press: Text Zur Kunst (TZK)

March, 2005, pp 210-213
Ugo Rondinone, etc.


For the November 28, 2004 "Arts and Leisure" section of the New York Times, Roberta Smith offered her annual take on the art world. Entitled "Chelsea Enters Its High Baroque Period," the critic eschews the numerous and repeated complaints levied at that part of Manhattan's grid falling between 14th and 29th Streets, west of 7th Avenue. Where some artists, dealers, communities, and critics increasingly worry over what they see as the onset of homogeneity, mediocrity, and commerce-even an insidious return to conservatism- Smith opts to cast her oppositional, if not wholly surprising, vote of confidence: "Chelsea is a delight," she gushes, "a carnival without equal, the greatest showplace for contemporary art on earth-and never more so than right now, as the gallery count rises faster than ever."

Such a privileging of rapid growth and multiplication (a section of Smith's piece is aptly titled "Do the Math" and opines, "If one gallery is good, two or three are even better) is not wholly unfounded. Better, one imagines, to see people clamoring for art than turning their backs on it. And yet, one wonders-taking Chelsea as simply one limit case-how a shift in understanding that posits more as an indicator of quality affects not only gallery spaces but the art being shown, to say nothing of its audiences. Indeed, one has only to look at the kind of spaces that epitomize Chelsea (a majority of them designed by a single architect-Richard Gluckman)-gutted, sterilized warehouses that often "wow" much more than anything hanging on the walls there.

If it sounds as though I am about to launch down the by now familiar path of Chelsea-bashing, don't despair. As Smith points out, Chelsea is hardly occupied by only Gagosian-size gallery spaces, and even such behemoths occasionally show wares that not only stand up to their sites but literally render them irrelevant (a recent, if counterintuitive, example at Gagosian was a breathtaking DeKooning show). In addition, all manner of small- to mid-size galleries-Metro Pictures and Murray Guy among them-not only continue to open but, perhaps more impressively, to persist (often having themselves tracked the western migration from Soho or the East Village). Yet, the significant closing of spaces like Pat Hearn and American Fine Arts in the last years is devastating and impossible to quantify, particularly because these spaces far exceeded their ostensible functions; worse, such endings hardly resonate for a majority of gallery-goers who, while imagining they enter a community by cocktailing at Lot 61, have no need for history since galleries seem to magically multiply all around them.

All this to say that Smith's use of "High Baroque" with regard to Chelsea is curious. When I think the term, I'm happily recalled to Bernini, though I'm somewhat sure this isn't what Smith had in mind. The word baroque is generally used to connote effusive recourse to ornamentation and choreographed tension-whether in the plastic arts, music, or architecture. And yet its etymology from the 18th century (and arguably even earlier) links it to irregularity in objects as unrelated-and as particular-as pearls, teeth, and warts. Such idiosyncratic examples would seem to site the baroque, at least initially, in the eccentricity of superficial details, whether of an individual or an entire building. In addition, the "baroque" can be thought as the theatrical staging of difference: and this not necessarily a pleasing pose.
Smith's description of Chelsea as a carnival, then, would seem to coincide neatly with her invocation of the Baroque, given that both can be seen as celebrations of and by way of exaggeration. (It bears blatantly overdetermined mentioning that the etymology of "carnival" is in fact nearly identical to that of "carnivore.") But, my love of Bernini aside, there are less benign, shallow, conceptions of the Baroque to be had. Walter Benjamin, for instance, in his early work, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, held the Baroque to be inextricably linked with a kind of shortsighted, melancholic tethering to the world. Continued recourse to extravagant physical details and settings meant that time itself came to be conceptualized differently. Rather than retaining an abstract, and therefore anticipatory relationship to historical time, people became literally grounded, bound in a relationship to time that took on spatial dimensions. Benjamin described this Baroque conceptualization of history-one that bred passive melancholy rather than a will to act or produce-as resonant with the later effects of capitalism.
It seems, then, at a moment where Chelsea seems to quite ceremoniously perform a privileging of space over history, there is no arguing with Smith's assessment, even while deeply disagreeing with her terms. Chelsea has hit a Baroque moment (though I would argue "neo" rather than "high"). Where the forces of community, politics, and art history were visible everywhere in the art spaces of ten years ago, every exhibition mounted these days feels sprung from a sparkling tabula rasa. And so, it is, indeed, the space that we experience rather than any context for it. (Benjamin wrote that in the Baroque "chronological movement is grasped and analyzed in a spatial image.") To this end, one might argue, most of the spaces we come to view art in (these getting grander by the minute-museums like MoMA make Gagosian look piddly) can never really be occupied so much as filled.

And, to get to the review part of this essay, this is hardly the case only for audiences who, weaving from doorway to doorway, make their way from one space to another. Indeed, artists are called upon increasingly to make work that itself has a more spatial than historical relationship to time. One particularly Baroque (in this regard) recent exhibition was by the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, his third solo show at the largest of Matthew Marks's Chelsea spaces (out of a total of three.) I am a cautious fan of Rondinone's work but this exhibition-one that approximated a pop-up fairy-tale book through which I was ostensibly invited to wander-was a picture perfect rendition of the Baroque I've outlined here.

Comprising a rainstorm made of chain link, a post-and-lintel forest, a smattering of gigantic black-cast masks, resin trees, and three windows revealing only the walls, Rondinone's exhibition was titled Long Gone Sole. Though homophonic wordplay was clearly intended by the artist, it is uncanny the degree to which the phrase "Long gone soul" so better expresses how Rondinone's constructed space operated. Indeed, there was something whimsical and uncanny and even very sad about the installation, and yet this was a vulgar mix of emotions that seemed to force itself upon viewers rather than being produced by them. Walking through the gallery was to be surrounded: by a stage set, by so many willfully antipodal objects that at once announced a relationship to the past and yet rescinded it. The gallery was full of other people; we all walked around each other just as we did the resin trees.

A study in contrast: This week, I went to a performance at The Kitchen by Tracy + The Plastics. Carried out in an upstairs gallery whose painted black walls reminded me of my high school theatre, the piece was ostensibly musical in nature, but it self-consciously touted a communal element as well. Wynne Greenwood, who by way of a video screen plays all three members of her band, had teamed up with a sculptor, Fawn Krieger, to build a rather dumb looking carpeted bleacher that was meant to approximate a living room. About fifty people could squeeze onto this living room island, and from the moment we were all seated, we were made aware of our own normalized mute status as spectators, asked by various participants of the production to join in rather than sit back. As is almost always the case in such situations, this was both embarrassing and a failure. And yet, the performance-which began before and lasted after "Tracy" ever took the stage-was meant precisely to shore up some of the conditions of passive spectatorship.

More particularly, the installation, called ROOM, was conceived to "re-imagine the consciousness raising groups of the 1970s feminist movement and the potential revolutionary spaces of close bodies, living room histories and dialogue," as the accompanying brochure written by the artists puts it. I'm not fully convinced that this "re-imagining" of communal feminist spaces worked as such, but that doesn't mean it didn't work. For a change, and accompanied by a sensation that ranged from uncomfortable to ecstatic, I was in a room not filled but occupied.

-Johanna Burton