture, the Wallace Wing continues to be a Chinese box of pinched and ungainly galleries. Thomas Campbell, the museum’s current director, has rued its museological unsuitability. Still, the Met’s “shadow” collection has gained substance over the past three decades. The Lauder Collection will bring greater credibility to the Met’s dribs-and-drabs take on Modernism. Lauder’s gift is, in fact, among the most significant in the museum’s history.

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Pablo Picasso, Three Nudes (1906), gouache, ink, watercolor and charcoal on white laid paper, 24-3/8″ x 18-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Hyperbole? Hardly—if anything, it’s an understatement. Even in a city with no shortage of Cubist masterworks, “Cubism” is a thrilling reminder of the movement’s primacy. It’s exhausting, too. How many great pictures can a body stand? If there are more than a half dozen so-so works in The Lauder Collection, good luck finding them. Lauder came late to Cubism, acquiring the first pieces in 1976. The “shock of the new” had long since dissipated; Cubism was, for those with the cash to spend, an easy sell and increasingly difficult to come by. That didn’t prevent Lauder from amassing a collection that should be the envy of any museum you’d care to name, including the Museum of Modern Art. The consistency of the Lauder Collection is so unremitting that even the most doctrinaire Picassophile may forgive the absence of a seminal work like Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon. Besides, at a historical moment when MOMA’s permanent collection has been reshuffled for the sake of this-or-that trend—not fatally, mind you, but enough to make one worry about its vital signs—who’s to say The Met, with the Lauder gift in tow, won’t become the go-to stop for early Modernism?

The Lauder Collection includes two studies for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, as well as Three Nudes (1906), a diaphanous Rose Period sketch for a never-realized painting that may depict a brothel, and certainly evinces a young Picasso beginning to disrupt the conventions of pictorial space. Elsewhere, we see Picasso and his fellow “mountaineer” in Cubism, George Braque, tussle with the pictorial fracturing put in motion by Cézanne, and subsequently watch them disrupt representation without sacrificing it altogether. The exhibition is divided into didactic sections that are light in touch: the close relationship between Picasso and Braque is informatively glanced upon, as is the use of color by a notoriously monochromatic movement. The introduction of collage is given significant space, and there are hints of the Constructivism that would follow in its wake. Picasso outnumbers Braque two-to-one in terms of the number of pieces on display, but the latter artist holds his own—testimony, at least in part, to their rigorous interdependence during Cubism’s formative years. Turns out, Braque needed Picasso’s flash as much as Picasso gained rigor from Braque’s more tempered approach.

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Juan Gris, Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth (2015), oil and graphite on canvas, 45-7/8″ x 35-1/8″

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If Picasso and Braque were the pioneers of Cubism, Léger and Gris were two of its most accomplished practitioners, codifying stylistic innovation in the service of complete and utterly distinct worldviews. Léger’s machine-based aesthetic is seen at its most elegant within the steely gradations of Three Women (1920), and its most muscular in The Smoker (1914) and Houses Under the Trees (1913), “tubist” masterworks that all but rollick off the wall. The gallery devoted exclusively to Gris is something special, if only because he’s given short shrift in New York museums and, for that matter, the standard telling of art history. A classicist in temperament with a deft hand for pearlescent shifts of tone, Gris brought an exacting intelligence to Cubism that mark him as something more—much more—than a mere follower. Gris’s use of collage carries with it greater wit than Braque ever managed and his palette is not only engagingly discordant, but more structurally sure than anything Léger and, especially, Picasso put into order. Thank Leonard Lauder for not stinting on this sly, sleek, and surprisingly eccentric figure. But thank him mostly for a bit of philanthropy that will continue to provide pleasure (and puzzlement) for generations to come.

© 2014 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 edition of The New Criterion.

“Maurizio Cattelan: All” at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Installation of Maurizio Cattelan: All at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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“One of the most audacious exhibitions in the Guggenheim’s half-century”—so reads the subway advertisement for Maurizio Cattelan: All, an exhibition organized by Nancy Spector, the museum’s Deputy Director and Chief Curator, along with the Associate Curator Katherine Brinson. The quote is from a New York Times profile of the artist by Randy Kennedy. We shouldn’t necessarily expect critical insights from a puff piece, but even an arts journalist like Kennedy must know the bad faith he’s peddling. The most striking thing about the Cattelan exhibition is, after all, its lack of audacity. Nothing daring can be generated by an artist whose sole and defining impetus is playing to the audience.

By “audience” I don’t refer only to that vexing creature known as the “art world”—the denizens of which are schooled, to one degree or another, in its vagaries. I also include men and women who don’t rely on the latest edition of Artforum for intellectual enlightenment—curiosity seekers whose range of interests are broader, or different, than any one subculture will allow. (Some of them may not even care about art.) Even so, Cattelan will likely strike people as par for the course. We’ve reached a stage in world culture where artists are expected to be, you know, out there. When one or another doesn’t occasion a splash, it can be kind of disappointing. Art, as the sage Andy Warhol reputedly had it, is what you can get away with.

Mauricio Cattelan

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The artist as con-man and provocateur—it’s a cliché (and a profitable one, at that). The marketplace thrives on the type, however received or cynical his machinations, as do our tastemakers. The collective willingness to be suckered by the cheapest of impulses says much about the failings of contemporary art culture. But what about the theory-benighted folks filing up and down the Guggenheim’s ramp and taking in the oeuvre of this (or so the Guggenheim tells it) “provocateur, prankster, and tragic poet”? From all appearances, they’re approaching Cattelan’s willfully deadpan transgressions with good will. And why not? The exhibition is, as these things go, pretty clever, and, in the end, nothing to get riled about. Maurizio Cattelan: All is a non-event posing as a spectacle.

The primary thing to know about the show is that the galleries lining the museum’s rotunda are empty. No traditional chronology or accounting of output for the puckish Italian: the corpus is hung with cables suspended from an armature toward the top of the Guggenheim’s roof. Imagine a gigantic mobile whose constituent parts have been contrived by Madame Tussaud and the staff of Mad Magazine—with a Duchampian flourish, of course. As a feat of engineering, the installation—comprised, as it is, of 128 disparate pieces—is a marvel and, given the adroit sense of placement and interval, rather artful. Traverse Frank Lloyd Wright’s ramp and you’ll see how the work has been choreographed. The effect is elegant, measured, and sculptural.

Just don’t mistake Cattelan for a sculptor. Though the work is, by and large, three-dimensional, it hasn’t been crafted with an eye toward mass, void, material, or space. Instead, each piece is a cartoon made concrete. The majority iterate tropes lifted from Dadaism, Surrealism, and Pop. Taking off from Miró’s Object (1936) and Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram (1955–59), with a pinch of Un Chien Andalou thrown in for good measure, Cattelan utilizes the remains of horses, donkeys, dogs, cats, elephants, and ostriches to mild comic effect. That’s not all. Here you’ll find an over-sized Picasso marionette; there, a distended shopping cart. The unifying element is a series of draped bodies, all presumably dead. There are effigies of religious figures, shapely babes, a dead JFK, a boyish Adolph Hitler, and, repeatedly, the artist himself. Say this much: Cattelan provides gainful employment for a raft of carpenters, taxidermists, and wax-workers.

Installation of Maurizio Cattelan: All at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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The fifty-one-year old Cattelan recently announced his retirement from art-making, citing the decision as an “extra project that will complete the retrospective.” I have a suggestion for how he should while away his remaining days. A few years back, Pope Benedict XVI asked contemporary artists to enter a “dialogue between aesthetics and ethics, between beauty, truth and goodness . . . and daily reality.” The Holy See’s invitation—his challenge, really—was made in response to the Catholic-bashing that is a regular fixture of the contemporary scene. Cattelan established his own anti-Catholic cred with La Nona Oralso (1999), a life-size depiction of Pope John Paul II struck by a meteor. (It’s included at the Guggenheim.) Here’s my thought: What if Cattelan forsook funhouse self-aggrandizement and spent his golden years making art that embodied all that is true and noble about the church and, not least, “daily reality”? It’s a stretch, but imagine if he went ahead and did it. Now that would be audacious.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Originally published in the January 2012 edition of The New Criterion.

Slumming in Corona

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Tania Bruguera at work; courtesy James Estrin and The New York Times

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Standing at the art department photocopier the other morning, reeling off the latest assignment for my students, I discovered a copy of this article in the print-out tray. Wish I hadn’t. The last thing we need is a reminder of the extent to which art is pimped in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement, political posturing and rank hypocrisy.

But, well, there she is:  Performance artist and Guggenheim fellow Tania Bruguera living amongst the working poor, ensconced with eleven other people in a tiny apartment  in Corona, Queens. What’s she doing there? Bruguera is out to improve the image of illegal immigrants. That, and she wants to feel their pain.

“I don’t want to hear things in the office–I want to live them. I want to have the anxiety. Those are things I have to feel on my skin.”

How much anxiety one can truly experience on a stipend of $85,000.00 is a good question. That’s the amount awarded to the “high concept” provocateur by Creative Time, a non profit arts group, and The Queens Museum of Art. Both institutions are funding Bruguera’s performance piece, Immigrant Movement International. They’re doing it in the cause of “defy[ing] typical art rules.”

Bruguera’s stint with the down-trodden is a one-year venture. After she’s finished “addressing the disparity of engagement between informed audiences and the general public,” it’s out of Corona (phew!) and back to the Pompidou Center, the Venice Bienniale and P.S. 1–the only Queens locale Bruguera had visited prior to the Immigrant project. Makes you wonder where Bruguera’s current set of roommates will jet off to at the end of their one-year tenure. Oh, wait . . .

In the meantime, the artist is flummoxed by the puzzlement she’s engendered within her adopted community. “I explained to them four times what I’m doing already. They don’t get it. They’re not very excited.” Bruguera goes on to say that:

“They don’t want any art at all . . . [they want] very concrete and mundane things.”

Concluding, she opines:  “This is what their life is.” Condescension that doesn’t know its name is an ugly thing.

Sam Dolnick’s article has enough between-the-lines snark to give you an idea of what he thinks of Berguera’s pandering. Thank the Lord the usual suspects at the Times–hey, Roberta; what’s up, Holland?didn’t put in their oh-so-equanimous two cents on Immigrant Movement International. Then again, maybe they did.

If so, I don’t want to know about it.

© 2011 Mario Naves

God Bless America

Among the artists representing the United States at the upcoming Venice Biennale is a man who embodies all that is true and noble about our fair country, a figure for whom the tenets put forth by the Founding Fathers are hallowed and guiding principles. That, and he enjoys a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon when getting a blowjob.

At least, that’s the rationale for Tony Matelli’s Ideal Woman (1998-99). Ideal, you say? Sure: The woman is the right height to perform fellatio without having to get on her knees; she has no teeth; and she possesses a flat skull upon which one can rest a bottle of beer. Matelli based the piece on a vaguely remembered cartoon from the pages of Hustler–which is, apparently, reason enough to realize it in three dimensions.

Oh, and the features of Ideal Woman were based on Matelli’s girlfriend of the time. Ah, love!

I don’t know if Ideal Woman will be appearing at the Biennale, but something similarly slick and sophomoric will; that is, after all, Matelli’s forté. In the meantime, there are pictures to be painted, laundry to be washed and international art fairs to be bemused by.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Who The Fuck Is Josh Smith?

Detail ImageJosh Smith, Untitled (2008), mixed media on panel, 60″ x 48″; courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery

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The title for this post was my response upon learning, via a painter friend, that Josh Smith had been pegged as a U.S. representative for the upcoming Venice Biennale.

A cursory Google search revealed–now I remember! That guy who makes too many pictures; the guy who shows at Luhring Augustine, The New Museum, at venues that don’t have much truck with serious painting. An artist who cruises on diversion, speed and product. Yeah, right; been there, done that. Next!

A proud advocate of disposability, Smith explains that placing his “mannered style of graffiti” on non-archival materials:

“Takes the commodity out of art . . . it’s purely about looking, and to take pressure off the idea of art as object.”

No commodity fetishism for Smith even as he depends upon the largesse of billionaire art collector Peter Brant to keep it crankin’. Brant is so enamored of the work, as Carol Vogel told it in Friday’s New York Times, that he’s fêting Smith with a solo exhibition at his private museum in Greenwich, Connecticut.

God bless them both–Brant for his generosity, Smith for the happy turn of events. We should all be so fortunate. But no one should mistake all of the above for “purely about looking”.

© 2011 Mario Naves

It’s Good To Be The King

20070601gagosian.jpgLarry Gagosian; photo courtesy Getty Images

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A painter friend tipped me off to Kelly Crow’s article about Larry Gagosian in last Friday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. It’s chock-full of stupefying amounts of money and the rare moment of clarity. Here’s Dallas collector Howard Rachofsky caught momentarily flinching:

“Sometimes we don’t know if the stuff we’re buying [from Gagosian] is historically significant, but because the prices are so high, we need to believe they’re important.”

Mr. Rachofsky is cruising on faith, don’t you know.

All of which prompts me to drag this piece on big girls and 800 lb. gorillas from out of the archives.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Paint As You Like And Die Happy

Henry Miller, Pax Vobiscum (undated), watercolor on paper, 28″ x 21″; courtesy Henry Miller Private Collection

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The above sentiment is the title of a book featuring the paintings of Henry Miller–that’s right, the author of once-deemed pornographic, banned-in-the-U.S.A. novels like Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn.

The last time I thought about the Miller book was some thirty years ago when I came across it in my local bookstore as an undergraduate painting major. (Publishers haven’t thought about it much either:  Paint As You Like And Die Happy is out-of-print. The lone used copy available at Amazon will set you back $249.99.) As an oh-so-serious art student, I scoffed at Miller’s naiveté. Free choice and happiness? Give me a break. Didn’t Miller know that we artistes were changing (urgh) the course (grunt) of history (bingo!). I was busy, dammit–busy saving civilization.

Nowadays? Screw it. Not that we should be cavalier about culture–if 9/11 taught Americans anything, it’s that civilization is forever a tenuous proposition–nor should artists rest on what few laurels they might possess. But as a middle-aged painter, I’m less interested in Significant Art than in getting to the studio and making pictures. The art scene, with its attendant hoopla, commodity fetishism and rare moments of grace, can take care of itself.

Peter Plagens Untitled 2007.  Mixed media on canvas, 48 x 44 inches.  Courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery  Peter Plagens, Untitled (2007), mixed media on canvas, 48 x 44 inches; courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery

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All of which was brought to mind by I Don’t Give A Damn/Every Moment Counts, an exhibition of abstract paintings and works-on-paper by Peter Plagens. “I’ve been around long enough”, the artist and critic writes,

“To understand that a lot of superficial, attention getting ‘stuff’, now seems pretty unimportant . . . life is short and getting shorter.  So there’s an urgency afoot with me about getting done what I feel needs to be done.”

A self-described “card-carrying existentialist”, Plagens may find Miller’s notion of “dying happy” too much of a dilettante’s la-di-dah to warrant serious consideration. But Plagens’ paintings–alternately brainy, clunky and bumptiously chock-a-block; their uniformity mitigated by precision and good humor–evince a sensibility invigorated by the self-sufficiency of vision.

Plagens cites the Austin-based country-rocker Jerry Jeff Walker as a jumping-off point, but Chuck Berry could do just as well. Whatever it takes to paint as you like and live happy.

© 2011 Mario Naves

The Scull Collection at Acquavella Galleries, Inc.

Andy Warhol, Ethel Scull Thirty-Six Times (1963), synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 79-3/4″ x 143-1/4″; courtesy Acquavella Galleries, Inc.

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“Show me the money!” a matronly woman exclaimed upon entering Robert & Ethel Scull: Portrait of a Collection, the current Acquavella Galleries exhibition.

The other members of her group shushed her, albeit with knowing smiles. A gallery attendant warned the tour guide that if his well-heeled charges damaged any of the objects on display, they would be “ruining it for everyone.” And it did seem that “everyone” was there.

On the first day of the show, 15 minutes after the gallery opened to the public, Acquavella was pretty well packed. Not bad for a Tuesday morning on a sunny April day. Clearly, Portrait of a Collection is an event.

Acquavella has scored a coup, that’s for sure. Organized by Judith Goldman, a former curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Portrait of a Collection gathers together 44 artworks originally acquired by the taxi magnate and his socialite wife. (Robert died of a heart attack at the age of 70 in 1986; Ethel died, at 79, in 2001.)

The trajectory of the New York art scene is unimaginable without the Sculls. Bob and Ethel—or “Spike” as she was known among friends—began collecting in the mid-1950s. They initially focused on Abstract Expressionism but were soon diverted by Pop Art—though it bears mentioning the movement was, at that point in time, without a name. Buying art “with their gut” (as Goldman puts it), the Sculls embraced, promoted and were patrons to what was essentially a bunch of unknowns. Given that these nobodies became fixtures of the international art scene, the Sculls’ collective eye proved prescient and, in the end, hugely influential.

The artists whose work was purchased by the Sculls reads like a blue-chip wet dream: Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Philip Guston, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Lee Bontecou, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, Lucas Samaras, Tom Wesselman and George Segal. Johns was a favorite; at one point, the Sculls owned 22 pieces, including signature works like Map (1961), The Critic Sees (1964) and Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) (1960).

Ethel Scull 36 Times (1963) was Warhol’s first commissioned portrait. The Sculls acquired Rosenquist’s epochal F-III (1964-65), thereby guaranteeing that the monumental, multi-canvas painting would not be broken up and sold piecemeal. Bob and Spike took particular interest in Earthworks and funded ambitious projects such as Michael Heizer’s Nine Nevada Depressions(1968).

In 1973, the Sculls put a major portion of the collection up for auction. Though the $2.2 million reaped by the couple may be chicken feed by the standards of today’s art economy, it was nonetheless a significant chunk of change—scandalous, too. The huge return on the Sculls’ investments earned the enmity of the art world elite, as if the profit-motive were somehow beyond its moral compass. Snobbery undoubtedly fueled the accusations; the “banal, nouveau riche” Robert was, after all, the son of Russian immigrants from the Lower East Side.

Artists were angry, too. Paintings, sculptures and what-have-you bought directly from the studio for a few hundred bucks were auctioned off at significantly higher prices. Rauschenberg famously started a shoving match with Robert Scull when he heard about the sale. But almost every artist included in the collection benefited from it being scattered. History shows us that the Scull auction led to bigger prices, bigger names and, in fairly linear fashion, our own over-heated and over-hyped art market.

Anyone inured to the standard historical iterations of post-war American art will find Portrait of a Collection prophetic, splashy and predictable.

Borrowing works from major museums and important private collections, curator Goldman makes a token stopover at the New York School—de Kooning’s Police Gazette (1955) being the highlight—and then quickly turns to the warmed-over Dadaism ultimately favored by the Sculls.  The shift is Johns’ By The Sea (1961), a stenciled play on the words “red,” “yellow” and “blue” keyed to a soft, sludgy gray. After that, the hits keep on coming.

Quizzical figures like Myron Stout, Peter Young and William Crozier are dwarfed, by reputation if not quality, by the usual Pop-wise suspects. The Sculls seem not to have had much truck with Minimalism or Conceptualism, but otherwise their tastes form the mainstream version of 1960s art.

Of course, Portrait of a Collection isn’t really about art: It’s about enthusiasm, the luck of the draw and being in the right place at the right time. And money, of course. Talking to The New York Times, gallery founder William Acquavella noted that none of the works are for sale. Which doesn’t mean the bottom line won’t figure into it at some point in time or that the exhibition isn’t keying into a moment when art—or, rather, the prestige surrounding it—is valued beyond the point of parody.

There’s nothing wrong with dealers, artists and, yes, collectors wanting to make a buck, but that doesn’t mean viewers have to capitulate to the flashy venality that is the hallmark of the contemporary scene. The Acquavella show pinpoints the moment when art became an adjunct—sometimes willing, sometimes not—to arrant capital. In that regard, Portrait of a Collection gives more pause than pleasure.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the April 20, 2010 edition of City Arts.

 

Urs Fischer at The New Museum

Urs Fischer, Noisette (2009), mixed media; courtesy The New Museum

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I had the bad luck of visiting The New Museum on the day Urs Fischer’s tongue went missing. Not the Swiss artist’s actual tongue, mind you, but Noisette (2009), a prosthetic tongue that (from all accounts) jutted lasciviously from a hole in the wall at regular intervals. A New Museum attendant informed me that a Fischer enthusiast had yanked Noisette from out of the wall earlier in the morning. A makeshift out-of-order label thanked visitors for their “patience and understanding.” How well the piece functions as art will remain unknown, at least to this observer. Given the overall blandness of Fischer’s slick, big-budget Neo-Dadaism—is there any other kind nowadays?—I’m not inclined to revisit the New Museum in order to watch a mechanical tongue restored to working order. Some mysteries aren’t worth unraveling.

Especially when they aren’t all that mysterious. Fischer is, after all, the art world’s latest bad boy—a sobriquet that still counts for something among contemporary tastemakers. A few years back, Fischer dug an eight-foot crater in his art dealer’s gallery. You (2007) cost his promoter, Gavin Brown, a quarter of a million dollars, but it was money well spent: The stunt helped solidify the artist’s reputation as an enfant terrible. Fischer and Brown garnered the requisite amount of notice, and the piece, such as it was, elicited huzzahs. Writing in New York, the critic Jerry Saltz described it as “an inversion machine” that “pulsated with erotic energy.” One man’s rubble is another man’s turn-on, I guess.

There’s nothing so dramatic as a bombed-out pit at the New Museum. What you get is the kind of sleek spectacle—three floors of it—favored by those who confuse clever notions for deep thought. One gallery is covered with a wallpaper facsimile of itself. The “Exit” sign, ceiling lights—even the stippled texture of painted walls—have all been photographed and transferred onto long sheets of vinyl toned a musty gray. Taken together, they are, so we’re told in the accompanying brochure, an essay in trompe l’oeil. Except that Fischer isn’t out to fool the eye: like most conceptual artists, he couldn’t care less about illusion or metaphor. He’s a literalist intent on flaunting his own cunning. “Look at me!” he shouts, even as he hires myriad paper-hangers to do the pasting and trimming.

Fischer’s art is pure stratagem; his highly engineered novelties are pulled off with soulless panache. At best, his work is about as wise as a whoopee cushion. Walk down the John S. Wotowisc stairwell, and you’ll find neon lights (of a sort anyway) assembled from carrots, cucumbers, and plastic fingers. Elsewhere, a taxidermied butterfly alights upon a levitating croissant. Both are cute: Fischer hyperinflates these trivial conceits because, well, he can. High production values unconcerned with aesthetic necessity reign. The second floor is a maze of mirrored boxes, each of which is punctuated by a large-scale photo of this or that object: a telephone booth, an éclair, a ladder, and so on. It’s a conversation piece, for sure, but once the funhouse aspect wanes, viewers are left to mull over just what all those rebounding, declamatory images might signal—other than one artist’s hubris, of course.

The only pieces that get by do so largely because of other (and better) artworks they bring to mind. Five craggy, aluminum monoliths originated as lumps of clay Fischer squeezed in his hand; they were subsequently scanned into a computer and manufactured at fifty times the size. If you were to guess that there’s a concomitant slackness in sculptural rigor and presence, you’d be right. The sculptors William Tucker and Hans Josephson work with similar forms and on a similar scale, but they do so with a profound understanding of mass, craft, texture, volume, and, not least, the primordial longings from which their art takes off and gains strength.

Tucker and Josephson are serious artists with hard-won distinctive visions. Fischer, in stark contrast, is a poseur with the means to indulge his slightest whim. What happens when his benefactors latch onto The Next Big Thing and the Fischer funding dries up will likely be a sobering experience. His true mettle as an artist will be tested. In the meantime, the rest of us have the option to pick and choose our own amusements.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the January 2010 issue of The New Criterion.