By James Kalm
My, how things have changed. After arriving in the center of the art world to study and spend a couple of years compiling a portfolio, I began the daunting task of visiting galleries and trying to get dealers interested in what I was doing. Responses ranged from, “How long have you been in New York? Well, when you’ve been here for five years come back,” to, “We don’t even look at anything by artists under 35.” Well, maybe my work was just crappy, but at some point it suddenly became a requirement that you be under 25 and still in school to be looked at seriously. Dealers began to hang out near college campuses, robbing grad school cradles and snapping up untested kids with a marketable gimmick. They’d start them out with high profile shows at major galleries. Feature them in magazine spreads with layouts by the hottest fashion photogs. Pump up their prices fast and saturate their collector base to the bursting point. Having no track record, backlog, or professional exhibition experience became a plus. Everybody loves a puppy; send the stinky old dogs to the pound.
However, many of these artists succumbed to the lure of the market and turned their practice into a cottage industry, producing endless variations of their “signature” style, available for any size wall or budget. Or, due to the pressure of being overexposed and under-mature, to the glee of their competitors, they crashed and burned, sometimes tragically, sometimes taking their galleries down as well. Still others who started off with a bang but through unintended circumstances ended up sidelined, are patiently waiting to be rediscovered, honing their skills in obscurity while building up their inventory.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared, “There are no second acts in American lives,” but ironically there’s now an inclination towards counter-trends: it’s becoming fashionable to be unfashionable. Some of today’s best venues, ever on the lookout for new territory to mine, are beginning to pick through the mountains of discarded, forgotten, or failed artists. I’m calling this swing of the pendulum back towards seasoned artists “Geezer Art.” Think of it as the ultimate in green thinking: recycling actual human beings.
There are parallels between the young and old. While the naivety of youth allows for audacity and the skirting of norms out of ignorance (hey, I didn’t know I couldn’t do that), the geezers have seen it all, done most of it, and because their careers are already in the shithole, aren’t worried about offending sensitivities or occupational blowback. A whole bunch of hot contemporary art is attempting to riff on nostalgia, trying to cop a look or attitude from the 60’s, 70’s, or 80’s, but who needs slacker simulacra when you can get your hands on the real thing? On a practical note, why rely on the whims of youth when it comes to the actual saleable artifact? Commitments and enthusiasms change, many a conceptual video-maker at 30 will be a much happier computer programmer at 40 or real estate developer at 50, but the 60-year-old sculptor has a studio stuffed with a career’s worth of work that ain’t going anywhere, and it’s cheap.
Some recent examples of this phenomenon: in a 2008 article that appeared in Art and Living titled “Ferus Fetish” (http://www.artandliving.com/2008/05/13/ferus-fetish/), Peter Frank writes, “So while bidding wars erupt over obscure contemporary artists because they come from the right school or gallery or country, whole movements and art scenes that hardly rated a footnote ten years ago are suddenly dug out of the basement, and artists whose phones haven’t rung since they were rotary suddenly have to get answering machines and e-mail, and agents, and calendars.”
Locally, last year’s The Pictures Generation 1974-1984 at the Met trotted out dozens of artists associated with this movement, featuring not only the obligatory blue-chip stars like Cindy Sherman, David Salle, John Baldessari, Richard Prince, and Barbara Kruger, but also some who’d slipped from the headlines, like Thomas Lawson, Sarah Charlesworth, or Charles Clough, reacquainting us with folks who’d done some of the most provocative though undervalued spade work to nurture this scene.
Mary Heilmann was already approaching 30 when she left her California home to head east and try out for the big leagues. She’d studied ceramics, but upon settling in New York she started teaching herself to paint as a reaction to the Minimalist “old boys club,” as she called it, that held court at Max’s Kansas City. She maintained herself by teaching, and in the early 70’s she showed with a cadre of SoHo painters at Paley & Lowe and later occasionally with Holly Solomon and San Francisco’s Daniel Weinberg. Eventually, in the mid-80’s, it was the doyen of the East Village, Pat Hearn, who could see the importance of her work through the eyes of a younger generation. Hearn mustered her considerable resources among artists, critics, and curators and gained local and international attention for Heilmann. Following Hearn’s untimely death, the ball she started rolling led to Heilmann’s ascent to blue chip status, and one of the most rewarding retrospectives ever at the New Museum, To Be Someone, in 2008. For Heilmann, the arrival of superstardom and retirement age happened simultaneously.
The “New Lower East Side” district around the Bowery is a re-do of a re-do of a re-do that’s enticing curators to dredge up remnants from the last great skuzz-fest from 30 years ago, the East Village. Oeuvres are being groomed, deodorized and placed in hermetically sealed Plexiglas boxes. Un-politically correct legends of drink, drug, and sex addiction are recontextualized as documents of the authenticity of bohemian martyrdom. Mirroring this trend was Everything Must Go, the Carlo McCormick curatorial effort at P.P.O.W. marking the tenth year since Martin Wong’s AIDS-related death.
Several Williamsburg galleries, to their credit, have provided artists with opportunities to exhibit during periods of exclusion from the Manhattan marketplace. For years now Richard Timperio’s Sideshow Gallery filled this gap, showing lots of people who’d been written off, and while I’d like to provide names, I’ll spare them the embarrassment of being included in an article about “geezers.”
Janet Kurnatowski has also shown mature artists, and (apologies in advance) her current show, James Biederman’s The Traveling Hat, is a great chance to see work by a longtime practitioner. Biederman, who studied sculpture at Yale before teaching himself to paint, has been an active presence on the Williamsburg scene for years. One of the joys of maturity is the opportunity to support, mentor and influence your contemporaries and younger artists. James, who founded the N3 Project Space, has organized dozens of exhibitions that featured scores of artists beginning in the late 90’s. His keen eye and dedication to abstract painting has formed a coterie of the likeminded that maintains a close-knit support system despite James’s current far-flung teaching gig in North Carolina. Biederman has gained attention for his elegant and attenuated brushwork, richly sensual surfaces, and subtle palette, and his name should be included in the debates over the legacy of Abstract Expressionism/New York School painting that have sprung up around shows from the likes of Amy Sillman, David Reed, and Terry Winters.
The Traveling Hat consists of about 12 smallish oil paintings, all around 20 by 22 inches. The small scale left me feeling that the works are teases for larger, unexhibited pieces. The repeated format enables the viewer to make comparisons on purely formal qualities, and it’s instructive to see the breadth of variations the artist wrings out of this limitation.
With its quirky, slapdash handling and swirling, centrally based spiral composition, “Radio Head” (2010) represents a departure from familiar works, contradicting previous formats that employed horizontal or vertical planes secured firmly to the picture plane’s edge. Streaks of turquoise and mustard yellow floating over a red-ochre ground reinforce an icon-like circular form that echoes petal tips of a rose or a daisy. The potential kitschy nature of this “flowery” form is avoided through the use of staccato, almost artless strokes and jarring color combos. “No Particular Order” (2010) also uses a pair of looping, slippery circles, in peachy pink. These curling slathers of runny paint overlay a more static ground of green and warm yellow puzzle pieces, highlighting them with a loose, zipper-whip of the hand, an apparent rethinking of intent made in-process. In “Zing” (2010), one of the most satisfying paintings shown, a wide cloverleaf scribble of hot red-orange commands the upper left half. The artist returned and repainted this knot with thinner, darker red bands, creating an astringent contrast that resonates with the mellow background tones of gold, slate blue, and mauve. Many of these works seem a bit closely keyed, and I do think that generally some would benefit from a broader use of tonal contrast, stretching the fingers out to the highs and lows instead of playing all the melodies in the middle of the keyboard.
The exhibition also includes a portfolio of wonderful mixed media drawings that provides an intimate display of the exploration and discovery that characterizes all of Biederman’s best work. The Traveling Hat is on display until June 6.