Tag Archives: MoMA P.S.1

Intimacy and Spectacle 2: answering a questionnaire about contemporary art museums

I like it when someone asks me a question on something I might not ordinarily think about or write about: I can’t help but start to wrap my mind around it and I may even get so involved that I answer at length when brevity might have made more sense. A case in point: last week I received a Facebook message from someone I didn’t know (not even a FB friend at the time) asking me if I would answer some questions about the contemporary art museum. I didn’t know whether he had read my recent blog post Intimacy and Spectacle 1 though his message did come a couple of days after that was published. But I was intrigued because issues raised by MoMA’s recently announced building plans have been on my mind, so I answered his message and I received the following questions under the rubric “Questions about (contemporary) art museums – Dissertation of Cultural Management / Portugal” from Juan Gonçalves who is working on a dissertation developed within the MA in Cultural Management from the University of Madeira, UMa, 2013-2014. Once I started answering his questions I got so carried away that I thought I might as well share the letter on my blog, which Juan agreed to, since he can quote from the blog in his dissertation. I don’t know much about the program he is working and I have not been to Portugal so my response is lacking a sense of his context.

These were his questions:

1.The definition of a contemporary art museum is still valid? Would you suggest another?

2.How to break the barriers that still impose the museums of contemporary art and its audience?

3.How the contemporary museology works in this economic crisis?

4.What is the best architecture for a contemporary art museum?

5.What can you say about contemporary art museums in Portugal? And about the artists?

Here are my answers:

Dear Juan Gonçalves,

Thanks for asking my opinion on questions about the contemporary art museum. I am not an expert in museology so I am speaking primarily as an artist though also as an educator, and art writer. My opinions are principally coming from my own desire to be able to see art so that I can really see it—I was going to say to experience it but that word “experience” already gets into the spectacle or entertainment regime that museums are increasingly obsessed with.

1.The definition of a contemporary art museum is still valid? Would you suggest another?
I don’t think much about it: I’m more concerned with what is in a museum than what its name is but I have accepted the nomenclature of contemporary art museum. I do want to see contemporary art or new art, and a so-called museum of contemporary art is a place in which to see what some people think is going on, but the academic/corporate category contemporary art doesn’t interest me that much, even though I consider myself a contemporary artist.

As it is frequently noted, contemporary art is a contradictory or oxymoronic category. Nothing remains contemporary and even to define what is contemporary art is difficult—the essays in e-flux journal’s 2010 book What Is Contemporary Art? ended up more haunted by modernism than definitive about the character of the contemporary. Is all art made today–thus, literally, contemporary–considered suitable to be shown in museums of contemporary art? No. We know that most art being made today will not be shown in museums of contemporary art because certain determinations have been about what is contemporary: usually new media and technology, theater, spectacle, and participation, as well as a focus on young artists and responsibilities to the global.

One goes to a contemporary art museum to learn about the contemporary moment, what the art selected by a defined international academic/corporate cadre will tell us about the world we live in, for better or worse. Whatever is considered contemporary art by the contemporary art museum is cultural utterance of interest although what the work exhibited actually says about this particular historical moment may not be as evident to us in the present moment as we think, because, as suggested by Walter Benjamin, the artwork contains “unintentional truth” about the present that is so much part of our ideological frame that it is invisible to us but its trace will become transparent over time. Whether it is “truth,” which would sound absolute and unchangeable, is not as relevant as the fact that another truth about the contemporary art work will be visible in it as time passes and the work is no longer contemporary. One problem is that the contemporary art museum is principally meant to define the present to the present but it ends up writing art history, so much from a time period may be lost because a narrow cadre left it out. That is a problem because the pressure of being contemporary allows no time for things to sort themselves out, for the sediment to fall to the bottom of the test tube. I should note that our particular contemporary seems particularly uninterested in time, in history either looking back or looking forward–but maybe people were already saying things like that in 1850! In any case artists, curators, and museum directors can only do what they can do or see what they can see at a moment in time based on knowledge and motives  specific to that time.

Because of the nature of the newness of contemporary art there is the problem of where commercial galleries’ role ends and contemporary art museums’ roles begin. But it is interesting for a museum to try to keep up with and try to define and present the contemporary at any given moment. And it can be useful to the viewer with some experience in art if this kind of investigation takes place in a museum with some sort of institutional history that gives the curatorial choices a context. My memory goes back to some of the early Projects exhibitions and the Information show at MoMA, which had a stronger impact from appearing in the context of canonical modernism. So perhaps the museum of contemporary art is too limited a situation, the contemporary makes more sense and is more exciting if seen in the context of the past.

In terms of a category of museum of contemporary art, the model of the Kunsthalle without permanent collection is a good one also, in addition to the more conventional modern/contemporary museum. I think it is important to have both kinds of institutions. In the United States we don’t seem to have that much of a Kunsthalle culture though the New Museum functions that way here in New York and there are a few other institutions like that around the country. smaller centers of contemporary art often have the freedom to put together more heterodox and imaginative visions of the present because pressures of the market don’t totally penetrate the local. I think it is great to have that kind of institution as well as larger museums with a mix of permanent collection and special exhibitions.

2.How to break the barriers that still impose the museums of contemporary art and its audience?
All museums today, not only specifically museums of contemporary art, are interested in attracting large audiences mostly for commercial, economic reasons. That is true if they are private institutions or supported by the state. On Wikipedia’s entry for museology there is a section on “Tourism as a vehicle for success.” Any art of any time period can be of interest to any audience, I am convinced of it, so long as there is access, financially and through education programs. It is not necessary to pander to “the audience.” But museums and in particular contemporary art museums are now thinking about audience mostly in terms of traffic flow, how many people can be cycled through the galleries to the restaurant and the gift shop. They give that basic commercial desire a theoretical or political gloss by talking about the “audience” the way leftists might speak about “the people.” There is genuine idealism in institutional educational outreach programs, most museums offer fantastic resources for the community although there is still a huge gap between a general audience which might find any art museum an intimidating place but as older museums showing a range of art including but not limited to the contemporary probably do just as well as contemporary museums in attracting culturally and economically diverse audiences. Even if you add all the features that you think will attract a younger audience, you still are dealing primarily with a privileged audience. The museum is still intimidating, it takes more to make less privileged audiences feel welcome and able to take advantage of opportunities for access the museum may offer. This past summer the New York Times published a story about a young woman who hung out in the lobby of the  Brooklyn Museum because it was air conditioned. She became interested in the one art work she could see for free from her vantage point, Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps. She didn’t venture any further because she couldn’t afford the admission fee until finally a friend told her that it was only a suggested fee.

To get the most traffic flow, it seems to be desirable to design museums and curate shows that will function as good backdrops for selfies. The so-called “experience economy” is not only predicated on giving people thrills of some kind, but also and perhaps even more on giving people something which is actually the opposite of what I consider an experience of art, it is the experience of taking pictures of yourself in front of something, the art is a ready made set for your photo-op. Some of those “backdrops” (the art and the architecture) are terrific, and it’s Pavlovian, I get sucked into the selfie regime as quickly as the next person: I have a whole collection of self-portraits taken in contemporary artworks made of shiny reflective material. Maybe that emphasis on self within spectacle is one characteristic of contemporary art.

Self-portrait with Susan Bee, Armory Fair, 2010

Self-Portrait with Susan Bee, Armory Fair, 2012

You get the picture. One had gone from a slightly discredited art historical model of the work of art as reflection of society to contemporary art as an actual reflective surface in which the viewer can see herself.

But I am happiest when I can wander through a quiet, elegant, even modest museum that makes it possible for me to have a meaningful interaction with an artwork, even just one real experience of seeing is enough, in a day. I need to hear myself think, even if I am in a crowded space. This may sound old fashioned and art object oriented but in my capacity as a teacher, I have noticed how hard it is for my students to actually see the art in museums — I guess here I do mean painting and sculpture and objects— how hard it is even to really focus on more spectacular video installations, not that they can’t, they may respond more immediately to such installations which are more accessible to them, but they may also just be sitting down so they can check their email. This can lead to cynicism and alienation in a demographic that is paradoxically the presumed principal target of the contemporary museum of contemporary art, under the guise of a fun-house atmosphere aimed at pleasing just that demographic. Everyone feels the loss of human scale, the difference between my generation is that perhaps we can pinpoint the reason we feel a certain way within these new spaces because we did have experiences of human scale within museums of contemporary art: the Pasadena Art Museum in the 70s was such a place, for example, and, of course, the much mourned Museum of Modern Art in NY pre-1983 and pre-2006. Your questions came just at a moment when it occurs to me that most of my students have only experienced the 2006 version and when we (people born before 1980) express our dismay about a type of museum experience and a type of relation to art that we feel is lost, they basically can have no idea what we are talking about.

(images above from Isaac Julien, Ten Thousand Waves, MoMA, 2013)

Curiously some of the commercial galleries that represent the apotheosis of the contemporary art industry and market, such as, here in NY, Gagosian and Zwirner, have been able to mount museum quality shows the past few years, including for example excellent Picasso and Frankenthaler exhibitions at Gagosian and the recent exhibition of Ad Reinhardt’s work at Zwirner, in spaces that either are as beautiful as any museum or that are just functional in a good way, with few frills, just good walls and space. Because their financial motivation is on another level than who walks in the door to see the work, they don’t have to try to attract the entertainment-seeking “audience” since the real business is taking place elsewhere. And, although galleries may seem even more elitist than museums, actually these shows are free, there is no admission price at all.

The reverse example might be the international art fair, for example Frieze’s fair on Randall’s Island in New York, a kind of upscale Shangri-La of contemporary art seen from the point of view of the market, which, some might argue, is contemporary art. In fact the Frieze fair model is really a perfect manifestation of a contemporary art museum: it is open about being a function of the art market, works must compete instantaneously with a very wide though certainly not comprehensive selection of contemporary art made around the world, the designers make an effort to give smaller works some space but it is busy and there is a tendency for art which is large, shiny, or in some other way spectacular and photogenic to do particularly well. And the whole thing is not just contemporary but temporary, which really makes it a representative instance of the contemporary.

But many of these newly built contemporary art museums are designed so that they will accommodate large installations and events and that scale will then influence the production of future contemporary art that will tend to the large, the spectacular, the entertaining because those are the modes that will function best spatially and as images. Such spaces are less likely to nurture or support more intimate work and also experimental work including art of social engagement which seeks to engage with the world outside the walls of the elite institution.

So, as you can tell, contemporary art museum or any art museum as fun house for the Google iPhone generation is not my favorite, or, it is fine, so long as beautiful museums are not destroyed in order to achieve those goals. As you know, currently New Yorkers are upset about MoMA’s plans to put the last nail in the coffin of what was one of the most meaningful art experiences. The response to their new plan on the part of artists, architects, architectural critics is hatred and contempt, rage and mourning. Most of us already disliked the Taniguchi remake so much we didn’t expect it could get any worse.

3.How does contemporary museology work in this economic crisis?
The current economic crisis of course makes it all the more tempting for museums to try to make themselves desirable to a tourist audience and to people who are interested in the museum as just another glamorous fun place to hang out and take pictures, where art is peripheral and everything leads to the gift shop. It also makes museums more vulnerable to the machinations of their board members.

4.What is the best architecture for a contemporary art museum?

I enjoy museums with spectacular architectural designs, as art objects in themselves. But it is amazing how egotistical these spaces can be when it comes to accommodating the art works they are supposed to present. I recently visited Zaha Hadid’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in East Lansing, Michigan: it is really beautiful both outside and inside, like a gleaming silver spaceship that happens to have touched down in a college town on the flat plains of the American mid-West. However most of the interior exhibition walls are at an angle, which in some spots induces vertigo, and which makes it a pretty eccentric place to look at painting, drawing and photography, not terrible, in some cases works actually look interesting, but they definitely have to struggle with the situation. Maybe that is part of the point of the design.

On the other hand a recent visit to the new updated Yale University Art Gallery is exemplary of a wonderful museum experience, where you feel like a human being, and can explore wonderful artworks in spaces that are beautiful and functional without being ostentatious and where there are shifts in scale and intimacy between small and eccentric old spaces and larger white cube spaces depending on the needs of the work. It adapts architecture from different eras and styles and I think that is a good model. And it is free which is a fantastic gift to the public.

In general, it seems that older spaces that have some history, including repurposed spaces previously used for industry or commerce, often make good spaces in which to exhibit contemporary art. MoMA Ps1, in a former public school building in Queens, NY is a good example: dimensions and characteristics of the exhibitions spaces vary in eccentric but very useful ways that allow for a variety of types of art, and the initial decision to maintain those basic dimensions spared us from contemporary architectural decisions that might be detrimentally egotistical or trendy in scale or pretension. Significantly in recent years some of the best exhibitions offered under the aegis of MoMA have taken place at PS1 because of the intimacy and character of the rooms. The DIA building in Chelsea was also an effective model of a space that was not new, was fairly simple, had a human scale, and got out of your way so you could concentrate on the work.

I think a museum should offer some moments of visual pleasure, small architectural details or sweeping vistas that are pleasurable, beautiful, with attention to natural light and structural materials, elements that show that thought has been given to offering a sense of pleasure to the human being, thinking has gone into human scale, not just architectural vanity, corporate scale, and entertainment value. As Barnett Newman famously said in Emile de Antonio‘s film Painters Painting, “in the end size doesn’t count…it’s scale that counts, it’s human scale that counts.” He was talking about painting, but the shoe fits for architecture too. Architectural pleasure for the sake of the architecture should be paired with the architecture being able to get out of the way of the artwork in it and let you see the work as if it belonged entirely to you only, for at least a moment in time.

5.What can you say about contemporary art museums in Portugal? And about the artists?

Unfortunately I have not had the pleasure of visiting Portugal so I cannot comment on museums in Portugal.


Mira Schor

FYI, This post is not a promise that anyone who writes to me should expect a response, short or long, or that I will publish that response on A Year of Positive Thinking.


Reality Show: Otto Dix

First, some quick comparisons among two current exhibitions in New York City and an exhibitionistic pop culture event, Otto Dix at the Neue Galerie, Greater New York 2010 at MoMA P.S.1, and Work of Art: The Next Great Artist on Bravo Network.  You can have some fun imagining the portraits Otto Dix might have made of the panelists and jurors on “Work of Art:” after all, he specialized in turning even the most distinguished scientists and artists, including himself, into demonic characters. Take the strapless tight-fitting red satin mini-dress with big bow on the bustier which seems to be the template outfit in terms of style and color for the female hosts of reality shows on Bravo — China Chow on “Work of Art” and Kelly Choi on Top Chef Masters — I’m considering the advisability and semiotics of wearing such an outfit, with stiletto heels, of course, when I meet my new students at my first graduate seminar or core studio class next fall.

China Chow and the "next great artists"

Now look at Otto Dix’s intense, garish scarlet red 1925 portrait of the noted and notorious Weimar-era dancer Anita Berber, note the triumphant sense of sexuality and style in her figure and, written on her mask-like face, sad features hidden under her stylized make-up, and her crisped left hand, the tragic self-awareness underlying this figure’s display:

Otto Dix, Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber, 1925, oil and tempera on plywood, 47 3/8x 25 1/2 inches, Kunstmuseum, Stuttgart

It is easy to poke fun at a TV reality show. I watch it because it’s there; because it’s a pop phenomenon that may end up infiltrating the expectations of art students and affirming popular misrepresentations of how artists work and think; I want to know what happens next because that’s the nature of narrative; I enjoy Jerry Saltz’s weekly behind the scenes recaps up to that point only; and, all pleasantries and rationalizations aside, does anyone seriously think any one of the participants deserves a $100,000 prize, functionally one of the biggest cash grants to an individual artist in the world? Unreal.

As for reality, here’s reality for you, distilled into a modest drawing of a man horribly injured in World War I: it’s precisely the delicacy and skill of the pencil rendering of the left side of the man’s face and the delicate water colored stripping of his shirt that make the equally delicately rendered watercolor gash that violates the right side of his face so subversive.

Otto Dix, Wounded Veteran, 1922, watercolor and pencil, 19 1/4 x 14 1/2 inches, Private Collection

This drawing, along with a few other spare, beautifully executed, matter-of-fact  gory drawings of human intestines and brains, is exhibited in a second floor room at The Neue Galerie  dedicated to Der Krieg (War), a series of 50 prints by Otto Dix originally published in 1924. Don’t miss Der Krieg. There are many relevant art historical comparisons, notably to Goya’s Disasters of War, but it is also important to think of these works in relation to the wars we are currently engaged in, that we barely pay attention to and from whose effects on human bodies we have been shielded.

Otto Dix, Mealtime in the Trench, from Der Krieg (War), 1924, etching and drypoint

In fact don’t miss the Otto Dix exhibition at the Neue Galerie even though some of the work and most of the installation may be problematic.

I was just reading Carroll Dunham’s well-researched, fair assessment of this exhibition in the current Summer 2010 Artforum. He notes that it’s not a complete Dix retrospective since it leaves out all his post WWII production and some Weimar-era masterworks which were not available for loan and that the show is installed in a “garbled and out of focus” manner. It’s true that in a few cases the themes seem mislabeled and it’s a little hard to follow the logic of a very overcrowded installation. Dunham seems to be of two minds about Dix: having seen Dix’s work in “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s” at the Met in 2006-07 he was “convinced that Dix was an enormously important missing piece of the history of early modernism” but the current show leaves him an unclear picture of Dix’s place: “History was both with and against him, in ways far more vivid and direct than many of us ever experience,and the contingencies of fate have made it hard for us to accurately reconstruct his achievement.” In terms of Dix’s place in the history of twentieth century modernist painting, Dunham seems overly concerned with who Dix may have influenced, or, more precisely, with the validation of Dix by the admiration for or Oedipal interest in Dix’s work on the part of artists who Dunham considers important (he gives the example of Baselitz).

There are undoubtedly some issues with Dix’s work: a tendency towards the mannerist, the kitschy, and the misogynistic, maybe even, on the basis of recognized visual tropes at least, the anti-Semitic. But, as I read Dunham’s review, I thought, “Yeah but the place is packed with amazing, ridiculously intense masterpieces, and even the kitschy paintings pack more power than most work we see.”

In fact, let me start with the kitschiest painting I can’t ever forget, Self-Portrait with Muse, 1924:

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait with Muse, 1924, oil and tempera on canvas, 31 7/8 x 37 3/8 inches, Osthaus Museum Hagen

Here the fully clothed, thin-lipped, stern-faced fair-haired male artist encounters an almost comically over-endowed, flamboyantly ethnic — whether Semitic or Latin — woman. He confronts her, he is confronted by her, as she raises her hand in a gesture which can be read as a greeting, a blessing, or a stoppage, a counter-action to the reach of his brush which is in effect creating her. She is hardly the passive creation of a Pygmalion and if you look at some of the depictions of women by fascist-approved artists of the same general period in Germany you immediately get what makes this painting so different and seditious even though it does portray a naked woman and a clothed man, a familiar theme in the history of Western representation.

Dix’s wild muse has an over-ripeness of sensuality and an extreme quality as a representation that more than equals his own and a specificity that makes it hard to think of her as an abject victim of the male gaze. Their meeting ground is the blank space of the painting surface itself, the lack of situational specifics giving this  a mythological implication and, formally, a modernist undertone with a medieval subtext: this is a very flat painting yet closer in its spirit and its use of space to the flatness of Northern Renaissance painting, which is one of the main sources of Dix’s several painterly and graphic styles.

Dix’s Self-Portrait with Nude Model (1923) is less kitschy but perhaps more troubling because of the emphasis of the anatomical sexual representation and the dazed, blurry expression of the woman’s face. Dix is imposing as a figure here, but there is something strangely affecting and not entirely protected in his self-depiction, despite the military bearing under the civilian clothes.

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait with Nude Model, 1923, oil on canvas, 41 3/8 x 35 3/8 inches, Private Collection

Here I think it is useful to think of Dix’s self-portrait, his rigid, soldiery demeanor, in relation to the “soldier male,” the subject of Klaus Theweleit’s fascinating two volume study of the psycho-sexual roots of fascism in turn of the century Prussia,  Male Fantasies  –Volume 1: women, floods, bodies, history (published in German in 1977, University of Minnesota Press, 1987) and Volume 2: male bodies: paralyzing the white terror (published in German in 1977, University of Minnesota Press, 1989). Theweleit studies the memoirs and pulp fiction and films made by and for the officers of the Friekorps, private armies who fought battles of internal repression in Germany between the two world wars and paved the path for Nazism, in particular examining their violent sexual depiction of women, communists, and Jews. This analysis remains of great importance and relevance as a tool for understanding similar manifestations in our time.

I first used Theweleit’s books as a tool in my analysis of the gendered aspects of the critique of painting in my 1989 essay “Figure/Ground.” I would have to reread the books in order to draw out new quotes, which is tempting: I strongly recommend both volumes.

The “soldier male” (according to Theweleit’s term) has never fully developed  “secure sense of external boundaries,” a pleasurable sense of the membrane of skin. He fears the “Red floods” — of the masses, blood, dirt, “morass,” “slime,” “pulp,” woman — which he perceives as constantly threatening to dissolve his “external boundaries.” He also fears the liquid forces insecurely caged within his own body interior and unconscious. The “soldier male resolves these conflictual fears by the construction of a militarized, regimented body, by incorporation into a desexualized phalanx of men, and by the reduction, through killing, of all outer threats back to the red pulp he images everything living to be. “He escapes by mashing others to the pulp he himself threatens to become.” (Mira Schor, “Figure/Ground,” Wet, 149)

[Cross reference this description with the recent fetishization in the press of General Stanley McChrystal’s hard body and self-mortifying spartan habits].

Otto Dix, Human Intestines, 1920, watercolor, 18 1/8 x 15 inches

In the first years after WWI, Dix sometimes provoked his friend “with his detailed description of the pleasurable sensation to be had when bayoneting an enemy to death” (Olaf Peters, Otto Dix, exhibition catalogue, Prestel: 2010, 96) but often spoke of the nightmares he had for years afterwards.

Otto Dix, Shock Troops Advance Under Gas, from Der Krieg (War), 1924, etching, ,

Describing the plot of  one of these examples of Friekorps literature, Theweleit writes: “The central point of the construction of this murder is that the woman castrates the man. There is also the implication that she is a whore; the fact that she is the only woman traveling with six men is clear enough indication. The weapon she uses to castrate him is initially hidden; the pistol is pulled unexpectedly out of her apron, as if it were a concealed … penis? […] “It is a phallic, not a vaginal potency that  is fantasized and feared.” (Vol 1, p. 72). Again, an interesting background to Dix’s many paintings of “lustmord,” sex murders.

,Despite the disturbing violence depicted in these works, I find in many of Dix’s paintings of women something other than misogyny: the humanity of the women is never sugar coated into pneumatic attractiveness in the vein of John Currin, who Dunham mentions in regard to Dix’s sources in Northern Renaissance Germanic and Netherlandish portraiture. To the contrary, Dix adopts the detailed, delicate surface and the often elongated, Gothic form and angular, spiky drawn lines of the Northern manner, to depict the deep drama of the women of all ages and stages of beauty, sexuality, despair and decay. Each is vulnerable, anxious, and mortal rather than only sexually available, and each is a character with an inner life, which to me takes the work away from misogyny.

Look at the contrast between the way the anguished face, the imperfect body, and the delicately self-protective hands are depicted in Half-Nude. Look at the strange blue veins under the thin skin of the pre-pubescent girl, her femininity symbolized by the lace curtain and its pink ribbon, her sexuality by the red ribbon in her hair.

Otto Dix, Half-Nude, 1926, oil and tempera on wood, 28 3/4 x 21 5/8 inches, Private Collection

Otto Dix, Little Girl in Front of a Curtain, 1922, oil on canvas, 31 3/4"x20 inches, The Minneapolis Institute of the Arts

Hans Baldung Grien, The Three Ages and Death, c.1540, oil on panel, 151 x 59 cm, Museo del Prado

Dix represents in his work what the Friekorps’ violent pulp fiction and wan representations of the ideal woman and the “soldier male” sought to repress. Dix’s works were included in the Degenerate Art show organized by Hitler and Goebbels in 1937 [must see documentary about this exhibition]and one of the reasons he refused to leave Germany during the war was that he was sure his work would be destroyed if he left it behind (conversely the Jewish lawyer Hugo Simons took his portrait by Dix with him when he fled Germany with his family, an immensely risky thing since generally even in the mid-30s it was best to leave Germany with only the shirt on your back as if you were coming back the next day. This portrait is included in the current exhibition.)

Earlier I described Dix’s pencil and watercolor drawing of the Wounded Veteran drawing as “modest,” in the way that I have used the word modest in my essay “Modest Painting” to indicate work that does not seek to overpower the viewer by virtue of size or self-aggrandizing gesture but by its ambition for the medium itself and in this case by the subject matter represented, which is devastating, riveting, tragic, epic. I can add the obvious, but like everything in Dix’s work, it’s to the power of ten: Dix believed in drawing as he believed in painting as powerful vehicles for the transmission of meaning.

The most notable characteristic of work in this year’s Greater New York 2010 exhibition at MoMA P.S.1 is that there is little evidence of any trust in the capacity of a singular object or medium to carry meaning. Nothing is allowed to just be: nearly every painter hedges her bets and also hangs some blurry photo-montages or stick a few objects on a table, if there is a painting then there is also a video, and maybe a bench or two.

The most notable characteristic of the works exhibited in the Otto Dix retrospective at the Neue Galerie is that each painting or drawing or etching uses the specificity of each medium to transmit meaning and, boy, is that enough, because nearly every work is an atom bomb. Dix hedges no bets in the wretched human emotion and delicate perception and satire he packs into each work. Certainly some paintings and drawings go headlong into kitsch that is almost alarming, totally over the top, presumably dated in style, although nearly each of these also has something fantastic in it, and no matter what the emotion and the human content and even the handling of the material is 100% committed and fascinating. His work is pitiless, sometimes garish, yet his line is as detailed and delicate as a Flemish masterwork, his surfaces are varied and complex.

To continue the comparison between these exhibitions a bit longer, there are some tropes in Greater New York that Dix might appreciate — for instance, mud is a recurrent trope in Greater New York: this may reflect ecological concerns although often the mud seems like a metaphor for paint: instead of painting with it, you make a video of it burbling up, plopping down, it’s the original primal slime that no one has the patience to learn to discipline or trust in its expressivity). My notes from Greater New York include: “Alex Hubbard, 2 big paintings, frayed sides, 2001 A Space Odyssey monolith, projection of video of burbling mud, red benches, MUD, paint IS mud, primal goo;” “Gilad Ratman, 2 screen video, more mud.” I counted about 4 other pieces where mud or paint as goo and ooze (but in the disembodied clean form of  video of course) was featured.

Gilad Ratman, The 588 Project, 2009, two screen video, Greater New York exhibition

When Dix painted the works in this exhibition, he too was young and extremely ambitious: even on the battlefield he was not only drawing on anything he could get his hands on, he was also keeping in touch with the artworld of his time and, as soon as he was demobilized if not before, making sure his work was included in the important exhibitions of the day. You can be sure that if he were a young man today, he would be putting his work forward with as much murderous ambitious as anyone but he wouldn’t be a contestant on “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.” If at all, he would be one of the top chefs on Top Chef Masters: I watched the final episode of this year’s “Top Chef Masters” after the premiere of “Work of Art” and whereas the art “reality” show was interesting only as a manifestation of desperation — think They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? — Top Chef Masters was, relatively speaking, riveting. The judges were articulate and passionate, and, as opposed to some of the art jurors, they seemed to be better able to clarify the aesthetic criteria they were applying to the food — again, relatively speaking — either gnocchi are chewy or they’re not, the fish underdone or overcooked depending on your gustatory ideology — and the chefs were powerful characters, with compelling personal narratives that they had channeled into their work, and each finalist radiated physical and psychic power instead of play-acting self-puffery and abjection. I was particularly impressed by Hong Kong-born, Canadian chef Susur Lee and the winner, Ethiopian-born, Swedish-reared chef Marcus Samuelsson. These men were fearsome, awesome Ninjas, and Dix might have been one of them.

Dix’s inventiveness, his technical skill, and his attention to detail as well as his intensity of characterization and the fury at man’s murderous drives make each work almost ridiculously powerful. The show at the Neue Galerie is packed with one outrageous masterpiece after another, each atom bomb crammed unceremoniously close to the other, against the rules of modernist exhibition practices. While Greater New York takes a long time to get through because artists are given generous amounts of space, and because there are so many time-based works in dark rooms, in the mode of the day, the Otto Dix works are in rooms with dark colored walls that give a kind of old world feel to work that would appear totally contemporary in other circumstances, and his works on paper are in darkened rooms in order to protect them. To do many of the paintings and etching series justice you’d have to spend hours and hours and I hope people will do so. But I would also cast my vote for a Freaky Friday experiment: force the artists exhibiting in Greater New York to contend with a small space in which each work would have to intensely convey powerful meaning without relying on the luxury of excess exhibition space and give Dix’s works the modernist white cube treatment that would allow them to breathe and give them back the contemporaneity they exude, unbeknownst to most young art viewers in New York.