“I am an art critic,” Faye Hirsch says to open her lecture at the Johnson. “What does that mean today? It seems to mean less and less as time goes on.”
Last Thursday, Hirsch, writer, art critic and senior editor of Art in America, discussed the current gallery scene in New York City. Charming and candid — at one point she adorably said, “I’m really mostly just grumpy all the time” — she offered insight into the art world’s constant flux.
Everything is shifting. The strength, the voice and even the role of the art critic is evolving, and maybe not for the better. There’s nothing lucrative in art criticism — and there never has been. Perhaps that is the one thing that has remained the same. Though the stock market crash of 2008 has exacerbated this tension, Hirsch remains hopeful: “I do still believe the art critic, however beleaguered, sees more than anyone else — except for the artist.”
At the peak of the market, before the crash, New York had over 400 galleries. Now? Not nearly as many, but the nature of the game has changed, too. In terms of power brokering, the power really lies with independent curators, who are now given newfound reign. They have come to prominence with galleries that now compete with institutions due to their “museum-quality shows.” Nowadays, “museum-quality” really is the buzzword of the gallery scene.
At the Andrea Rosen Gallery, a Blue-Chip in Chelsea, “The Wedding (The Walker Evans Polaroid Project)” is an example of such a case. This museum-quality show features an ornately carved Victorian birdcage center stage, surrounded on four sides by church pews and then on four walls by 83 Walker Evans polaroids. Curated by Ydessa Hendeles, whose signature juxtaposition of contemporary works with quotidian items is on full display here, the show encapsulates the transformative role of the curator.
But of course, Hendeles is not the only curator with an artistic license these days. She belongs to a trend: shows have become immense curatorial experiments. The “In-Finitum” exhibition spanning four floors at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice is what Hirsch calls a “total mishmash.” There is no real principle behind these shows, which are given vague names to capture their vague concepts. Here, the emphasis lies in the display of these 300 works of art. Together, the layers of archaeological objects, old master paintings, contemporary works and installations create a new dimension of wonder — a landscape invoking “the infinite.”
“A practiced curatorial eye and thoughtfulness crafted through years of training is being thrown out the window.” For galleries with deep pockets, a lot is available and a lot has changed. Blue-Chip galleries even “compete to look disinterested,” Hirsch says. They alone have the luxury of playing hard-to-get. That’s the power of capitalism in art. After all, galleries are nimble. They can sell three pieces in a show and pay off rent and labor for a year. Meanwhile, museums struggle.
Perhaps the most notable outlier is MoMA. “MoMA, I think, is really rockin’ these days,” Hirsch said. The old department heads are gone, the rigidity between departments has dissolved and the new blood has provided for a fresh experience. Their current “Print/Out” exhibition is a blockbuster. Not only does the show radically reposition the way we think about prints, but it also provides crucial commentary on the way art is disseminated and distributed. Prints are the work of multiples, seeing new meaning in new places. It is about re-contextualizing an image. In the exhibit, Damien Hirst contributes posters of enlarged prescription drug labels. Hirsch is surprisingly impressed, and she sasses, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s the only great work Damien Hirst has ever done.”
MoMA has even sparked new interest in performance art with its groundbreaking Marina Abramovic show, “The Artist Is Present.” For instance, the Performa 11 biennial featured many quality shows, including the humorous “I Feel Your Pain” mixed-media performance by Liz Magic Laser. The performance examines the use of emotion in political interviews to establish authenticity, and it adapts political dialogues into romantic dramas. Eight actors perform a sequence of scenes staged in a movie theater with these dialogues in “living newspaper” format. The performance opens with an adapted interview between Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, which Hirsch believes shows “the fascinating devolution of the idea that the personal is the political.”
The perpetual transformation of the New York gallery scene has yielded an entirely new art world. In this world, traditional roles have been revamped and reassigned. In an economy where money is scarce and in galleries where everything is for sale (those Walker Evans polaroids run at $7000 a pop and even the drywall debris from a Joyce Pensato show broke bank), art has been turned on its head. “The curator is an artist. The dealer is a gallerist. And the artist is … I don’t know the word … but they no longer engage in the materials. Up is down and down is up in a lot of ways,” Hirsch said. In a field where breaking new ground is expected, somehow no one expected this.