Following an invitation from Flash Art, Klaus Biesenbach, Massimiliano Gioni and Jerry Saltz met up at our New York office. The meeting prompted an impressive discussion that covered many topics significant to the New York art scene today. The transcription of the conversation is published here and opens Flash Art’s two-part Focus New York (following into the March-April 2009 issue). One of the many big questions, “Do artists still need to live and work in the Big Apple to become successful?”
Following the panel discussion, the NYC-based artist Aaron Young is interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist and presents his new works. The first part of the New York Artists Dictionary includes a selection of young and talented artists living and working in the city. Furthermore, a conversation between Steven Parrino and David Robbins, which took place back in the ’80s, is published here for the first time. Finally, Fia Backström engages in an unconventional interview with Anthony Huberman and has designed a special cover for this issue (in collaboration with Roe Ethridge).
Flash Art would like to thank Klaus Biesenbach, Massimiliano Gioni and Jerry Saltz, who kindly accepted our invitation to participate and who have been asked to contribute to this issue as the New York art critics who, according to Flash Art, best represent the spirit of the magazine.
Jerry Saltz: I blame you. I think that the curators are the weak link in the chain right now. It seems that a lot of the big exhibitions look the same, they have the same 55 artists in them, a lot of these shows are curated by, or juried by, or have advisors of the exact same set of 35 curators. Dealers are doing all this great work finding artists and then curators act insular or egg-head-like and just go their own way.
If dealers do ten bad shows in a row they close; if curators do ten bad shows in a row — and many do — they get promoted.
Klaus Biesenbach: I disagree. I think that curating has two different schools. There’s a very European school and there’s a very American school: the American school of curating is basically doing a very scholarly, precise exhibition that doesn’t necessarily have any authorship on a content or a political, or a social level — this describes a more European way of curating, which does have some sort of authorship.
There are people we all admire like Harald Szeemann, Kasper Koenig and many others, and then there’s the generation that started out in the ’90s, ‘curating as dealing with privilegded information.’
In the ’90s, curating was actually something that many people really wanted to do; it was the era of the Internet and the era of ideas and jobs that gathered a lot of information. I actually think that we were living in a time of post-opinionism in recent years. Younger people in the recent past didn’t want to be curators anymore. They wanted to be auctioneers or gallerists, or if they’re wealthy enough they just go straight into collecting. So boring… So I think that post-opinionism was a situation in which you found a support group, somebody to buy, somebody to exhibit, somebody to collect, and involved any piece that had the suspicion of having some quality. It’s that there was a huge market that is so hungry that as a curator you really had to work against that.
In the middle class in China there are so many people that have enough money to buy a painting that the relatively few Chinese artists, because the collectors want Chinese paintings, could never produce enough. I think this is a good metaphor for the art scene that just died down, but it was not about the curators. The art scene was falling apart into institutions, curating, teaching and looking for content, meanings and differences, and the market. I don’t think curating was the weak link, although I think the position of the curator has become weaker over the last ten years.
Massimiliano Gioni: Indeed, people share the sentiment that the collector is the curator of 21st century. The biennial and the curator were the new agents of change in the ’90s; the collector and the art fairs have defined the first decade of this century. So I understand your provocation, Jerry, but I also think that curators have become the weakest link because in the last few years power migrated into the commercial sector, making collectors and dealers more and more influential, and in many cases rightly so. Paradoxically though, our weak position should result in more experimental shows, in more unusual gestures. Some curators and, more importantly, some institutions are brave enough, but unfortunately too often curators are asked to cater to a specific audience and public.
I think that’s the problem, when you are asked to think of art for the audience. On the contrary, I think the institution and the exhibition have to produce the audience and not viceversa.
JS: Still, you look at something like the 2008 Whitney Biennial that took a deeply antiquated academic position that painting is not good. There was almost no painting in it. I think that the curators should have just said that they think that painting is bad and that they were doing a “No Painting Biennial;” that would have been much more honest and polemical. Or take the last Carnegie International; almost 40% percent of the show came from 5 galleries that are within 5 blocks of one another in Chelsea. That’s shockingly blinkered and safe. The show could have been curated not by traveling around the world but instead just sitting at a table and writing down names on the back of an envelope. Look, the art world of the 1990s and 2000s is in the process of contracting. I think that as many as 100 New York galleries could close. The contraction is going to take about two years. In the meantime there will be huge amounts of energy below-the-radar. In about three years a new generation of artists, dealers, curators, and critics will herniate, will appear. We do not know any of their names now. It is a fantastic time to be an emerging artist.
KB: How do you measure a curator’s impact? I feel so fortunate that I could work in Berlin before it became completely glowing, inflated and empty. For years I could work there and by coincidence, or nearly by accident, nearly every new show created a huge debate within society, from our tabloids to our chancellor at that time. For example when Santiago Sierra put asylum seekers in cardboard boxes because it was a metaphor of how asylum seekers were treated at the time in Germany for real. This happened at a time when the country was so much about political correctness, so much about consensus. Now we have a Berlin that is blurred; too many artists perhaps. (Laughing)
You have an art scene in New York that is well represented and it’s a miracle that you think Carnegie’s eyes are within five blocks. It is much better than you say, I think that the market had had such a dominant power because so many people participated in the commodity of art. The art scene was falling into two tribes: there was the commodity and auction phenomenon in which many people participated and I think we split off at some point to create a scene that is about meaning and pieces that disturb.
JS: I think that the auction world is the opposite of “many many,” I think it’s “tiny tiny.” I think it’s one percent, of one percent, of one percent of people participating and I don’t think that artists benefit; I don’t see anything whatsoever more than making money. I think that’s fine but I don’t consider it a representative slice or an especially large one; this is just junky behavior, a public theatrical behavior that calls a lot of attention to itself. The art world became obsessed with prices when prices have nothing to do with quality. For the last few years buyers forgot about art and began worshiping the gods of mammon named Damien, Takashi, and Richard.. All of them turned themselves into product. Later-day Jim Dines. Very boring and sad, especially for such originally good artists.
MG: Coming back to our topic that is New York, I think that the city is a gallery-driven city. I’m not saying a market-driven city but a gallery-driven city. There are galleries in Chelsea that probably don’t even profit or that don’t make enough money, however it’s true that we have 400 galleries in Chelsea and you probably have the equivalent of a couple of Documentas happening every month. I’ve always thought — and this is something we tried to do with Maurizio Cattelan and Ali Subotnik with the second issue of Charley — that what makes New York fascinating is that you could treat the whole city as an exhibition and every month you would have the most incredible exhibition, on a scale that no Documenta or Venice Biennial could compete with. This kind of energy has of course an impact on institutions.
It is healthy because it forces institutions to think differently, it makes institutions responsible. But on the other hand, it can make them weaker. As long as the market is doing fine, running a gallery is like that Richard Prince joke about prostitution: “What a great business! You got it, you sell it, and you still got it.” I think for the past few years galleries have been the driving force of New York. Unlike museums they don’t have to fundraise, they require less internal consensus as they are small and faster, and as long as they sell they can invest in making better shows. And when they are good, they are not just interested in making money but also producing culture. I don’t believe in the formula market equals evil. I have seen so many museum quality shows in these past years at galleries, like the Bacon and Giacometti show at Gagosian for example, or the crazy Urs Fischer show at Gavin Brown a couple of years ago, the one with the hole. Now things are bound to change: finally, with the market slowing down, insitutions will gain a new centrality in the discourse. But we have to learn from this experience: institutions should become lighter, faster, braver.
KB: I would contradict you Jerry on the auction market when you say that it’s “one percent, of one percent, of one percent.” I think it’s the tip of the iceberg but I think it is a very visible tip. People from a broader audience and on a much bigger level are involved. I agree that very few people participate in it and deal directly, but people read up on it. I often go to the public days of art fairs… and who comes to the public days? This is not the tip of the iceberg, this is a huge following of an industry that I think looks as if it is the tip of the iceberg, which I agree is a percent of a percent. When I was in Venice for the Biennale there was a museum director who went to Palazzo Grassi and said, “Oh, I haven’t seen the art fair yet, perhaps I should make it before I return,” and then I realized, he meant the Biennale! So in the time of a strong market, the art fairs and biennials competed against each other. As Massimiliano recalls, we were both just on a panel about curating and I was really surprised that half of the curators on the panel with us were…
KB: Exactly. With Shafrazy and Barbara Gladstone doing fantastic shows with a great curatorial touch, I think galleries can really use the independence they have, which is kind of commonplace regarding New York.
JS: In Berlin they say New York is all about the market. In London they say New York is all about the market. Everybody is always accusing New York of being all about the market. In Berlin and London I finally blew up and said, “you show the same artists, you sell to the same collectors, you work with the same curators and make an enormous amount of money. New York is not more or less about the market than any other choice.” Now, no one is about the market. Thank God.
MG: New York maybe made it just more visible by concentrating nearly every gallery in one neighborhood, which is genius.
JS: That’s one thing that New York has always had.
MG: I remember once in 2000, Andrea Rosen was telling me that on a Saturday afternoon in Spring, if they had a good show, they could have up to 8000 visitors and I don’t think you get that in Berlin or London. Of course, galleries are free, which brings in a lot of visitors. But it also means that, while they might not be competing with MoMA, they certainly have reached a cultural impact that is pretty impressive.
KB: What you say is also about curators shifting, and this is where the system falls apart. You can curate in a private space, you can do it in a very outrageous sense, which is great. And then you have the museum, which has to be a “corrective,” a constant amongst variables and has to be a figurehead for others, finding some principles to look at, to agree with or to disagree with. This discourse still has a capital importance otherwise we should all be auctioneers. Actually, it was very interesting when Lisa Dennison went from the Guggenheim to Sotheby’s, such a different perspective.
JS: It is a different perspective in a general way but not in a specific way: I think Lisa Dennison is in some ways returning to her roots. She knows where the work is, she can work with collectors in a direct way, in a faster way, which there’s nothing wrong with by the way. Either way I hope the auction world falls off a cliff and that it will only deal with dead artists.
MG: You just said something important, Jerry: Lisa Dennison can now work in a faster way. I think that’s probably the biggest difference between private enterprises and museums. Gagosian put up the Roy Lichtenstein’s “Girls” show [New York, 2008] — which was amazing — in probably a couple of months and they can call up Jeff Koons and ask him to write the catalogue, which they have no problem paying for. That’s something that no institution in New York could do at that speed and with that freedom.
JS: Why don’t you do it guys? The work is not for sale, they have to insure it, you have insurance, it has to be borrowed — you can do that.
KB: I think that a museum, whether a collecting or a non-collecting museum, has to live with all the standards. There often has to be more of an inter-connectedness, a collegiality to museums thinking and profile. Think about works that can’t be collected so easily…
JS: What can’t be collected? A video can be collected, a bottle of air can be collected, a can of shit can be collected.
KB: A can of shit can easily be collected as we know, but there are still pieces that are much less of a commodity because they demand or command a lot of space and they don’t have the exchange value. And if you think about performance, since we are researching performance at MoMA now in an extensive way — I just met Simone Forti in Los Angeles and I was asking her about the scores of performances she has been doing over the last forty years and she’s still thinking how the work can be archived and preserved. I think she is a major artist! This is something museums will be in charge of, not being auctioned as a blue chip artist for 17 plus million dollars. This will be a different process I hope.
MG: In the end, I agree that when museums are good they can do different things, we should think outside the box, we should show things that cannot be shown elsewhere.
JS: I think of course at MoMA it’s more difficult, but everybody would welcome it, nobody will object to it if you proposed something cool: neither a trustee nor a collector, nor a director. And this is what we want. I know that’s what you want too. P.S.1 is totally underutilized; it should be the greatest alternative space in the world. As it is I am always excited when I go out there but oddly dissatisfied when I leave. The MoMA/P.S.1 marriage is an unexplored marriage. They need to have wild sex in public with one another. Now. Often. Or P.S.1 should find another sugardaddy.
KB: We are working on it, not the suggardaddy part.
JS: Actually, I found it absolutely deplorable and unforgivable that Michael Govan opened Dia: Beacon but closed Dia: New York. To me this is like Bush getting into Iraq. It’s going to take more than five years to undo the problem that Govan and Dia’s board have created. It is the worst thing to happen in the musuem world in the last 10 years. Now L.A. MoCA is in trouble because of the director and the trustees.
MG: In a way these changes gave more space to the New Museum, but there is also still plenty of space that can be occupied.
KB: I remember for Olafur Eliasson we closed down the hallway, installed mono-frequency yellow light, emptied the atrium, put a single ventilator in — putting a work into the architecture galleries where nobody understands if it’s a sculpture or some weird light projector. I think these are steps that the museum is willing to take and does take. This was a show without any label, which seems a small step but I think doing it means to be radical.
JS: I agree.
MG: I think it’s quite siginificant that we are talking about the market and the institutions, but we are not mentioning the artists. Don’t you think that somehow it has become a less artist-centered situation?
KB: No, I wouldn’t say so.
MG: Well, think of what Berlin was, and on many levels still is. I lived there for 2 years and, although I agree it has changed, it is still an extraordinary city, shaped by artists. Maybe it started from a specific generation of artists; Olafur Eliasson, Thomas Demand etc… they are the ‘Ground Zero’ of Berlin, but then it has grown to welcome so many artists. Right now, you could do a world-class biennial by simply randomly inviting artists who live in Berlin. Here in New York you have great artists and a great history of artists: Lawrence Weiner, Dan Graham…
KB: Mary Heilman.
MG: Yes, but I don’t think today you have the same density of artists as in Berlin. I see lots of good artists in New York but I think to a certain extent Los Angeles has become a more artist friendly city.
KB: I think it is also a matter of perception: just consider an artist like Terence Koh who, while in the U.S. has just a few supporters — Shamim M. Momin among others — in Europe is incredibly highly considered, they see him in the same legacy of James Lee Byars. There are some difficult understanding also for the scene around Ryan McGingley, Dash Snow, Dan Colen and Nate Lowman… There are different scenes in New York.
MG: Of course there are great young artists, like Paul Chan or Sharon Hayes, just to mention people I have recently worked with. And of course there are many others. But I don’t think you can any longer describe New York as an open-air studio, which is something you still see in Berlin. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but this is the way I imagine New York to have been in the ’60s and ’70s. Of course today there are schools with MFA programs, but it doesn’t seem to me like a city where you can just come and waste your time, maybe because it is too expensive. If I were asked to suggest a place for a young artist to be, between New York and Berlin, I would say go to Berlin.
MG: I don’t want to mythologize Berlin, but you can live there without the same pressure of money that you have here in New York. I don’t know how you can do it, unless you are independently wealthy. Here maybe the social game is more prominent.
JS: More social in New York than it is in Berlin, or London or Los Angeles? There you go again. The key to life in any art city is to be able to be poor there in style. That is hard in New York but a lot of artists are finding ways of doing that.
MG: I feel Los Angeles and Berlin maybe allow you more freedom in a way.
KB: I think Berlin and Los Angeles have what New York doesn’t have. Berlin has a lot of time and a lot of space, even if you are not a superstar or even if you don’t really work you can have an apartment and a studio and it’s still affordable.
JS: I think that New York, contrary to its wrath, is very close. I think there’s huge possibility that’s always active. We do have the time and the space and we have the artists. The swamp continues to bubble up with immensely interesting ideas. Yes we have less time and less space, but that’s because we’re an island culture, we have always been an island culture.
MG: It might be banal to say that, but this is the city where the new millennium started. It started with a bang, with destruction, but New York is unique in its ability to start things up all over again. It is so much part of its myth. Unfortunately, in its latest transformation New York has put money at the center of the debate. For a while I was thinking we should have a moratorium against revealing the prices or even discussing prices of artworks. But then again magazines and mainstream culture gave more space to art because of those prices.
JS: America is at the end of an Empire phase. And when Empires fall apart and into chaos they spin out tremendous things. I think it’s a terrible mistake to say that New York is finished. It could be. For a long time we were the trading floor. It’s probably still true that no major career happens without happening, in part at least, in New York City.
KB: And if it doesn’t, the career is not complete. I know a couple of artists who are highly esteemed in their countries, but they haven’t had any recognition here and there’s a huge need to fulfill that. Recently I spent a lot of time in Mexico City, and then in Buenos Aires and in Rio de Janeiro and I started going to Israel a lot. The area of Israel and Palestine has been a point of departure, let’s say from Mona Hatoum to Emily Jacir, from Sigalit Landau to Yael Bartana, from Guy Ben-Ner to Keren Cytter, so many amazing artists from such a small area.
JS: Because societies in conflict create a tremendous number of artists.
KB: I was talking to Yael Bartana very actively because of the project we did at P.S.1 and she’s trying to translate the conflict to Poland or to the Netherlands because she is an artist who travels and she translates her convictions and aesthetics into a local setting and this for me is amazing. I was just in South Africa and I see the set of usual suspects is all changing, in terms of gender and methods. It is so exciting to consider that this is happening in a small environment. However, these artists want to be in contact with New York. They want to be here, to show here. When I was in Bangkok I was fortunate to meet Rirkrit Tiravanija, Surasi Kusolwong and Navin Rawanchaikul in their own settings. It is really fantastic when you realize how all their realities create an absolutely active, real scene, however, the things we’ve been discussing indicate that New York is the trading floor.
MG: I don’t want to sound blasé, but can’t we do without New York?
KB: I don’t think so.
MG: I think New York could benefit by taking some time off from itself.
JS: Yes, New York — and this is a big secret or maybe not a secret at all — is the most provincial city in the world and it is obsessed with itself and that’s terrible.
KB: We recently had a conference at MoMA and I was talking with the curator of a biennial happening in Dakar and everybody said it was controversial for not reflecting the art scene produced there onsite. I said, “Oh fine, it’s just like New York!” Look at the Whitney Biennial, everybody is saying that it’s controversial, it’s local, it’s provincial and it’s an American biennial like Dakar is an African biennial, so what do you want? However, New York will never admit that anyway, which is funny. I feel like one perspective towards the institutions is that they’re being too strong, and then turning it around. I think that slight suspicion of being a potential failure is actually good for New York.
MG: For some reason failure often comes up in any classic curatorial speech: “We have to fail.” But then again New York does not encourage failure at all. New York encourages the mainstream and consensus, sometimes in a problematic way. This is not a city that welcomes exceptions; as an art critic you always want people to think differently but when they do that you say, “you didn’t do it differently the right way.”
JS: Yes, that’s true.
KB: What is the last good failure you saw here?
JS: I see a lot of them. The ambitious show at Shafrazi by Urs Fischer and Gavin Brown was a big optical overloaded mess that in some ways was disrespectful to us but was also a gigantic success in thinking in a different way about the white cube, which is not dead and is like a curse that neutralizes a lot of art. A lot of architecture in New York neutralizes a lot of the art. For the next generation of art dealers to make an impact they must not just try to be baby Barbara Gladstones; they must investigate different ways of doing things. If you become a mini-Chelsea gallery you’ll always be at the kids table. It is time for a new generation to take over. Especially now that the art world of the 1990s and 2000s is dying.
MG: I think New York doesn’t know the diversity of spaces. Perhaps I have this impression because of my job in Milan with the Trussardi Foundation, which is all about scouting places, but also the Berlin Biennial I did with Maurizio and Ali was all about the ghost of history as incarnated by old architectures. Instead, New York falters by pretending that things are neutral and always new. Indeed, it is good that institutions like Creative Time, Art Production Fund and Public Art Fund are suddenly offering something that nobody else is, by creating moving institutions. I’ve always found that artists enjoy being in a position where they haven’t been before, and sometimes this is a problem for New York.
JS: Yes, we just get bigger and wider and more powered, maybe because artists want it too. Maybe if they didn’t, it wouldn’t happen. Maybe in the future we will have just one gallery, which will be Larry Gagosian.
KB: Or David Zwirner. (Not laughing)
Klaus Biesenbach is founding director of KW (Kunst-Werke) Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, and founding director of the berlin biennale for contemporary art. He is curator, Dept. of film and media, MoMA and Chief Curator, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York.
Massimiliano Gioni is director of special exhibition at New Museum, New York, and artistic director of Fondazione Trussardi, Milan.
Jerry Saltz is a critic and writer at New York Magazine.