The other day, a friend and I at different ends of the art business were discussing how, in recent years, the busier we are, the less art we get to see; it was art that brought us to art, and not the business, the business which has treated us both well.
A number of galleries in the spreading “middle” market, where the sense of discovery that develops new markets mostly happens through direct encounters with works of art, find that one of the principal reasons their businesses are increasingly challenged is because fewer collectors go to galleries. At the other end of the market, a prominent dealer whose business has been rapidly growing, recently learned, to his surprise, that around 50% of his gallery’s transactions are made to prominent collectors who don’t even get around to seeing in person the works they buy, often at multi–million–dollar prices.
It is not coincidental that so many pre-judged the recently opened Bienal de São Paulo (until 9 December) by its list of artists as nothing to get excited about. It is symptomatic of a general tendency to think we know what we are getting in art by traversing from jpeg to crate, bypassing looking and experiencing in favor of acquiring and storing. (I heard a story the other day of a collector discovering fatal damage to a work of art more than a year after acquiring it—because that was the first time anyone had bothered to open the crate.)
It was a risky proposition of curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro to virtually un-curate this bienal by inviting seven artists of different generations and cultural lineages to each curate an exhibition within the exhibition according to their own interests and ways of looking. He took the radical stance (radical today) that too much dry thinking, theory, positing and ideological storytelling are destroying the essential nourishment of allowing art speak for itself.
His goal was to let the art be, to speak for itself, through artists’ eyes, and he intentionally did not prompt, direct, edit, or traffic-control the parts into an engineered whole. The experience is thrilling, fresh and, blessedly, a re-acquaintance with experiencing art—and with looking.
In addition to the many compelling discoveries of historical and contemporary artists previously unknown to most viewers, the greatest gains were in seeing art through the eyes, minds, loves and lessons of artists. It made me think that maybe we are not living in a post-art age, after all!
Then, just this past weekend, experiencing the completed installation of the new building of Glenstone, the museum collection formed and curated by Emily and Mitch Rales in Potomac, MD, also restored my faith in the primacy of experiencing art. Glenstone is a prototype for how a private institution can enrich the world’s museum landscape by creating destination experiences for art that publicly-funded museums—even the richest ones—cannot afford to do (though I think many would secretly want to, at least sometimes).
The building itself is the exquisite creation of architect Thomas Phifer, which results from a clearly articulated joint desire to create a museum that rises from a beautiful landscape and places many of the greatest artistic achievements of the postwar period in spaces and juxtapositions that are ideal for viewing, thinking and evaluating. The building is defined by light, the art animated by it, and nowhere as vividly as in a room of white sculptures by Cy Twombly.
Most of the display spaces are given over to single-artist presentations, each in its own pavilion, each a great and singular experience. Robert Gober’s re-creation of his 1992 Dia installation looks richer here, perhaps because of the intense richness of the landscape painted on the wall, or perhaps because of the subtle realization—which I believe fits the artist’s conception of the work better than anywhere else I have seen it—that we experience this Arcadian prison of hope and regeneration in a space that is submerged underground.
The museum presents the extraordinarily epic Livro do Tempo I (Book of Time I) (1961) by Lygia Pape, a painting of 365 panels which is a work of great importance hardly known in this country.
But that’s not the half of it (or even a quarter or a tenth). The room devoted to three massive date paintings made by On Kawara on the occasion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing is truly singular. Entering this room, one’s breath seems to deepen, the pulse slows, the mood calms. Undoubtedly this has something to do with what we can’t see (and isn’t transcendence in most great art rooted in that which we cannot see?).
Even given Glenstone’s infinite commitment to artists, many of my favorite moments were in the 11 interconnected galleries that examine art in the postwar period. There are extraordinary works, bold and fresh alignments posited, and many moments of subtle and profound juxtaposition.
Every work here is a masterpiece, but none presented as trophies. Here, for example, Gutai coexists with Abstract Expressionism, and Latin with European. A room filled mostly with great works by Eva Hesse and Richard Serra is especially glorious, as is the room of Minimalism, where Jo Baer and Anne Truitt are as prominent and essential as Frank Stella and Dan Flavin.
And then there is that most profound moment, so subtly presented that its radicality could be easily missed, that juxtaposes Jasper Johns’ Flag on an Orange Field II (1958) with Faith Ringgold’s The Black Light Series: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1969)—woman beside man, black with white, Southern patrician with the descendent of slaves, the gestural with the hard-edged, the aesthetic with the cultural which, in the end, is pretty personal, too.
A separate and extensive exhibition of works by Louise Bourgeois in the Glenstone collection occupies the museum’s original Charles Gwathmey building. That alone is worthy of a day.
Clearly, even while audiences for museums and international art events seem to be growing, the direct experience of art itself is dwindling. This is a trend many of us lament. But, there are opportunities right now to see exhibitions that remind us of the importance of looking at art in the flesh, so to speak.