Pier 92

I usually start my annual obligatory (imposed on me by the society I occupy, would not necessarily go otherwise) visit to the Armory Show at Pier 92 (the more intimately scaled “classic” side) before venturing into the maze of the more vast and high-ceilinged contemporary side of Pier 94. However yesterday by chance I started on Pier 94. Early in my journey I was standing with my friend Susanna Heller at a booth of a respected gallery telling her about seeing a show last year where the paintings in reality were so boring and empty that I could not find even the most banal compliment to offer to the gallerist. There was simply nothing to say about the work except that there was nothing to say about it. Upon which Susanna say, “Mira, do you remember anything about what we were just looking at?”

Ghastly huge work, all 689 inches wide of it: AIDA Makoto, “Jumble of 100 Flowers” 2017-2017. Acrylic on canvas, 79 x 689 inches.

As a living artist I have to admit that I would like to see my work well presented and represented at such an art fair, but by the end of my rather incomplete tour of Pier 94, my friends and I felt terribly tired, and further and more dangerously, dispirited about the whole idea of being artists.

Handsome paper mixed media work by Peter Linde Busk, “Everything, Everyone, Everywhere. Ends,” 2016, at Josh Lilley. In a way a perfect fair work: large and visible, eye catching, handsome, done with quality, hip and very effective mix of materials from low, cardboard, to craft, ceramic, but presented without context.

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, detail

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, detail

Only one work shone out of the blur–Florine Stettheimer’s masterpiece, Asbury Park South from 1920 (a painting scandalously deaccessioned by Fisk University in 2012) in a group exhibition organized by Jeffrey Deitch that orbited and created a lot of visual noise around it in a manner both consistent with Stettheimer’s aesthetic of excess and disruptive of the ability to properly view her painting. Many artists, including myself, have been influenced by Stettheimer, for various aspects or characteristics of her work, the narrative, the etiolated figuration, the gay sensibility in both senses of that word, the beautiful color, but in addition the works are so beautifully crafted and patented, the most beautiful colors, the most extraordinary surfaces, scumbled, dry, sculpted. This painting gave us a lift but we were still oppressed and depressed by the whole situation. Or at least I was.

Then we left selfie land and we made our way up the stairs to Pier 92. First we came upon Kathy Butterly’s works, beautifully installed at Tibor de Nagy Gallery with Shoshanna Wayne Gallery. I envy Kathy, I love ceramics and porcelain and glazes and the way color works in such media, and thus I envy her because she makes beautiful things using these elements, things that give pleasure, that people want, which is something my parents who made beautiful jewelry also did, which I can’t say that I do–my work, critical, political, and intellectual,dreamy and personal, it appears that so far it is an acquired taste! I also relate to these works because they are modest in scale and invite the viewer into a relationship that is more intimate than most of the large shiny works typical of art fairs.

Kathy Butterly, Shoshanna Wayne Gallery and Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Kathy Butterly

Next we were drawn to a Native American painting on animal hide and discovered the most beautiful and engaging group of drawings by mostly 19th century and early 20th century Plains Indians, at Donald Ellis Gallery. The inventiveness of these drawings in the artists’ efforts to depict using very reduced means (am referring to the works on paper with pencil and sometimes ink, materials which appear to be what was available to them on reservations) what they were seeing and experiencing was absolutely inspiring.

SHield and cover, Crow, Northern Plains, c.1870, buffalo hide and paint, Donald Ellis Gallery

Shield and Cover, Mescalero Apache, Southern Plains c.1880, buffalo hide and paint, Donald Ellis Gallery

Plains Indians, drawing, Donald Elllis Gallery

Plains Indians, late 19th century, Donald Ellis Gallery

I discovered a few Jack Tworkov works in a couple of galley booths: his poetic elegance and measure always sing out to me. Next an exhibition at Jonathan Boos of Jacob Lawrence works from the 30s,40s, and 50s, beautiful color, tenderly observed details, jagged forms. A small richly impasto Jess vase of flowers on a thin panel, an intense Ossorio.

Jack Tworkov, oil sketch, Hollis Taggart Gallery

Jacob Lawrence, Interior (Family), 1937. Tempera on paper, 30 3/8 x 25 1/5 inches, Jonathan Boos Gallery

Jess (Collins), Petals of Paint, 1964. Oil on plywood, 16 x 12.25 inches.

Clearly when you see older work now, it is the product of a system of filtration and of intensification, the dross of the time period has been filtered out and the richness of meaning has intensified over time as more historical information has been pressed into the work by the passing of time, but I also thought that my friends and I are perhaps the last generation that can really understand this work in a living way rather than an archeological way: we were brought up with the values of materiality, form, style, process, search for truth (belief in some kind of truth or honesty), with the analogue, the handmade, the personally developed (not as recipes that are copied and reconfigured endlessly but without the struggle that went into the initial works, as in zombie formalism) — at time when artists sought within the work rather than researched before the execution of the work. It often feels that our knowledge sets us apart–in a bad way: we can’t put our knowledge forward in the current mode of the sampled and reprocessed–often done very very proficiently–because we absorbed the initial relation to making of these older works, made by our parents, teachers, older friends. [I should add that often I am led to rethinking this impression, because at the same time there is so much art being made by young artists all over the world, with after all as much desire and imagination as any other previous generations brought to their work, yet, as Susanna pointed out, that may be truer when you see the work online, then one sees the work in person (as opposed to on Instagram, for which so much work is now both unconsciously and consciously created) and its potentially alienating synthetic nature often reasserts itself.

I have often quoted my mother’s words upon seeing a show at the Whitney on Picasso’s influence on American art. She was then 95 and, as it turns out, only a few weeks from her death, and she found it hard to stand for a long time, but in the taxi home she said, “it’s the kind of work that makes you want to go home and work.”

I should say that over my life as an artist (and I include in this my work as a writer about art) I have often gotten as much energy from work I “hated” as from work I loved, because the antagonism pushed and liberated me to move forward and live in my own time: such a relation may still be operative, but I suspect that the depression my friends and I felt comes from seeing now in a lot of art fairs work we just saw five minutes ago in our MFA student critiques, and from the fact that even those significant challenges to our world view are by now kind of old as well, though they may not feel that way to the people doing them or the collectors fawning over what seems to be the latest thing, really just by the latest person.

So Pier 94 made us want to give up on art making, with a few exceptions (some contemporary + Stettheimer, who died in 1944), Pier 92 made it possible to want to go home and work in the studio.

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I love the Met, please don’t fuck it up

First: From the New York Times front page story Wednesday, March 3, 2017, “Met Chief Quits with Museum Facing Turmoil:” “Among the names often floated are Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art; both are engaged in their own major building projects.” OH GOD NO!!!!

Second:

To: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Dear Met, Dear Board of the Met,

You are stewards of one of the best museums in the world, the excellence of its collection and the range of the collection make it unique certainly in the United States. You’ve mounted so many wonderful shows and managed to promote things that are fashionable and bring in huge crowds while also putting together tight small shows filled with revelations, presented with intelligence. In recent years one has walked through the halls filled with gratitude for the collection and for the impeccable condition of the museum. Please please don’t give up on this treasure or try to cheapen it, as so many institutions are doing. I’m sorry for Thomas Campbell, I gather he was not a very good manager or business man, I feel sorry for him because I’m sure he loves the institution where he was a curator for many years, but please don’t go for that awful managerial class of museum entrepreneurs like Govan or Lowry–MoMA may be rolling in dough and their temporary shows are often wonderful, the curators have great spirit, but its permanent collection has been effectively killed by the architecture and its acres of wasted public space are a shame for a formerly iconic institution.

I have spent my whole life since I could be trusted to go to school by myself, wandering the halls of the Met: as a teenager and to this day I will challenge myself to go in one random direction with the goal of getting lost and thereby discovering some treasure I have never seen before or haven’t seen for years, I go in sometimes to look at one work, I go to look at work from one culture one day and another culture another day, I go to be restored in my belief in art and in being an artist. I love the Met and I know so many other artists who do. Please please please don’t fuck it up by bringing the crass values of this terrible time in our nation’s history to bear on your decisions. Don’t lose faith in the treasure of which you are the stewards.

Sincerely,

Mira Schor

Artist, Writer, and Educator

 

One day after the election I went to the Met for an hour, I was extremely jumpy, in a deep state of unrest, I made a right turn on the second floor to a section I had not been in for many years, I ambled through, took some pictures, went to visit the painting I would most want to own from their collection, and left if not any less jumpy at least filled with the strength that I get from seeing art works from all periods of human history, each unequalled, each seeming to be as perfect as one would ever want a representation or an object to be, and yet that act of representation and making done over and over for millenia.

Another day, around the staircase:

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Run to See “I Am Not Your Negro”

When Raoul Peck‘s new film I Am Not Your Negro began, hardly a minute or two into it, I thought, Everyone in America must see this film, it must be shown in schools, it must be required viewing. I still think so, but as the film progressed I began to doubt if the film could reach racists of all stripes–those who would admit to being racists and those who don’t–who must be reached or we hope can be reached if the country is to move forward in the direction of justice. This doubt is not because the film isn’t good, rather it is because it is so good: it is formally complex and in that way rhetorically complex as well, although the line through is direct and radiantly clear, and it is an open question whether the kind of cinematic complexity of non-linear montage praised by Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord, Jean-Luc Godard,and others for their ability to break into blind acceptance of political norms can function when popular news culture is so degraded.

I Am Not Your Negro is not a conventional documentary film by any means. It is a film essay using the words of James Baldwin to reflect upon the historical Civil Rights movement and the continued status of blacks in America, in which past (historical news footage and film clips taken from the history of popular culture since the beginning of recorded cinema) and present (violent and disturbing news coverage from Ferguson as well as lyrical footage of New York City and other landscapes from Baldwin’s narrative) fluidly intermingle. The narrative–established around an unfinished work in which Baldwin hoped to address the history of the Civil Rights movement, and more deeply the basis of our country in racism, through the lives and the deaths of three men, Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr., all major figures in the Civil Rights movement, all assassinated, all personal friends of James Baldwin–moves with a kind of forward motion, but the complexity of the montage creates a equally complex mirror for the citizen who must understand how she is implicated.

This little moment of doubt does not diminish my belief that this is a film that must be seen by everyone, powerful and beautiful. It is a treasure trove of  important historical footage: a TV talk show hosted by Kenneth B. Clark, with Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Baldwin himself, where Malcom X attacked King as an Uncle Tom; Baldwin speaking to a West Indian Group in London in 1969; the famed debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”, Baldwin’s notable appearance on The Dick Cavett Show; a TV morning news talk show on the eve of the March on Washington in 1963, including, in addition to James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston (yes!), and Joseph Mankiewicz–among other things we get a glimpse at how much serious discourse on important issues took place on network television in the 60s.


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At the center of the film is Baldwin himself, speaking. He is an intensely compelling figure, as eloquent at Shakespeare and as riveting a performer as the greatest actors in the history of film and theater, in what he says but also in how his intonations, the expressions of his face, his slight elegant body carry and amplify the power of his words. Each word rings like the bell of a Medieval Cathedral, crystal clear,  eloquent, passionate,  dismissive, razor-sharp, with a powerful use of a unique intonation and pauses that are living demonstrations of a brain sorting through complex and emotionally charged thought to find the most eloquent formulation possible, all from one of the most remarkable looking of men, a vivid expressive face, a slight small gay male body.

The script for the film is exclusively Baldwin’s own writing, taken from many sources, listed in the final credits for the film. I would love to have the script with all the sources clearly indicated. [I have not yet had a chance to see this book but it sounds like it is what I am wishing for.] This would be a uniquely useful teaching tool, to be able to show the movie and have an accompanying textbook of the script, annotated with historical context for each writing, with a timeline placing his literary and political writing into a historical timeline, something that the film does impressionistically and synecdotally, through an inspired usage of very diverse film clips.

Thinking of all the different clips and photos, it occurs to me that it may be important to say this film is the anti-Ken Burns: no offense to Burns’ signature style, but this blows through pan and scan. You never feel comforted by the formulaic.

The narration of Baldwin’s text is by Samuel L. Jackson. Since I have long been familiar with Baldwin’s own voice and intonations, it was at first a bit trying to hear his words read in a precise yet somewhat uniformly mournful tone by Jackson, a voice which pales in comparison to Baldwin’s powerful use of cadence and his entire physical affect, but the words are so true to our current situation that the narration is more powerful than the reader.

The film has so much to teach about race relations in the United States not just historically but today. In recent months some have been surprised to find that there are so many organized groups of Neo-Nazis all around the country, so it is revelatory, again, to see pictures of young white men in the South openly carrying swastikas in the 1950s and 60s. The film brings terrifying recent footage of militarized police presences together with the police violence of the 1950s and ’60s–the police weren’t as padded and militarized in their dress and equipment as now but they were just as violent–and the film also reminds us of just how violent a decade the 1960s was. This reminder is complex and troubling: on the one hand we survived that time period and during it, as a result of struggle and strategy, there was some distinct movement towards voting rights and opportunity, though at the time Baldwin, like Malcom X, warned against believing any of that was anything more than window dressing, that any of it truly addressed the underlying foundation of the country in racism, slavery, and oppression. Nevertheless, as someone who came of age in terms of political awareness during the ’60s and ’70s, there was still a governmental structure that eventually, under great pressure, grudgingly, responded. But then the doubt comes, which is affecting us all: is there anything left today in the halls of government and private power of that even grudging decency and respect for constitutional rights.

Looking at the archival footage of civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, including the actions of the children of Birmingham in 1963, you get a strong sense of the strength that comes from knowing who you are and what you are fighting for, and from carefully considered and organized education and training of all participants no matter their age, lifted by song and inspired by eloquent political and religious speech, including that of Baldwin himself, song and speech which resonate to this day.

I literally ran in the street to make the 4PM showing at the Film society of Lincoln Center yesterday. I advise you to run too. Everyone must see this film.

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J20 at the Whitney ARTISTS SPEAK OUT, Mira Schor, importance of art in politics

On Inauguration Day, I was honored to be asked to participate in J20 at the Whitney Museum ARTISTS SPEAK OUT, organized by Occupy Museums, along with many other artists, writers, and activists. It felt good to be there oat the beginning of what I think will prove to be one of the darkest periods in American history. I’m grateful to Noah Fischer of Occupy Museums and to Megan Heuer, Director of Public Programs and Public Engagement in the Whitney Museum Education Department, for inviting me to speak.

Please watch the other videos posted on YouTube if you look up J20 at the Whitney.

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