Three points on art

I just got back from “When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes” at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. It is a revisiting of a seminal show from 1969 “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Forms” curated by Harald Szeemann at the Kunsthalle Bern, that was instrumental in bringing the first wave of Conceptual and post-Minimalist Art to audiences. The art in the original was only loosely related, and so the show was as conceptual as the pieces within it: bringing disparate ideas to facilitate conversations instead of to prove a thesis constructed by Szeemann. The show at the Wattis was organized similarly, and there was a dinky model of Szeemann’s layout in the first room so you could compare the two shows – this minimalist art has never looked goofier than in miniature.

It is no longer 1969, though. The art that was in Szeemann’s original show is now familiar to us, and indeed lots of it, and its derivatives, are in major museums around the world. The art at the Wattis is in this same vein; visually restrained pieces where you often have to read the wall label to understand the significance of all the components. And questions comes up: is this still important? Does it have anything to do with Szeemann’s show in a way that all the other shows with work that gets off on being withholding don’t?

Eh, not really. But there are some good pieces, like a battering ram suspended mid air by many opposing wires, by the artist collective Claire Fontaine – arresting an object designed for movement in a position of permanent stasis. In a brief comparison of the works in the two shows, it did seem like the Wattis’ show had many pieces that maintained the visual restraint but also dealt in one way or another with the human body, through process, or photographs arranged or original, or mirrors. Perhaps this points to the simple legacy that Szeemann’s show, and shows like it, had – codifying a visual language from which contemporary artists borrow and use to their own ends. The show at the Wattis was enjoyable, but mainly because it was made of good art. The historical conceit is a bit of a stretch.

Secondly, two at least part time Chicago area curators have been selected to curate the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which is a big change for an institution that has traditionally pulled from within its own ranks. And from outside New York, no less. One, Michelle Grabner, founded a artist run project space about ten miles west of downtown Chicago more than twenty years ago called The Suburban, which is one of the cornerstones of the whole alternative art scene in Chicago. She now also serves as a senior critic at Yale and it’s really wonderful to see the principled idealism that is so present in the Chicago art world (but often does not take people many places beyond that) being rewarded on a more public scale.

Finally, this post by Shane McAdams pulled something about Minimalist Art together for me in a way I’d never considered. Writing about his Thanksgiving in suburban Wisconsin, he connected his in-law’s unwavering dedication to the industrialized regularity of cranberry sauce or baby formula to the industrialized regularity of Minimalist Art. Just as a certain generation embraced industrialization and all of its promises as a cure for rampant social inequities, artists like Donald Judd or Craig Kauffman, that we so revere, did too. Principled intellectual rejection was necessary to get to the place of using machine made materials (rejection of emotion, of association, of the messiness of human expression), but seen this way, Warhol owes as much to the Minimalists as he does to Duchamp and Picasso and the other historical tricksters, for the way they embraced the changing world around them. Seen this way too, the artists at the Wattis look all the more contemporary for their use of wood, dirt, and dust – reinforcing the relevance of their continued inclusion of the human body.

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