Best and worst 1995.
What Artforum's year-end best-and feature proposes is essentially an opportunity for the typically disenfranchised figure of the art critic to play, if not Addison DeWitt, then Earl Blackwell, awarding certain artists or shows Princes Di's tiara while consigning others to the Cher/Roseanne dustbin of bad taste. Given the context, there is something a little weak about honoring (or condemning) the Great Dead. After all, Constantin Bracusi isn't going to collar you at a cocktail party. Having said that, I'm giving the MONDRIAN retrospective top honors. This was, like the MoMa Matisse retrospective three years ago, one of those rare exhibitions that restore a sense of astonishment to our reception of those canonical masters who, through the widespread dissemination and imitation of their styles, have degenerated into visual cliches. (In the case of Mondrian, the first thing that comes to mind is L'Oreal packaging.) What was especially remarkable was the quality of intensely fussed-over painterliness - visible in the minute emendations and erasures that mark the surface of each painting - in works that, when reproduced, resemble bland graphic design. What had hitherto been (for me, at least) a historical corpus mummified in idees recues regained a spirit of adventure, and beyond that a sense that this seemingly too familiar art remains virtually unassimilable in its formal resourcefulness.
I can't begin to describe the tortured convolutions of RONALD JONES' "pflanzenzucht tango" at Metro Pictures, so I'll simply quote from the indispensable press release: "The title, `pflanzenzucht tango,' is derived from the German term for plant cultivation and was the name of a division of inmates that attended to landscaping at Auschwitz-Birkenau....The work was inspired by an aerial photograph of the camp garden and by a passage from Harold Bloom's book, The Anxiety of influence....The catalogue for the exhibition is Beckett's Endgame." It's hard to know what about this installation was most sickening: Jones' routine exploitation of volatile political/historical material or the impenetrable gloss of pretense that tries to render the whole piece acceptable as a serious, Conceptual-art product. These criticisms could be extended beyond this particular show, making Jones a nominee for a lifetime achievement award for contemporary-art awfulness.
The best thing about "The World of JEFFREY VALLANCE," at the Santa Monica Museum, is that it would exist, I suspect, even if art museums did not. It is a cabinet of curiosities, really, filled with trophies, relics, and texts documenting Vallance's steerage-class adventures around the globe. As such, it is eminently available to any citizen with a modicum of curiosity. So any urban space would do - and another urban space might do better, in fact, since, in the midst of an elite culture dedicated to parsing the dissonance of disembodied significations, Vallance joyously pursues the harmonies of embodied analogy from Tahiti to Turin, from Iceland to Memphis - talking scuba with the king of Tonga, fish with the president of Iceland, investigating zones of impurity and polycultural overlap, listening for the echoes of the rhyming world. Thus, for Vallance, the bloodstained cardboard that once bore a dead chicken in a supermarket display evokes the Shroud of Turin - which calls up the Veil of Veronica - which calls up the Scarves of Elvis, who died on the toilet, from too much fried chicken, reading to book about the Shroud of Turin. I love it when it all comes together like that.
I have a problem with these "international-regional" exhibitions ("SITE SANTA FE," et al.) for which a cadre of internationalistas are flown into some geographical nook or cranny and encouraged to "respond" to the site - or "critique" the site - or just do whatever. When I was a kid in the boondocks, we were regularly enlightened by exhibitions from New York that demonstrated the stylistic diversity of straight, white, male artists who lived there. Today, it would seem, the provinces must benefit from similarly evangelical endeavors in which artists from all over the world demonstrate the stylistic hegemony of 30-year-old, post-Minimalist cliches. This seems to me a step in no direction at all, since cultural diversity purchased at the price of stylistic monotony is unworthy of the name - especially when it is promulgated by an artistic practice so locked into "posthistorical," equilibrium that its agreed-upon contents can only acquire energy by substituting geographical mobility for stylistic volatility. Sitegeist, I fear, is no substitute for zeitgeist, and the times, however "posthistorical," continue to change while art contents itself with changing places.
SOARED IN STONE
The retrospective exhibition of CONSTANTIN BRAMUSI's work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art accomplishes in its own right one of the artist,s most distinctive achievements: it soars like a bird in flight. And to whatever degree Bird in Space is an emblem of spiritual aspiration, the design of the exhibition itself, an ascending curve, emblematizes the triumphant ascent of the artist,s vision, as if on wings. The early work, in which Brancusi's signature style is almost immediately recognizable - pale or polished egg forms that become detached heads hatching dreams - is displayed under low ceilings. but the exhibition space becomes higher, wider, and lighter as one progresses among the progressing works, grouped in sets of five on either side, and mounted on the amazing hewn bases Brancusi invented. in the final installation, an Endless Column appears to breathe itself up through the coffered vault, into the empyrean. it was curator Ann Temkin's insight, worked out in architectural collaboration with Richard Gluckman, that a Mademoiselle Pogany of 1919, say, had more in common with a bird of that moment than with a Mademoiselle Pogany of a decade later. The repeated motifs grow together in depth and beauty until the final apotheoses, which point to a beyond beyond the beyond. It is an exhibition that gives us Brancusi whole and new and that awakens what is best in us through what is best in art. it is, barring the tremendous display of wooden models of Renaissance churches at the National Gallery in March. the best exhibition of the year.
The exhibition of BRUCE NAUMAN at the Museum of Modern Art embodied what is worst in contemporary humanity through what is worst in contemporary art. The show was arrogant, gigantesque, contemptuous of its audience, pretentious in its metaphors, sadistic in its manipulations, aggressive in its clatter and its clutter. It was Clown Torture, writ large. Perhaps Nauman,s work ought not to be assembled but encountered one piece at a time, with great intervals in between. Encountering it all at once, however, revealed an unsuspected hollowness and meanness, so the show may have taught an inadvertent lesson not only about Nauman's art but about human nature: I hated it because it hated me.
Having consigned last season,s pocket calendars and back issues of Gallery Guide to the dustbin of, well, the dustbin, I'm operating a bit out of my hip pocket here. I'll go way out on a limb and say the best show of '95 was the BRUCE NAUMAN retrospective at MoMa. (I preferred the Walker Art Center's version, but it ran before "last season.") Limb? C'mon. you say. I reply: It's a "limb" because I'm going to take a pasting since Nauman is just another white, male, het, Euro-darling artist who happens to be exactly my age and an old acquaintance to boot. Look, I'd like to say the best show I saw last season was by Catherine Opie, Kerry James Marshall, Manuel Ocampo, or Sadie Benning and start getting invited to cooler parties, but I just can't. There were more dark ideas, more hilariously stated and more economically packaged, in any three of Nauman's pieces than there were in all of SoHo during all of last season. It ain't fair, but that's the way it is.
If memory must serve, then it,s a recent show - KIKI SMITH's sculpture at PaceWildestein's downtown emporium - that qualifies as the worst show, or at least the worst significant show of the year (why pick on some misguided first-timer at a co-op?). Now, I've heard David Ross say that if he had his druthers, the Whitney's next acquisition would be a sculpture by Smith, and if I were she, I'd sure rather have Ross, blessing than mine. But her work strikes me as Leonard Baskin for the '90s: anatomically semiaccurate (all distortions guaranteed intentional and poetically tragic), surfaces heavily overarticulated to disguise compositional inertia, and everything redolent of those wow-is-wa-in-the-atomic-age pseudoprofundities that passionate but clumsy artists used to turn out by the ton in the late '50s and early '60s. To her credit, Smith by and large forgoes blind poets musing on the fate of all mankind (with women assumed as bring-alongs), in favor of (mostly) female figures introspective enough not to try to stand in for men, too. But she and Baskin share the same faults: philosophical overreach and an undergrasping talent.
While there were certainly a few exhibitions eligible as moments of supreme consolation in a year of desolate mediocrity, dozens qualified for the epithet "the worst." JAMES COLEMAN's installation at Dia remains for me the most memorable show of 1995 and would likely be my choice for "best." However, since the fact that I contributed to the exhibition catalogue might tinge the mythical claim of disinterested judgment, select SOL LEWITT's installation New Structures at the ACE Gallery. Uncannily reminiscent of the structure in Paul Strand's 1915 photograph Wall Street New York. ACE's architecture seems to announce one of the art world,s future functions, to disguise the traumatic fusion of technological rationality and corporate power behind the facade of classicist austerity (i.e., the marriage of Calvin and Judd).
LeWitt's installation - rectilinear structures and pylons built from uniform concrete cinder block - articulated (and resolved) Minimalism's inability to commemorate historical trauma in the monument or to confront the trauma of the present. Situated between the ominous banality of barracks and the austerity of Karl Friedrich Schinkel's funereal Neociassical monuments. LeWitt's New Structures attested not only to the virtues of stylistic constancy redeemed by perpetual crisis but also to the rigor of an esthetic opposition developed 30 years ago at a moment of liberal democratic aspirations.
END OF THE LINE
At the opposite end of Minimalism,s legacies and the literal end of the line is JESSICA STOCKHOLDER's installation at Dia. The afflatus that powers her inspiration might as well relinquish its prefix. Between rummage and razzmatazz, the work,s sole authenticity is its cynicism in baring the abundantly self-evident decrepitude of the strategies of a once seemingly autonomous visual culture. Hers is neither the reflection nor the farcical repetition of that history's fate - minimal as corporate deco. serial as ornament, radical gesture as designer patent. Stockholder is the scavenging shopkeeper who decorates the windows with the relics of an extinct culture as new merchandise. Undoubtedly the fact that her mad-housewife approach to recent art history passes in certain quarters as feminist keeps genuinely engaged feminist practice at bay.
FROM HERE TO ALTERITY
Despite several extraordinarily good exhibitions this year of work by individual artists - NANCY RUBINS, JESSICA STOCKHOLDER, SOL LEWITT, and HOWARD HODGKIN among them - I nevertheless declare this the year of JEAN CLAIR, in honor of the Musee Picasso director's two huge, historically ambitious, concurrent loan-show extravaganzas: "Identity and Alterity: Figures of the Body 1895-1995." which was the centerpiece and principal justification of this summer's Venice Biennale; and "Lost Paradise: Symbolist Europe," at the Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts.
Both shows were a lot of fun - morbid, sexy, surprising - and to be admired for, among other things their freewheeling inclusion of photography, perhaps especially in Montreal. (The turn-of-the-century American Pictorialist F. Holland Day, whose homoerotic allegories were well represented there, came as some thing of a revelation.) But for all its flaws - and I will not repeat its unidiomatic and rather passing title - the Venice show was the surpassing thrill. it filled the Palazzo Grassi and several galleries at the Museo Correr, where, in addressing recent decades, it petered out. But the Palazzo Grassi experience alone was a knockout - a fantastic voyage of the "I" that began with the sexual angst and eugenical obsessions of the last fin de siecle, moved forward through the disembodiments of World War I, and concluded with a spectacular detonation of totalitarian and "degenerate" figurative art from the 1930s and 1940s.
Intermixed with great and obscure works of art were such riveting documents as turn-of-the-century French police-blotter records and asylum case studies diagnosing "female hysteria," and a Caligari's cabinet - ful of phrenological diagrams and taxonomical charts. To find one of Degas' little bronze-and-tulle ballerinas - so coolly accurate, so ineffably perverse - in this creepy actuarial context was to see the work anew.
It was disappointing, then, that despite the relative ease of having to focus exclusively on a single contemporary artist - not to mention the spade work accomplished in recent years by that artist's New York gallery - the Guggenheim had so little to tell us about GEORG BASELITZ. No politics, no drawings, no objects of significant influence, no oddities or digressions, with the result that poor Baselitz must, for the moment, remain the most visually accessible yet emotionally remote of Germany's best-known living artists.
PALM SPRINGS ETERNAL
It's tempting to clap for "HIDDEN TREASURES REVEALED." the display of booty looted during World War II and long sequestered at St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum. The show forced complex questions concerning the civil conduct of post-cold war international life, while also resurrecting from the ashes Degas' drop-dead 1875 painting, Place de la Concorde, a thrilling urban image of imminent emptiness and loss. Still, resist temptation. Leave behind yet another legendary palace and textbook icon, and embrace instead the nearly forgotten paintings of AGNES PELTON, from "Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature," at the Palm Springs Desert Museum. (Yes, that Palm Springs.) I first saw her work at the University of New Mexico,s Jonson Gallery a dozen years ago, and I've been hungry for more ever since. Pelton (1881-1961) was one of the few women to have exhibited in the Armory Show, a Symbolist painter who eventually transformed the European figurative genre into an all-American kind of abstraction. (Eat your heart out. Georgia O'Keeffe.) A lesbian who lived alone in the tiny California desert town of Cathedral City, she developed, at age 44, a numinous style filled with dreamy, galactic, fecund forms, using thin glazes of gemstone color that practically glow in the dark. These loopy, utterly eccentric works happily coexisted with desert landscapes she painted for the tourist trade - pictures that miraculously. The Pelton retrospective (her first) is currently on a national tour of small museums and university galleries that, to borrow from Peter Schjeldahl, is one step away from the witness-protection program. Welcome back anyhow, Agnes.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "P.L.A.N." - the acronym stands for "Photography Los Angeles Now" - would have been run-of-the-mill compost, except for its grandly touted intention to survey recent "photographic activity" (as opposed to plain ol' photography) produced in the image capital of the universe. The old news was that photographically based art now encompasses painting, sculpture, and installation work. The new news is that institutions with old-fashioned departments born from a pristine idea of the photographic medium are looking nervously over their shoulders. What will become of them when our lens-based culture finally gives way to a digitally based one? P.L.A.N. didn't have a C.L.U.E.
Tucked away at Dia, some distance from the stirrings of Soho sediment (or do I mean sentiment?), GERHARD RICHTER's Atlas was, it seems, too distant, too big, too complex, or perhaps, one suspects, too German, to attract the attention it deserved. Certainly, with more than 4,000 images amashed over 31 years it taxed the attention spans and retinal capacities of those of us fattened on predigested platitudes cased in singular images. But Atlas realized. as the United Nations has not, that there is no representation without taxation. A prism through which perception has been splintered into a thousand frozen moments - into landscapes of fire and ice, compositions of unbearably stilled life, unrealizable projects, pornography both brutal and despairing, alkaline and cheesy - the installation is a review of the declension of pictorial faith that forced so much of the undistinguished art of the last decade to resort to words. With each photograph, and then each photographic panel. the kaleidoscope is twisted., vision is fractured and reassembled in front of our eyes. Like a Want chromosome carrying the visual genetic material of 30 years of preeminence, Atlas winds around you in the life and-death embrace of a double helix. Everything is here except the key. Richter's babel of representation, the index cards of sea, sky, land, paint, fashion, and death camp, teases us with a vision of order encased and archival, crystalline and majestic. But to attempt to play Boswell to Richter's arcane science is to miss the point, for Atlas reveals the artist in another light. The last romantic, his eyes seem trained not on the cards, but behind them, on a library consumed by fire.
SO HO HUM
As for the worst, it's harder to say, but contenders weren't hard to find. A short trip to THE NEW MUSEUM would usually suffice. Men in gorilla suits and appallingly hung and conceived shows such as "Temporarily Possessed," an exhibition of the museum's semipermanent collection, are the sort of thing that gives retailing-space predation in Soho a good name. Welcome the Gap!
Deciding that inclusiveness was the best way to handle the Often-elusive subject matter of "IN A DIFFERENT LIGHTS," cocurators Nayland Blake and Lawrence Rinder turned a skewered look at the gay and lesbian impact on visual culture into a semiotic free-for-all, filling the University Art Museum in Berkeley, California, with more than 200 objects. Nothing was sacred, which meant that little was excluded: paintings, sculpture, and photography hung cheek by jowl with record covers, small-press publications, and gay propaganda, as well as bits of paraphernalia whose relationship to the subject was lost on more than a few viewers. Still, by wallowing in the muddlement caused by the very notion of gay culture, the organizers made what could have been a pedantic exercise into something like an intercultural romp. Part of their argument was that we cannot identify and celebrate a gay visibility in high art until we have first dealt with the meaning of a gay presence at the level of popular culture. By heightening the viewer's awareness that gay culture has often infiltrated the rest of society through myriad back-door routes, the exhibition made an unexpectedly strong case for gay men and lesbians being at the forefront of the broader changes in cultural definition - from "family values" to political correctness - in the '90s.
Despite a handful of stunning contributions by individual artists (Stan Douglas, Gabriel Orozco, Rirkrit Tiravanija), the WHITNEY BIENNIAL was one of the most disturbing abuses of curatorial privilege in living memory. Guest curator Klaus Kertess, who is apparently more comfortable working in intimate spaces, completely miscalculated the size of the Whitney's galleries and wound up with an overcrowded rummage sale, in which the usual New York suspects (the show was dubbed "The Dinner Party" even before it had opened) were awkwardly contrasted with a slightly more adventurous grouping of out-of-towners. Kertess' reliance on "theme" rooms (landscapes here, reductivist abstractions over there) took the wind out of a large number of artists' sails, and his use of angled walls to create triangular and oblong spaces was incredibly ham-handed. The press was doubly guilty for letting Kertess get away with it, although a few observers took the trouble to point out that Elisabeth Sussman (1993 curator) and Lisa Phillips (1997 curator-to-be) had every reason to sigh with relief.
Dan Cameron is senior curator at The New Museum in New York.
If I don't say so, who will? For me, the best exhibition of 1995 was the WHITNEY BIENNIAL, because it was the one I learned the most from. Besides, any show that makes as many new enemies for the curator as this one did for me must be important.
So what did I learn? Much I learned by osmosis, from being in so many studios; that knowledge can't be verbalized and was, of course, the best part. I learned firsthand that the Biennial is a wonderful impossibility. I learned that today's critical vocabulary must be enriched and simplified before it can actually touch art. I learned that my hope to highlight a purely visual intelligence without reverting to the glacial confines of formalism is a valid one. And I learned to love the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija.
I never think about the worst exhibition until Artforum calls; but the Museum of Modern Art's recent video-artists group show, "VIDEO SPACE: EIGHT INSTALLATIONS," created about as much excitement as a potato (not couch) festival. There was little to hold this group together other than the segregation of a shared medium. Bill Viola's revolving mirror was so imposingly scaled it offered little chance for real reflection. Why does his romanticism seem so manipulative? And what about that crate of damaged goods credited to Judith Barry and Brad Miskell that seems to have fallen off a delivery truck on its way to William Gibson's?
At least the show included a couple of good works. Gary Hill's entrapment of whispering body fragments in an array of small, uncased monitors lets us know quite poetically how much our bodies are defined by television. And Stan Douglas' barbed deadpan and visual acuteness retrieved and made operatic that moment when TV made the news soap-operatic. But the carefully constructed aural play of cacophony and polyphony in his piece was largely drowned out by the gratuitous racket emanating from neighboring works. In the end, noise became a most appropriate metaphor for the exhibition as a whole.
Klaus Kertess is a writer and curator who lives in New York. His most recent exhibition was the 1995 Whitney Biennial.
The worst calamity that can befall a living artist is to be accorded a retrospective. Suddenly the artist finds herself at her own funeral - eulogized for her accomplishments as the remains of her artistic production lie in state. Kind of rough. ANNETTE MESSAGER, at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, managed to elude this trap. Presenting her work under the ironic title of "Faire Parade" (Showing off), she disregarded chronology, mixing her various periods and styles. Usually those who exhibit here view this churchlike space as an opportunity to exercise their egos, but Messager had the (almost sacrilegious) idea of dividing the museum's great nave into a series of intimate spaces. With this show, the spectator was treated to a measure of humor and inventiveness, to the chance to examine, up close, work from each of her playful categories: "La Collectioneuse" (The collector), "La Femme Pratique" (The practical woman), "La Truqueuse", (The cheater), "La Colporteuse" (The gossip), "L'Amoureuse" (The woman in love), and "La Paradeuse" (The show-off). All these "personas" - mainstays since 1971 - are as fresh and astute as ever, making this the first retrospective in memory that didn't seem fossilized.
REBECCA HORN's work has been highly regarded for years, so naturally everyone was pleased to hear that she was coming to Paris to exhibit in three different places: the chapel of the Salpetriere, the Galerie de France, and the Jeu de Paume. The result? Disaster. This attentive choreographer of slow-moving machines, this magical builder of little nothings, became a caricature of herself. Blue Bath, 1995 - a multitude of stacked beds in the chapel - was empty and grandiloquent, the text beneath the vitrines pretentious, and the gigantic cord that once rang at mass shook like a terrified earthworm. Only a little hammer striking a centuries-old wall (Les Petits Mataux [The little hammers], 1995) redeemed itself. No emotions at the Galerie de France either, where tired effects (except for the rather droll little drums with their noisy drumsticks) reigned. The biggest fiasco was the retrospective of Horn's films at the Jeu de Paume: in one, Cutting through the Past, the interviewer declares Horn the most significant director he had met since Fellini; another documents her megalomaniacal museum shows, which must have required an armada of technicians to install. The extravagance and gigantic scale of these installations spoiled the delicacy of her original intentions. A real shame.
Pascaline Cuvelier writes on art and culture for Liberation.
I saw so many remarkable exhibitions that I feel I must give prizes in three categories: dead artist, living artist, and theme show. in the first the winner is the MONDRIAN exhibition, which I saw at The Hague. This may be the best exhibition of 20th-century work not only of the year but also of the decade. I said my piece about it in these pages in October.
For the living-artist category I choose GILBERT & GEORGE's "The Naked Shit Pictures." The South London Gallery became a chapel with two tiers of Renaissance frescoes in which the settings for the groupings of nude figures were not the usual columns and arches but structures erected from enlargements of turds. One of G&G's greatest strengths has always been the courage of their self-revelation, a courage comparable to that of Francis Bacon or Samuel Beckett. "The Naked Shit Pictures" seemed a deliberate exercise in baring everything. G&G boldly exhibited their genitals, their feces, their most elemental fantasies, and their fears in the face of mortality. It is a poignant and weighty tragicomic work.
The theme-show prize goes to "DRAWING THE LINE," exhibited in slightly different forms in four English cities, culminating in London at the Whitechapel. The show was an anthology culled from all times and places and hung by artist Michael Craig-Martin to demonstrate the great variety of ways in which line drawings are made and used and carry meaning. It was rich in wonderful drawings but the point lay in the hanging, with its surprising comparisons: not only juxtapositions, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Carl Andre, but whole sequences, such as Hokusai, Andrea Mantegna, Donald Judd, Michelangelo, and Marcel Duchamp. It was often amusing; it was always imaginative and illuminating, and it manifestly reconciled scholarly interest with popular appeal.
MORE OR LESS
The most disappointing show was the first stop of the BRANCUSI exhibition, at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. It turned out to be a display distinguished by maladroit spacing and ugly lighting, accompanied intermittently by siren blasts from the alarm system, at least on the days I attended. There was also an unresolved contradiction between a desire to make the works look impressive and a desire to include a maximum number of variants for the benefit of scholars.
David Sylvester is an art historian living in London. His most recent book is Looking at Giacometti.
GARY HUME's solo exhibitions at White Cube and the ICA were the London highlights of 1995. The cool of his earlier door paintings gave way to a funky new style, teasingly mixing abstraction and figuration, the highbrow and the low. With a deadpan mischievousness, Hume lifts and manipulates images from sources as disparate as the daily tabloids
It this Age of Facsimile. I hope it's not against the rules to give first prize to a show I never got to see. GLBERT & GEORGE's "Naked Shit Pictures" at the South London Gallery. But at least I had seen several of them in the works, and with the help of the catalogue, I could easily imagine what must have been a quantum leap in G&G's mural-dimensional world. Within their domain of twinned self-portraiture, there is now a double exposure of both full-frontal and full-dorsal nudity (including buttholes) and, still more alarming, an extraterrestrial invasion of monumental turds. Yet thanks to the magical heraldry of their neoreligious mix of the worldly and the supernatural, these shockers fall quickly into mysteriously frozen place. It's not hard to recall such earlier challenges to prudery as Robert Morris' I-Box or Piero Manzoni's canned merda; but G&G's naked bodies and excrement belong to another planet entirely, rushing us from the scatological to the eschatological. Their giant altarpieces depict the terrifying connection between our animal selves, with our most repellent products, and the kind of cosmological structure that haunted medieval minds. While these pitifully stripped bodies return us to a universe of original sin, the loathsome turds are miraculously transformed into columnar symbols of earth and Christianity. They are pictures to ponder, even if, like me, you missed the show.
After viewing the "EDWARD HOPPER and the American imagination" at the Whitney, I'm less convinced than ever that he rises above what Erwin Panofsky once called a "major minor master." Indeed, given Hopper's growing sanctification, even across the Atlantic, I wonder whether his one-note repetitions, decade after decade, of an initially magical formula can sustain the current pieties. But Hopper's stature doesn't concern me here as much as the way the museum turned his often clumsily painted canvases into cultural flash cards, surrounded by blown-up quotations from Goethe, Verlaine, and Frost. In effect, the pictures became billboard come-ons for the Masterpiece Theatre production at the exhibition's core, a split-screen panorama of Hopper-mania, sucking spectators away from the dull old canvases outside. I'm sure this tough old Yankee will survive the ordeal, but I hope no other artist will be put to such a test again.
Robert Rosenblum is professor of fine arts at New York University.
I like fresh lobster. I like a lanai. I like shopping, perfume, cut flowers, Richart chocolates, and staying at home. I like effeminate sinuous creatures. The "eyegays" of FLORINE STETTHEIMER display the plain pleasure of answering questions with nothing other than unembarrassed directness. After her champagne-and-strawberry theory of painting, one understands finally how to create a philosophy by letting what excites you - fashion, serendipity, the beautiful people - become the only thing that matters.
CREAMY KIDS' STUFF
Two more things I like: boys and art. Putting them together should be heaven, but, yawn, when MATTHEW BARNEY does it, I keep falling asleep. This boy's tedium shouldn't be dignified by invoking the name of Joseph Beuys. Cremaster 4 might have reached the hinterlands of transgression - whether premeditated transgression can transgress is another matter - had it been shown not at the Public Theater's sanctioned space of alterity but at the offices of the Isle of Man Travel Bureau, whose talentless aerial cameraman seems to have shot most of the footage. Cremaster 4's overproduced artiness makes me yearn for Hollywood slickness or for the deft Sadie Benning to give Barney lessons in self-reliance and how much can be done with so little.
Barney was once a model and is still hubba-hubba cute. Certainly, his cuteness is more interesting than anything he's done yet. His work concerns yet disavows the meaning of the beautiful male in America, which, like Barney, America can't deal with at all. No one has considered that the brouhaha over Steven Meisel's canny CK ads started because of the passivity of those skinny boys. Like everyone else, Barney fatuously agrees that men must do, not just be looked at. He hoists himself through all kinds of regimes or disfigures himself with horns, pointy ears, goat lips, and natty outfits or races his motor, and everybody applauds, thinking he is providing some adroit commentary on gender and anomie through the lens of a suspect masculinity. (Look to Todd Haynes' stunning Safe to see how such commentary - and much more - can be done.) What many take to be marginalia - makeup and costumes - points to the only interesting things about Barney: his nervous disingenuousness, his evasion techniques.
Bruce Hainely is a frequent contributor to Artforum.
and the paintings of Johannes Vermeer and Petrus Christus; Put through the processor his graphic high style, Poignant stock-schlock images - hands in the gesture of prayer child clutching a teddy bear, the smiling face of a woman - acquire a pared-down elegance, and the old masters take on a touch of trailer trashiness. Hume pulls it all together with sumptuous, high-gloss surfaces and a palette that combines vivid Day-Glos and kitchen-appliance pastels in noxiously offbeat combinations. Looking to the undersides of visual culture and serving them up as supergraphic entertainment (with no moral hangover), Hume earns his reputation as the bad boy of British painting.
"MINKY MANKY" was at once the most hyped and least engaging group show of 1995. Attempting to cash in on the success of the Frieze generation and offering nothing new for for that matter even convincing), the show amounted to little more than a collection of famous names. Presenting works by a handful of by-now established artists who all still trade on their enfants terribles status (including Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst, and Tracey Emin, with Gilbert & George thrown in as the granddaddies of British Pop transgression), the show consisted of a mishmash of pieces realized before these artists developed their signature styles and recent works executed with seemingly little conviction. Lacking any of the rebellious energy, that put these artists on the map in the first place, this tired show felt complaisantly mediocre, even mainstream - decidedly a step behind the edgy spirit of the '90s.
The worst individual show of the year was JAKE AND DINOS CHAPMAN's at Victoria Miro. Shallow and slick, it consisted of a single sculpture of deformed children sporting training shoes and an assortment of adult genitalia, their bodies joined, Siamese twin-style. Hard to look at and impossible to look beyond, Zygotic Acceleration, Biogenetic De-sublimated Libidinal Model (Enlarged X 1000), 1995, amounted to a glib (and failed) attempt to shock that mistook sensationalism for radicality. Less a piece of art than a calculated cause celebre, the Chapmans' work ultimately seemed almost conservative in its strategic deliberateness - a failure in all the ways Hume's paintings were a success.
Martin Maloney is an artist, curator, and writer who contributes regularly to The Burlington Magazine and Flash Art.
I like art that repays long, extended looking. Having seen SYLVIA PLIMACK MANGOLD's current work twice this year - a truncated version of her retrospective in June at Brooke Alexander and the full exhibition in September at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery - I found that I would have needed to rearrange my day, even my week, to absorb it all. A painting by Plimack Mangold immediately slows my fast, impatient viewing. Her recent trees in particular require extra time. Maples and elms? Can garden-variety trees be painted compellingly in 1995 without configuring them as endangered, marginalized, gendered, or the Other? Plimack Mangold simply puts the emphasis on seeing and making. Her trees grow organically, but also materially, like a painter's vision. She shows how many different things paint can accomplish at the same time as creating illusion. Sometimes paint is a tree, sometimes it's air, sometimes it's (the illusion of) masking tape. Paint is also gesture, counterpoint, and pure substance. What's the value of painting in a single picture everything from trees to paint itself? It enables us to witness a sensory intensity we'd like to experience ourselves, with or without paint, whether by eye, hand, or skin.
Another best: GEORG BASELFITZ at the Guggenheim. His oversized paintings teetered on the bombastic, and his insistence on turning the image upside-down ought to have seemed silly to the viewer. Yet every one of his "abstractions" held a surprise, and I gave most of them bonus points for looking as fully articulated from the far side of the ramp as they did close up.
The worst? The WHITNEY BIENNIAL, of course. Seeking distraction following intensity, I visited the Biennial after seeing Plimack Mangold's show. The Whitney's chaos undermined even Agnes Martin's serene work, which appeared esthetically voided. The Biennial's always bad. I don't think it's entirely the fault of curators, now or in the past, for they've been handed a couple of bad concepts to work with - diversity and comprehensiveness. Clement Greenberg used to insist that the efforts of critics and curators meant nothing, that artists policed themselves and each other, determining that the best work
In the hands of younger artists, the Self in art has become slobberingly solipsistic. Banality is far from new, but it's hitting record lows in the mutterings of semiliterate, clueless artists whose philosophical musings are as laughably limited as they are alarmingly familiar. The exception is ALEX BAG: she also revels in low banality, but her understanding of it is remarkable as demonstrated in her portrayal of a girl slacker who "matures" over eight semesters at art college. She is brought to life in a video produced as an extended monologue with the camera, intercut by miniencounters with the job market and technology, among other misadventures. (The installation also included a tape library of venerated art-student role models - Kate Moss, Courtney Love, Johnny Rotten, etc.) Bag excels not only in her characterization of the young artist caught up with appearances and bored with substance but also in her wicked satire of the art world. Confession is the bait that draws us into Bag's talk show, but it's her agility at cultural sampling that lends her work veracity and suggests her sport is to play with the crisis of meaning and our collective fear that we stand at the brink of cultural demise.
How do you like your art? High or low? Would you rather be confirmed by art whose pedigree guarantees incontestable "quality" than challenged by brash initiatives that alienate or confront? Then ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, circa 1995, is the artist for you. Scavenging his own vocabulary of the media- and process-saturated palimpsests he introduced in the '60s and serving them up in denatured formal arrangements, his once revolutionary work amounts now to canonical complacency. Today Rauschenberg's work can only be admired for what it once was. This is art that is self-referential, remote from the extra-artistic references it incorporates, concerned exclusively with self-perpetuation. Rauschenberg's work indulges our need for "esthetic emotion" through the manipulation of "significant form," but the forms are significant only on the basis of their originality 30 years ago. With nothing to proclaim or defeat, he continues to make "Rauschenbergs" - which, these days, is about as high and as banal as it gets.
Jan Avgikos is a contributing editor of Artforum. got shown. Perhaps artists do act as guides and self-censors, but they can't control what happens when selections from A to Z converge on a single exhibition site. The problem seems to confound museum professionals as well. The diversity of the Biennial (curator Klaus Kertess referred to its amorphousness and multivalence) should have held great interest, but as actual display this exhibition couldn't hold my attention. I soon resumed my customary pace and exited with time to spare.
Richard Shiff is the Effie marie cain Regent Chair in Art and director of the Center for the Study of Modernnism at the University of Texas at Austin.
RAYMOND PETTIBON'S show at the Bern Kunsthalle was the best confirmation that one can put together work that doesn't completely give itself up, or away, on first glance, as is unfortunately too often the case with art today. Hung closely together on the walls, the hundreds of drawings, reminiscent of cartoons in their blend of word and text, demand to be read from one picture to the next in pursuit of hidden contexts, stories, and meanings, but the viewer's quest - the experience of more and more of them - is never frustrating, because each drawing is individually self - contained and wonderfully poetic. Pettibon creates a perfect balance between the autonomy of a single drawing and the place of that drawing in the totality of the show. By the end one is left with a pleasant feeling of tiredness, an all-too-rare sensation after seeing a show these days.
The gravest disappointment this year had to do with an entirely personal interest of mine in Russian art. A sinfully expensive show- "BERLIN-MOSCOW, 1900-1950" at the Berlinische Galerie - was yet another wasted opportunity to point out the merits of Russian art to the West. The exhibition is not structured by any esthetic, theoretical, or political questions; the organizers clearly assumed that a chronological, "factually" motivated arrangement of documentation and artwork from 50 years of contact between Moscow and Berlin would suffice. In its cumulative effect this uninspiring show was so depressing that even the interesting things - the things worth seeing again and again - seemed dull and stale. Daniel Libeskind's pseudo-Suprematist design should have given the exhibition space some external unity but merely proved that with a little effort even Suprematism can be debased and turned into unbearable kitsch. One can only hope that Western as well as Russian curators will eventually abandon their summary, ethnographic view of Russian culture and begin to take an interest in the positions of individual artists instead of throwing money out the window for senseless, pseudorepresentative mastodons like this project.
Boris Groys is a German writer and curator. He is the author of The Total Art of Stalinism.
Translated from the German by David Jacobson.
There were two outstanding retrospectives in Los Aregeles last year - Jeffrey Vallance's and Annette Messager's - but the strongest new work I saw was GARY SIMMONS' "Erasure Drawings" at the Lannan Foundation. If in the past Simmons had tended toward didactic one-liners, these spectral, CinemaScope-sized murals, executed in white chalk on long black walls, hit nerves hun awe to sadness. Aggresively smeared, their imagery evoked a cartoon ghost town - burning ships, empty ballrooms, vacated thrones - and lent the foundation's industrial cloister an elegiacal aura (not unfitting for a space closing for good next June). Simmons tweaked his images to add sinister notes: in the ballroom picture, elegant nooses rather than lead crystals dangle from the chandelier, which seems to quiver as if from a recent lynching. The melancholy of these images, however, was balanced by Simmons' amazing work with chalk and erasers: swirling steam-colored eddies and cascades of luminous, pulsing lines turned the walls into vibrant, unstable energy fields. The result was both head-spinning and heart-stilling. inspiring, depressing, beautiful, and haunting, the installation also made complex suggestions about the nasty aftereffects of corrosive images, racist or otherwise. Simmons' vigorous rubbing and smudging conjure the horror of bad memories you can never completely erase.
Attacking the WHITNEY BIENNIAL feels a bit like shooting a dead horse, but the 1995 model is a corpse that deserves it. The show wasn't uniformly terrible, just flat and largely pointless, which was even more disheartening. The real problem was a lack of conceptual oxygen - given a clueless context ("metaphor" as a theme?), even good work looked stale (Charles Ray's bottled self-portrait smartly brought along its own atmosphere). Work by many '93 repeats - including Lari Pitman, Jack Pierson, Nan Goldin, and even Cindy Sherman - seemed redundant, as did contributions by a number of first-timers (none more so than Andrea Zittell's vacuous and overblown '80s-style fabrication). Jason Rhoades and Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose work in both cases is most interesting when activated by performance elements, came across as clumsy in both visual and conceptual terms, begging the question of why they were chosen in place of older artists like Paul McCarthy and Louise Bourgeois, each of whom produced some of the most powerful and significant work of the last two years. Other key omissions: Nayland Blake's bunnies, Bob Flanagan's Sick video scaffold, Aura Rosenberg's landscape "porno-rocks" photos, Vija Celmins, and a host of lesser-known West Coast artists. At a time when interesting artists are living in all parts of the country, this biennial of "American" art remains absurdly biased toward New York. in 1995, its selections would've made sense only had the museum printed the curator's art-world family tree in place of a catalogue.
Ralph Rugoff is a writer and curator living in Los Angeles. He is the author of Circus Americanus.
Any show of photographs by CLAUDE CAHUN would be cause for excitement, but the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris' presentation of her work (some 160 original prints) made for the show of the year. Cahun was asking relevant questions about gender and sexual identity from the time of her first self-portrait, at age 18, to her last, at age 45. it's unclear whether these self-portraits - head shaved or hirsute, outfitted as a man or woman, or in an anamorphic view - were ever intended for public viewing, or whether they should even be considered self-portraits at all (the extent of Cahun's collaboration with her lifelong companion, Suzanne Malherbe, is unknown). Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is whether Cahun, who eventually became active in the resistance against Nazism, ever thought of herself as an artist at all. These ambiguities, against the present-day backdrop of artworld institutions that are more and more self-conscious of their role in the validation of esthetic choices, paradoxically made the works on display appear that much stronger.
What does it mean to begin an exhibition with the bound, scratched, and mutilated bodies of the Vienna Actionists and end it with the hydrocephalic children photographed by Nancy Burson, tossing all manner of artists, the mentally ill, and children with birth defects in the same "pathological" bag? This is what "IDENTITY AND ALTERITY," PART II, did. Organized for the Venice Biennale by Cathrin Pichler, with altogether too much assistance from director Jean Clair, the exhibition, with its 19th-century fetish for estheticizing ugliness, takes the prize for the most unattractive show of the year. But this unseemliness wasn't the show's biggest flaw. instead, it was the reduction of all works involving the body to the mere continuation of a figurative countertradition introduced in Part 1; for example, the show incorporated nudes by Eric Fischl and Vincent Corpet (known for his rather fey gimmick of having famous art critics undress and pose for him), alongside photographs by Cindy Sherman and Inez van Lamsweerde, who would rarely fall under the mantle of "figurative artists." But worst of all was the duplicitous attempt to impose a late-19th-century view of identity on late-20th-century art: a consomme-like reduction of identity to its "essential" features.
Elisabeth Lebovici is an art critic for Liberation.
Translated from the French by Sheila Glaser.
MASTER OF PARIS
I've waited all my life for a proper CEZANNE retrospective, and the Grand Palais show certainly doesn't disappoint. The painter revealed at the exhibition is mercifully removed from our oppressive mythology of Cezanne as the Moses figure who laid down the law about the subsequent course of Modern art, for this retrospective is nourished by fruitful contradictions.
The myth of Cezanne is that the violence evident in the rebarbative paintings in the first room of the exhibition disappeared once he began his steady, patient exploration of the observed world in the 1870s. At the Grand Palais, a momentous change is discernible when he forsakes fantasy and concentrates, with unexpected tenderness, on the pink and blue rooftops of Auvers. The advent of thinner paint, more systematic brushmarks, and lighter color coincides with this shift, as does the search for a more coherent and unshakable pictorial order. The great excitement of the Paris show, though, lies in its disclosure of Cezanne's lifelong struggle with his old demons. Rather than eradicate his youthful impulsiveness, he continued to experience the pressure of highly charged feeling.
Cezanne's fervency ensures that his art is always powered by openly declared tensions that prevent him from slipping into cerebral formulae, smugness, or grandiloquence. The striving for an authentic monumentality is awesome enough but remains qualified by a nervous awareness of flux. He discovered a marvelously supple way of allowing an impassioned unease to quicken even his most authoritative paintings. Right at the end, in an imposing portrait of his gardener, Vallier, he was still prepared to let his anxiety darken the image while heaping it with successive reworkings of paint. And in the Philadelphia Grandes Baigneuses (The grand bathers), 1906, the alarming brusqueness of bodily distortions miraculously coexists with the equally resolute search, among the arching trees, for a measured and redemptive harmony.
DEATH IN VENICE
My excitement over the Paris retrospective leaves me scant room to deal with the year's worst news: THE DISASTROUS DECISION TO REMOVE THE "APERTO" exhibition from the Venice Biennale. However maddening and chaotic it may have been on previous occasions, the "Aperto" had an unpredictable vitality and edge. If it is not reinstituted, the Biennale could easily lapse into a somnolent parade of nationalistic pomposity. By all means reshape the presentation of the "Aperto," but bring it back forthwith!
Richard Cork is chief art critic of The Times of London.
TOWER OF POWER
SOL LEWITT's show at the Ace Gallery in New York was the most memorable one I saw in 1995. Playing out obvious structural permutations in classic Minimalist style, LeWitt filled each of Ace Gallery's huge skylit rooms with towering, systemic, bottom-heavy constructions of cinderblocks. Their tremendous scale made these structures read as crushing arguments for the perversion of sculpture by architecture, and vice versa. The largest piece - an enormous open grid of thick, chest-high walls with a tall tower surmounting each juncture - consumed space so greedily that it seemed to swallow the very building containing it.
In its implicit squandering of resources and labor and its airless, hammering structural logic, one could see LeWitt's show as an artistic mirror of `90s capitalist triumphalism and the hardening of hearts and class barriers it entails. The show gave me nightmares, themselves like the day residue of life in the present dark moment. Though the impact of the work was demoralizing to the extent that a visitor could not ignore its resonance with the tenor of events, it was heartening, too, as proof of contemporary art's capacity to objectify unspoken, almost unspeakable, civic experience without imagery, narrative, or even overt analogy.
RUNNING ON EMPTY
One possible criterion of "worst" show might be frustrated expectation. But in this case I expected little of painter CHRISTOPHER BROWN's first museum retrospective, at the San Jose Museum of Art, so while this show was the. worst I viewed this year, I was not particularly frustrated. Brown, a Bay Area arts star, makes a handsome product - his paintings are rich in color and workmanship, seductive on first impression - but all his energy goes into making us believe there is intellectual nourishment in his thin soup of image fragments lifted from old photographs and documentary material (such as the Zapruder film of Kennedy's assassination). His paintings invite perceptual and speculative completion by the viewer, but the materials he offers for this legitimate exercise are so philosophically hollow that he effectively lowers all but the appetitive expectations of his audience. in the calculus of his work, understanding amounts to a feeling: the frisson of delectation. No wonder he is a darling of collectors.
It was a bad year for good movies. No Pulp Fiction, nothing that galvanized moviegoers and shot them right out of their seats. Hollywood offered little new, only recycled television shows, bad cartoons, and witless comedies. But a few films remain memorable. William Hurt's New York accent was dreadful, but SMOKE was almost perfect. This little story of Brooklynites who connect over their cigars can be watched again and again and still offer up new insights into its characters. UNZIPPED, the documentary about fashion designer isaac Mizrahi, was a side-splitting piece of reportage, guaranteed to make you think twice before buying the newest trend in anything. And CRUMB, Terry Zwigoff's brilliant documentary about cartoonist R. Crumb, was both exhilarating and disturbing. The film, and this man's life, are like a car wreck: you don't want to watch, but you can't keep your eyes off it.
EASY ON THE THIGHS
On the other hand, it was a great year for bad movies. And the worst trend in movies was the use of NAKED WOMEN WHO HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE PLOT. In Kiss of Death, while David Caruso and Nicolas Cage did their idiotic business in the forefront, naked women gyrated behind the action, so to speak, shaking their breasts in the faces of bit players. In Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard, Jack Nicholson takes his well of grief over the loss of his child to the strip clubs, where the mindless tits and ass only make him angrier and more obsessed. Showgirls decided to forget the plot entirely. Why bother with a story when you can just watch unclothed women? Elizabeth Berkley was so bad that her lip gloss seemed to be a major player. The script by Joe Eszterhas was both vile and inane, the dialogue so embarrassing that you had to wonder how this guy keeps working. Now that even 12-year-olds know what lap dancing is, can we please go back to making movies that have a story? But the worst part was that it contained this joke: Question: What's the useless piece of skin around a twat called? Answer: A woman! Could you just throw up?
Martha Frankel is a contributing editor of Movieline.
One of the strongest pictures I saw this year was EL CALLEJON DE LOS MILAGROS (Midaq Alley), by Mexican director Jorge Fons, at the Toronto Film Festival. This nearly two-and-a-half-hour-long opus situates Naguib Mahfouz's `40s Cairo street life in a seething alley in contemporary downtown Mexico City. While it has all the trappings of a meaty soap opera, El callejon is more than a dewy-eyed telenovella. Fons deftly interweaves his characters' lives, using conflicting perspectives to underscore the dialectical tensions between individual and collective memory. El callejon has everything most American films this year lacked: real drama, not just spectacle; passion, not just cheap thrills; and a rigorous intellect organically meshed with populist flavor. But most important, El callejon glows. instead of the familiar disdain for and exoticization of the poor regularly served up on the screen, Fons delivers an empathetic love for his working-class characters.
Following the lead of Pulp Fiction, there was a barrage of indie flicks that looked dope and transgressive but ultimately trade on the same reactionary values, tired ideas, and lame moves as the most backward Hollywood product. But these horrors paled in the face of Disney's POCAHONTAS. The real Pocahontas was kidnapped and died four years after being made into a sex slave by European colonizers in America, but the celluloid version is pure fantasy. Leave it to Disney to give us genocide in glorious, mind-numbing song and dance and unimaginative, soft-core animation. Reinscribing the primacy of the pink phallus, Pocahontas is essentially the narrative of civilization: conquest is progress and therefore inevitable; traditional cultures inhibit individual development; love of blond men is higher than love of black community. But what's most disturbing about Pocahontas is its pedagogical tone and its youthful target audience. The movie is not infused, like so many other American-made products, with the fallacious notion that racism is over; in Pocahontas racism never existed.
Atom Egoyan's EXOTICA unfolds in several sites at once - most spectacularly in the eponymous table-dance emporium. The main attraction in this mock harem of Roman pillars and potted palms is the enigmatic Christina - lithe, solemn, and dressed in a schoolgirl's uniform - who wanders out under the blue lights and breaks into a slow-motion, spastic performance, raising her tartan skirt and gyrating to Leonard Cohen's sepulchral drone. This ceremonial performance informs a series of repeated set pieces, connected by dreamy sound bridges and interspersed with flashbacks. The narrative inches simultaneously forward and backward - tension building through the gradual elucidation of the characters' connections (including blackmall, murder, and adultery) - to a climax both powerfully ordinary and extraordinarily sad.
More than any previous Egoyan film, Exotica exploits repetition to assuage trauma and conjure absence. While his earlier flicks were set in a video phantom zone, Exotica examines the loneliness of life amid a paradise of paid surrogates. The film's argument is played out entirely in images or the imagination. For both the characters and the viewer, Exotica expresses a longing beyond its frame, beyond words.
The most predictably dismal trend in 1995 was the attempt to trade on Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Get Shorty is Tarantino lite, and even Sylvester Stallone could be seen lifting John Wooisms in his turgid Assassins. Worse, the Sundance Film Festival, where Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs originally stunned the world, brought A FLOOD OF FAUX TARANTINO THRILLERS. The Usual Suspects' all-star, chemistry-free cast, bogus plot twist, and insipid dialogue somehow inspired rote overpraise. The even more calculated Coldblooded, predicated on the notion of Jason Priestly as a comic hitman, was stupefying. Fall Time reinscribes a Reservoir Dogs failed caper into the (yawn) `50s with Mickey Rourke in the Michael Madsen role. Even the hapless Search and Destroy copped a Tarantinoesque antic belligerence. Still to come: Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead. Are you holding your breath?
"Imprison those alive as rioters," a corrupt army officer orders after his troops have nerve-gassed a crowded train station in the post-atomic Hong Kong fable EXECUTIONERS. "Bum the corpses," he mutters, in a moment that carries tremendous bitter echoes of the Tiananmen Square massacre. As with any good HK film, the images are so startling you can scarcely believe your eyes: martial arts acrobatics, glances loaded with aching emotion, grandiose violence infused with contemplative beauty. K's as if the three resistance fighters (Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung, reprising their roles from the impressive Heroic Trio) had sprung from a movie-mad Joan of Arc's brow: the swirling carnage they plunge into has the quality of a recurring vision. Executioners' tale of a future where water is the ultimate commodity is part political allegory (haunted by the impending Communist takeover of Hong Kong, the film depicts military dictatorship and venture capitalism as common allies), part comic-book poetry. It renders action as a dream of radical gestures, so what these avengers seem to be executing is no less than what the Situationists called "the judgment that contemporary leisure is pronouncing against itself."
And speaking of the cancerous boredom that has devoured both American cinema and the impoverished life it underwrites, welcome to WATERWORLD. With many of the same dystopian motifs as Executioners (at roughly 60 times the expense) but not one iota of style or the slightest trace of human feeling, it is corporate-leisure filmmaking at its emptiest. I'm told the giant lump in the middle of the screen is called Kevin Costner - a mechanized dolt so ponderous his expressions have the aspect of lava hardening. The inescapable Hollywood stench of pseudorealism wafts through the most fantastic exchanges in Waterworld: even after the end of the world as we know it, the postnuclear family survives and triumphs, learning therapeutic lessons like some inspirational breed of cockroach. What could be more reassuring than Mad Max reincarnated as a guest on Oprah? (Unless it's the thought of one's own merciful death before Waterworld's running time has elapsed.)
Those CALVIN KLEIN ADS - the ones with young 'uns striking poses in suburban rec rooms and being asked leering questions by an off-screen male - were the most delicious media event of the year. Bringing teenage sexuality to the front half of everyone's brains, they pushed buttons and made people livid, the way a great, nasty, confrontational ad campaign should. And, thanks to the controversy, the ads made Calvin cutting edge again, getting people to talk about the ethical limits of sexual pleading way beyond the campaign's short life span. The only drawback was that so many people - some of them hypocrites who spend their days cruising 16-year-olds on the street - were up in arms over their blatant sexuality. Aligning with them, cowardly Calvin pulled the ads almost instantly, but without ever acknowledging the way they blatantly sold sex. To him, apparently, they were innocent expressions of teenage affirmation, not well-orchestrated exercises in soft-core porn. But with their intentional rough-and-ready sleaziness, I considered them a major breakthrough in advertising in front of which I sat in awe, wrongly assured that we'd entered a brave new world.
Similarly, SHOWGIRLS meretricious writer Joe Eszterhas trudged through the media trying to paint the flick as a redemptive and enriching tale, instead of a trashy, crappy bunch of hackneyisms so trite we'd forgotten they existed. As campily, unintentionally funny as the film is, the duplicitous values involved in its creation and marketing make it easily the worst movie experience of the year.
Michael Musto writes a weekly column for The Village Voice, New York.
The ART WORLD BOTTOMS OUT. Hey, it can only get better. After the art-market crash, art tried to revive itself by imitating its obvious commercial analogues: rock `n' roll and fashion. Mistake. Look how well these forms are doing. Art should have some pride. it turned itself into crap long before rock `n' roll or fashion. Maybe now that the old sales-driven art world is over, artists can think about making art and getting it to a larger and more significant audience instead of a conspiracy of speculators and their hired academician apologists.
OVER THE TOP
OVERABUNDANCE OF COVERAGE of everything coverable, making reality disappear even more than it has already for millions of unrealistic people. In-depth coverage of shallowness. Supermodels, fashion-designer superstars, sports superstars, centerfold superstars, criminal superstars, and ordinary people getting 15 minutes of fame when it should be 15 minutes on the rack. The worst O.J. Simpson himself might be guilty of is killing two people. The O.J. trial cult killed time that adds up to many thousands of lifetimes. The same pseudo-judicial spectacle, broadcast due to a bizarre interpretation of "freedom of the press," established a new level of misinformation, disinformation, and injustice. If you blow up a photograph enough there is no longer an image; there are only dots. If you blow up an event enough, the same effect occurs. Enlargement and transmission destroy the content. That's why reality is vanishing. That's why Natural Born Killers is realism and OJTV is fantasy.
Glenn O'Brien is a frequent contributor to Artforum.
When HUGH GRANT'S mug shots were thrust into the cold light of CNN, we were treated to a "before" photo rarely seen of a movie star. Here was an actor bereft of lighting, styling, and wardrobe, playing against character, without a script. Nevertheless, as promotional stills for the coming attraction, the mug shots were Oscar caliber. Never has an actor so effectively conveyed the inner emotional landscape of a spanked dog.
PR remains an inexact science with its share of cataclysmic disasters. One of these occurred when Fox, the studio of Nine Months, booked Grant on the Tonight Show without considering the possibility of an image-frying, zero-spin-potential sex scandal. Fox executives sat catatonic near their pumping fax machines and contemplated the shellacking ahead.
Grant honored his date with Leno. When he entered the TV studio that day, Grant dragged the unwashed masses of Oprahites with him, turning a carefully monitored PR organ into the Weekly World News. He would have to atone to a nation hopelessly obsessed with sleaze but still Puritan enough to be ashamed of it. That he was foreign seemed appropriate. Who better than an Englishman could personify sexual repression and its attendant perversities?
When he reached the sacrificial slab next to Leno's desk, there was a pregnant pause. Here he was, a sullen schoolboy in the principal's office after being caught having intercourse with a stolen tub of mayonnaise. Would he spontaneously erupt, like that crewman in Alien? The possibilities seemed limitless. After the initial question, it was all downhill. We forgave him. He had the gumption to wear the televisual hair shirt, if only until the commercial break.
By decrying violence and sexism in Hollywood films and gangsta rap, BOB DOLE exhumed the tired argument that dates back to the Nazi condemnation of "degenerate art." Goebbels clandestinely enjoyed the "smut" he banned, but Iron Bob hadn't even seen or heard the films and records he lambasted. Had he bothered to screen Natural Born Killers, for instance, Dole would have found a typically Stoned diatribe against the media's exploitation of violence, an agenda surprisingly in tune with his own. Had he actually seen True Lies, a high-body-count Bond rip-off with the first comic nuclear explosion since Dr. Strangelove, he might have enjoyed the Stepinfetchit portrayal of Islamic terrorists and the screamingly sexist middle third.
By torching the most combustible straw man in American culture, the entertainment industry, Dole was able to singe his real opponents in Washington without partisan mudslinging. Even Clinton fell in line, welcoming Dole's sentiments as he cued up Fleetwood Mac's Rumours in the Oval Office.
Horrorcore rapper Bushwick Bill (unrelated to President Bill), who has criticized Dole in the press, recently upgraded his name to Dr. Wolfgang Von Bushwickin the Barbarian Mother Funky Stay High Dollar Billster. A similar move might benefit Dole, whose name only connotes canned fruit. Maybe he should be known henceforth as Dr. Roberto Dolemite the Contrarian Pander Junky Big Lie Slave to Pollster.
R. U. SIRIUS
WE, THE JURY
The O.J. Verdict - specifically, those few minutes when the jury emerged, the verdict was read, and the various players reacted - stood out as the McLuhanesque event of the year. Carried on pretty much every station on the tube (as well as on the dial), these enormously intense few moments of television provided a creepy voyeuristic tension not unlike watching a real-life game of Russian roulette. In this age of decentered media and info overload, it made us a global village again, or at least an American community, pulling in the largest TV audience in several years.
Honorable Mentions: DUCKMAN on the USA network - I suggest taping an episode of this show about a fast-talking, amoral, loser, baby boomer-age male duck and playing it back slowly. It's so quick that critics and viewers haven't yet caught on to the brilliance of the writing; ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS - the vapid and debauched lifestyle parodied here is positively attractive when contrasted with the clean-and-sober conservatism of American TV; MAD TV - okay, so maybe it's no better than Saturday Night Live and In Living Color before their great respective tailspins, but at the moment it's fresh and subversive. Catch it before the inevitable decline.
GUILTY AT LARGE
Is there anybody alive who's been able to sit through an entire SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE this year? Won't somebody please kill this thing?
MARK VAN DE WALLE
After almost a year of indulging in a kind of semisolitary vice, I'm finally ready to come clean: for my money, HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS, the latest in a line of Hercules vehicles dating back to the '50s, is the best rush on television. Certainly, it's the finest example of queso currently available for regular public consumption.
The current series has everything you want from a Hercules vehicle: scantily clad bimbos of both genders (you pretty much know why everybody in the leather loincloths and chain-mail thong bikinis got the job); excellent computer-generated monsters; and gods and goddesses (most notably Zeus). Herc also has friends: lolaus, the five-foot-six kung fu warrior; Xena, the Warrior Princess (who has her own spin-off series); and my personal favorite, Salmoneus, inventor of things like the celebrity biography and PR flack.
Of course, one of the best things about the show is Kevin Sorbo's brilliant portrayal of Herc. Sorbo, who looks like Fablo with shorter hair, plays Hercules as the ultimate nice guy, the kind every woman in the ancient world wants to bring home. Herc is way too nice to go home with anybody, though (at least anybody he's not really in love with), and his vague and persistent embarrassment about stuff like that is the real key to his charm. Sam Raimi, executive producer of this cheez-fest, who already proved he understands queso as well as anyone in his masterpieces The Evil Dead I and II, has created another great vehicle in his ongoing exploration of an underappreciated esthetic.
I suspect that the success of FRIENDS and its seemingly endless rip-offs about cute-young-singles-living-in-NY is the real reason rents are going up all over town again. Because now every twentynothing in the country is moving to the city to lie around in coffee shops all day just like the morons on these shows. Thereby making life hell for the rest of us who actually want and/or have jobs and still can't afford to loaf around in coffee shops all day.
Two moments stood above all others: hearing NEIL YOUNG's "I'm the Ocean" for the first time (and then playing it as loudly as I could for the rest of the afternoon), and the scene in Crumb when R., explaining how in old American music he hears the purest, deepest struggle of human beings to confront the truth that "not to be born prevails over all meaning uttered in words" (Sophocles, not Crumb), puts on a treasured 78, lies back on a daybed, and lets a peace beyond dreams float across his face. He is listening to one GEECHIE WILEY sing and play a song called "Last Kind Word Blues." Do you need anything more than the tide to know that time stops here? Nothing is known about Wiley; as she sang, 65 years ago, she told you too much. Her man is about to leave to fight in Europe in the world war; she knows she'll never see him again; she doesn't know that in 11 years the next world war will begin - and yet, in some essential way, she does know. She asks for a last kind word before he goes; then she turns to stone. Young, as he promises, turns to water. With great good humor, a lot of bitterness, fabulous free-associating lyrics in perfect balance, and a melody that swirls like Ishmael's whirlpool turning into a spout and coughing him up, Young brings Nietzschean ecstasy to the level of an Olds Cutlass and thus makes the latter sublime and the former absolutely real.
LESS IS MORISSETTE
Pop music has become so segmented in terms of its distribution systems it's relatively easy to avoid the irritants-unto-atrocities that in other times were as central to pop life as emanations from Delphi (which, I just realized, only 37 years late, is where the name Del-Fi - Ritchie Valens' label - came from, so this metaphor isn't even a metaphor). Think Blues Traveler is the band to vote Republican to? Find Elastica creepy? Rather watch Home Shopping Network than any video on MTV? Never turn on the stations that carry them, stick to those that don't, boundaries will not be crossed, you'll never be bothered. In 1995 only one artist rose above this antidemocratic fragmentation to scratch her fingernails down the blackboard of a whole nation - ALANIS MORISSETTE, with "You Oughta Know." Next move, world domination: make it into a Coke commercial.
Steeped in the studio sorcery of dub and hip-hop, TRICKY is as much a part of England's art-rock continuum as he is a British B-boy. One way of thinking of Maxinquaye is as Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure remodeled as an accounting of the costs of the Uk's recreational drug culture. Tricky makes his own travalls with alcohol, ganja, and other "cheap thrills' emblematic of a generation able to find its provisional utopias only through self-poisoning. From the polluted stream-of-consciousness lyrics to the smeary, maculate textures and wraithlike melodies, Tricky transforms inner chaos and cultural entropy into picturesque soundscapes - like "Strugglin" (Public Enemy minus the dream of a Slack Nation), like "Aftermath" (Miles Davis' "He Loved Him Madly" meets The Specials' "Ghost Town"), like "Abbaon Fat Tracks" (how "There's a Riot Going On" might have sounded, had Sly Stone used a sampler).
Tricky is the sharpest, cruelest poet of England's political unconscious since the John Lydon of PIL's "Metal Box." In place of the slogans, redemptive exhortations, and case studies perpetrated in the name of "political pop," Tricky simply lets the contamination and corruption speak for itself, in its own vernacular: paranola ("mystical shadows fraught with no meaning"), implosive rage ("my brain thinks bomblike"), and exile ("raised in this place, now concrete is my religion"). Perhaps his most poignant poem of all is "Maxinquaye" itself, his personal word' for Zion, for paradise lost. Maxine is his mother, who died when Tricky was four; the Quaye are an African tribe. As for Tricky, he's sorrow's native son.
The cocktail lounge that serves as a camp reliquary for bands like Stereolab, Love Jones, and Combustible Edison has been miraculously refurbished as a pure slice of smoke-filled, dimly lit heaven, thanks to Chicago's THE SEA MD CAKE. Half of l995's best moments were spent there; the other half came from an open tomb deep in America's mythic backwaters, where bands like Palace, Son Volt, and THE GERALDINE FIBBERS were giving voice to spirits that refuse to stay dead. "I run like blood through open doors," sings the Fibbers' Carla Bozulich, the desperation in her throat having aged like vintage hooch into a slow, mournful groan - the words rendered so bodily they sweat with need and exhaustion. Bozulich sucks the vast country-and-western tradition into her lungs, only to spit out an exile's language - no ontebellum reverence here. Her drawl thins into pop cliche one moment, then grows deeply sedimented, revealing archaic pleasures and lasting wounds she retrieves or heals only through all-obliterating howls. This vocal whiplashing has been described as androgynous, but it's really the femaleness of Bozulich's voice (more than its faux-Southernness) that lends both weight and displacement to the history it evokes; it's how Poly Styrene would sound if she were playing Patricia Neal's Alma Brown character in Hud. The only problem is, the other Fibbers can't catch up to Bozulich's singing. On its debut album, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, the band sounds oddly crisp and brash, too much like the evening's first drink and not enough like the last round - the warm, decadent glow of which describes Bozulich's voice as perfectly as it does the year's other best album, The Sea and Cake's Nassau.
In Austin, Texas, despising the pseudoalternative, frat-boy rock that's colonized the airwaves is no fun anymore: 101-X FM preempted that fun by hiring the Butthole Surfers' GIBBY HAYNES to host its weeknight slot. On the air Haynes is a self-righteous, bitter, nostalgic drag. Listeners are forced to choose between alternatives," even though the difference between them makes no difference whatsoever. Gibby or Hootie - it's alternative culture presented as the Pepsi Challenge. El
What happens when an artist plays music in the woods and no one's there to hear it? In the pop world, where the moment is everything, silence equals death; artists absent too long from the public eye must be revived or resurrected. Not surprisingly, musicians don't enjoy having years of their lives erased. Ask one about her comeback and she'll inevitably respond that she never went away. "I was with you always," PATTI SMITH told a Toronto crowd in July, at her first show with a band in 15 years. "When I was cleaning my toilet, I thought of you. When I was doing my laundry, I thought of you. When I was changing my children's diapers, I thought of you. Do you believe that?" I believe. There was a tremendous feeling of continuity with the past in her performances this summer, as if she spent those years in Detroit carefully tending her imaginative and expressive spark. As she read from one of her books at Central Park's Summerstage, I realized that, although she has read in public only a few times since 1980, she must have practiced many nights, telling stories to her two kids. Not content merely to rest on her laurels, flogging the dead horse of her adolescent fantasies like so many aging rock stars, she sang and read new as well as old material. Hearing her, I felt as though the `80s were finally over, and the millennium might well be the Second Coming.
MICHAEL JACKSON returned from his brief, forced exile with an album half stuffed with old hits, as if to remind everyone of who he, Michael Jackson, once was. The King of Pop had come to reclaim his throne. I have a soft spot for Jackson dating to my first crush, which his sweet voice on "I'll Be There" elicited. But I've never seen such a debacle as his performance on the MTV Music Awards. The once-videogenic genius lip-synched a medley of faded glories, the cheering was as canned as the music, and the dancers and special effects looked like something out of a bad Grammys acid trip. Jackson's was one of the few success stories of the 80s that contained a grain of magic; but the spell, now broken, cannot be recast.
Spoilt for choice here, as ever. There are many contenders: BLUR'S "The Great Escape"; GUIDED BY VOICES' double whammy of "Alien Lanes" and the four-CD box of unreleased albums; SILVERCHAIR's "Frogstomp" and PAUL WELLER's "Stanley Road"; the wholesome Everyman rock of HOOTIE AND THE BLOWFISH's "Cracked Rear View." But 1995's most nauseating moments ultimately belong to MICHAEL JACKSON's "You Are Not Alone" - not so much for the song, sickly as it is, but for the cringe-making video, with its staged seminude scenes of "marital intimacy" 'tween Wacko and Lisa Marie, and for the appalling spectacle of Michael's bared and bleached chest, hairless and withered like a teenager with premature aging syndrome.
AND JUTTA KOETHER
With few interesting new things in rock, THE RAGE FOR HISTORICIZATION remained the best event of 1995. There were CD retrospectives ranging from the Velvet Underground (the schoolboy decadence on the previously unissued pre-Warhol '65 recordings was especially good fun) to the Beatles. On television, although the syndicated History of Rock and Roll regrettably failed to tell the whole story because it relied entirely on the outrageous views of musicians, PBS/BBC's Rock and Roll gave us more to chew on. Particularly interesting (in a year when profits from Britpop releases went through the roof) was the classic battle between the Americans and the Brits for status as the progenitors of punk. But the funk segment was by far the best. Series consultant Robert Palmer's hard work and mania for details sustained his reading of the history of popular music as largely the history of black music. Alongside these archival efforts, revisionism was the rule when it came to the written word. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press' The Sex Revolts reread the history of rock as largely a story of gender, a battle between two tendencies: protofascist rebel rockers and longing-choked mama's boys (an interesting thesis in spite of its crude hermeneutics and vulgar psychologisms). The book's universality and purposeful simplicity makes it now possible to theorize a genealogy explaining both the Nick Caves and the Steve Albinis of the world - a true feat of history writing.
The worst news was that the prayer for "no more Beatles or Stones" (first uttered 18 years ago by The Clash) still went unanswered. While the former talk reunion (minus John), the latter find themselves at the center of a ridiculous scandal in Germany. By digitally recording shows from the Stones' German tour, journalists found several songs to be identical - to the nanosecond - strongly suggesting that the concerts had been prerecorded (even old Charlie Watts was never that precise). The Stones plead their innocence in letters to the editor and still plan to issue a "Live" album to clinch the point. But THE ASININE DEBATE ABOUT AUTHENTICITY IN ROCK 'N' ROLL returned like a medieval disease mistakenly thought to have been eradicated by modern medicine. The last victims of this virus, poor Milli Vanilli, are probably still looking for jobs in L.A. Maybe they can find work doing backup vocals for the Stones.
QUEEN FOR A YEAR
It was Emerson who once grumped that "New York is a sucked orange." I don't guess he ever met the drag queen GIRLINA: if he had, he'd have tweaked the difference between being over and being ovah! While an observer of New York street style in 1995 might easily have concluded that the orange was, indeed, sucked, Girlina is wiser by far. She'd point briskly to the fly girl sashaying down the street with her scalp parceled off in Bantu knots; or to the demented fashion nun teetering about Soho wearing Rosa Kleb heels; or to the stud-puppy hunkering around the gym in boxer shorts big enough to slipcover a chair; or to the bikini-waxed femme boy in L'Uomo Vogue; or to anyone wearing ultra-nerdly-cool Hush Puppy shoes. And she'd say, with her inimitable snap, "If it looks good, sugar, whirl in it!" For that matter, whirl in it if it looks like hell! Girlina has an innate understanding that it never pays to settle for being chic or stylish when you can be fierce and ruling and make fashion serve. She also knows - as does every well-brought-up, young drag queen - that it rarely profits a person to settle for someone else's idea of what's best.
There is, on the other hand, such a thing as bad. Otherwise, why would God have invented shade? Except at raves, the bioterror invoked by "HOT ZONE" JUMP SUITS is the worst. FRIDAY WEAR on Wall Street is the worst (what'll happen to Executive Realness?) HELLO, KITTY! is the worst. CAMOUFLAGE is the worst. CYBERSLUT TEES are the worst. SASSY RIP-OFFS are the worst. PRADA BAGS are the worst. BONDAGE, TATTOOS, PIERCING, PLEATHER, and PVC, while not the worst, could use a style nap. CHEAP FAKE FUR is the worst if not worn by actual drag queens. REAL FUR is the worst if not worn by actual quadrupeds. INTENTIONAL CRUELTY in all forms is, uh, a little overdone. To sample Joe Brainerd's paraphrase of the pinup/Buddha Betty Grable, "I think kindness is the most important thing in a person, don't you?"
A photo taken in 1958 shows Joan Crawford holding the definitive status symbol of that year of years: A SMALL AIRLINE BAG emblazoned with the Sabena logo, which despite its cheapness conjured all the glamour associated with jet travel, but which 20-odd years later was about as glamorous as the worn polyester seats of a 747. But the airline bag, the sturdiness of its nylon reminiscent of a Prada knapsack, was born again this year at the hands of Comme des Garcons' Rei Kawakubo. At first glance, the resurrection suggests the '60s references seen in so many designers' collections; however, Kawakubo, unconcerned with that decade's overall esthetic, indexed the bag's entire ascent and decline, from the smartest jet-setting shoulders to the dustiest Salvation Army floors, creating an object both of fashion and out of fashion. At a confusing moment when items that were not only out but were in fact literal emblems of outness, like Gucci loafers and Lacoste polo shirts, have been resurrected to great fanfare and profit, the polemic of Kawakubo's bag became all the more arch when she stopped manufacturing them after a brief fashion frenzy, before the above history could repeat itself. In doing so she demonstrated an increasingly revolutionary idea for the industry - participation via withdrawal.
LIKE A VICTIM
That MADONNA's put on a couple of pounds doesn't really represent much unto itself; for someone who in 12 years has made herself over as many times as Crawford did in her entire career, a couple of pounds is nothing. However, Madonna's Proteus act ran aground when, for her appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards, she crammed her zaftig self into the lean and androgynous silhouette of Gucci's breathtaking ad campaign, then topped it off with an absurd Belle de Jour hairdo. To see Madonna vainly styling herself after Gucci avatar Amber Valletta was a graphic reminder of the growing gulf between hype and reality. It's not that the Gucci clothes are unrealistic, even if they don't forgive one's extra ounces. But in its exalted scarcity, the Gucci collection represents the new blind fervor for those must-must-haves that confer fashion-insider status on the wearer. And fashion-insider status via MTV, it must be said, seems a bit silly. As for status symbols - didn't they go out with Gucci loafers?
YEAR OF THE YEAR
In our parlous and decentralized time, every year fastens on past years it considers worst and best. What was 1995's most favored vintage? The multifarious judges hand us the envelope, and the winner's an annoying tie: 1976 and 1937. No secret about the Spirit of '76: it's ABBA, using the conduit of Australian pop cult via a trio of wandering drag queens and a Ricki Lake de nos jours to consolidate a long-anticipated phenomenon we are pleased to call "heterosexual camp." Its signifying image? A worldwide sports cable program celebrating the 100th anniversary of Australian rules football (or "footie"), in which hundreds of bouncy young women covered the field and synchronically strutted their stuff to "Dancing Queen." Universal applause! In 1976, we recall, the killing fields of Vietnam could at last be put aside, letting things get back to disco normal.
But the frivolous, fringy clothes of 1976 simply would not do, so back the judges went to an older vestige of luxury, the 1937 DRAPED MALE SUIT, using yards of the best worsted to indicate the inherent elegance of masculine power. Doesn't Ralph Lauren's suppressed waist of 1995 wittily emphasize the increasing acceptability of suppression? Continuing along in 1937 terms, why should the Spanish Civil War, or any petty balkanized conflict, concern us? We have enough to worry about, dressed as we are. Which is why Ken Loach's newest film, Land and Freedom, about that prewar war, rubs the futility of our past social idealism in our present collective face.
For the same reason, the judges were unanimous in their selection of 1969 as the year most despised by 1995. IDEALISM, HA! Liberation, bah! What selfish foolishness, women's liberation; what sick exhibitionism, gay liberation; what reverse bigotry, racial liberation. All have permanently undermined our growth, our unity, our strength. If we must march, we'll march not to the strains of John Lennon, but to John Philip Sousa, to John Tesh.
Odds are good that 1969 will win again in this category next year.
VIKTOR AND ROLF's spring-summer collection '96 - a line of formal wear made entirely of golden fabric - was a tour de force of complex cut and formal inventiveness. Brilliantly orchestrating shape, line, and volume in endless geometrical variations, Viktor and Rolf privilege the garment itself - its formal properties - above all else, and it is this emphasis that lends their designs a quality of purity. This cleanness, however, is largely a matter of surface appearance; riddled with intentional errors and contradictions, and above all informed by a sense of humor, their fashion, or better "metafashion," amounts to a conceptual exercise in "reconstruction." As such, it is a stunning commentary on the ostentatious ambitions of fashion, involving an impassioned quest for novelty even as it acknowledges the radical impossibility of this undertaking.
There's no end to the runaway S/M machismo, overreaching special effects, and cyberpunk cliches of WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK, a designer and teacher at the Royal Academy of Antwerp who first became prominent in the '80s. The success of his WILD AND LETHAL TRASH collection this summer is a telling example of how a fashion esthetic, in overzealously attempting to reflect a zeitgeist, can ironically seem behind the times. Here is the mise-en-scene from the press release accompanying the show of the W< springsummer collection '96, ostensibly a celebration of the "future" of fashion, at the Lido in Paris. Image: "messengers in the year 2013 riding atomic bicycles in a frantic race through the multiracial metropolis." Accessories: "professional motocross boots, digital jewelry, detachable visors . . ." Colors: "galactic white, Eden green, luminous blue, atoll blue, lime." Products: "shields against urban guerilla warfare, bomber jackets in inflatable plastic, restyled military pants . . . ." At least Van Beirendonck deserves credit for honestly referring to his hackneyed creations as "products."
CITY OF SOUND
In Paris, the broad strategy of city planners during the years of Francois Mitterrand's Grand Travaux was simple: new cultural landmarks would be erected in the working-class sectors to give instant stature to suffering communities. The results have been mixed. But Christian de Portzamparc's CITE DELA MUSIQE, completed in February, is a triumph of architecture that strives to reach beyond its own walls. It is a monumental structure seemingly cut apart in order to draw the city into itself.
Sited at the entrance of the Parc de la Villette - once home to Victor Baltard's iron framed framed slaughterhouses-the,concert hall is the second half of a large state-sponsored music complex that shapes the park's southern edge. (The first half was a conservatory completed in 1990.) In the new addition, a glorious pedestrian street leading into the project becomes a glass-covered courtyard that wraps tightly around the tilted oval-shaped theater. A museum space, then a row of student apartments, forms the street's outer shell, its top floor bent gently inward like the concert hall itself. But as you move around this central oval, the views open up onto the park and Avenue Jean-Jaures. If you continue, the path eventually leads back out to where you began. Culture and daily life conceptually interlock along this internal street. Portzamparc's building suggests a new architecture: one that embraces the city's sublime confusion.
BLIGHTED BY THE LIGHT
ARQUITECTONICA's winning design for an asyet-unnamed hotel and retail complex on the corner of New York's 42nd Street and 8th Avenue - "the "crossroads of the world" - is a banal tower veiled in glitz. The 48-story structure is slashed in two by a vertical band of light - a gesture that pretends to point to the infamous street below but in fact ends at a time-share vacation club originally designed for the Waft Disney Company (Disney's ground floor retail space is part of a package that loosely extends to Seventh Avenue). Cloaked in a mosaic of New York scenes, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, the club reveals the true message of the plan - the falsely happy family-values packaging of the Tishman Urban Development Corporation and the Walt Disney Company. Everything here is made palatable. The tense rumbling by underground in the subway tunnels and across the street at the massive Port Authority Bus Terminal is ignored. And the mad dream of constant movement that once marked New York's great architecture - like Rockefeller Center and the Guggenheim - is completely forgotten.
For those of us in the neo-Luddite resistance to the information Millennium, the most reassuring development in 1995 was the outbreak of the FIRST COMPUTER SUPERVIRUS. The plague, which appeared at the beginning of September, infected unprecedented numbers of PCs throughout Europe and North America when users attempted to read documents created by Microsoft's popular Word program. Although deliberately benign, the Word virus contained an ominous but inert macro entitled "payload." It was an exemplary philosophical warning. indeed, experts worry that future epidemics, more malevolent in nature, could spread through the vulnerable orifices of E-mail with the lethal efficiency of Ebola fever. The Net may be mortal after all.
SENDING A MESSAGE
The most sinister architectural event of the last year was the opening of the federal supermaximum-security prison - ADMINISTRATIVE MAXIMUM FACILITY - in Florence, Colorado. This "Alcatraz of the Rockies" is home to Japanese Red Army terrorist Yu Kikimura and may become the future residence of such celebrities as Mafia don John Gotti and Chicago gangleader Jeff Fort.
Florence's Sadean blueprint, plagiarizing the most inhumane features of California's notorious Pelican Bay facility, is explicitly intended to maximize sensory deprivation and spatial disorientation. Seven layers of three-inch-thick steel doors and 1,400 electronic gates control movement within the 562-bed labyrinth. The tiny cells, with their stark concrete furniture, are ingeniously angled so that inmates cannot communicate with or see one another. Window slits are designed to allow a glimpse of the sky but no view of the surrounding mountains.
The "more dangerous" inmates are confined to their cells 23 hours a day with the bleak consolation of a small black and white television set. They are allowed one hour of solitary "recreation" in a concrete room equipped with a chinup bar. The most incorrigible convicts, however, are "buried alive" (without television) in an awesome "hole," where automated services virtually eliminate physical contact with others.
The austere, hypersecure "Roboprison" is, of course, an idea whose time has come. State prison systems are avidly joining the fray. Michigan, for example, has its dread IMAX facility, Arizona boasts its new "Pelican Bay of the Desert' (Security Management Unit), and Oklahoma has buried an entire maximum-security complex underground. Even Jeremy Bentham, the 19th-century father of the panoptical penitentiary, would be horrified by the iceberglike solitude of the new American prisons.
Why must it take the commission of a major new concert hall to inspire our architect, articulate the links between sound, space, time, and social occasion? Never mind: it's rare enough to find even a concert hall where, those connections are memorably expressed. So I give thanks for the new chamber-music hall Christian de Portzamparc has designed for the CITE DE LA MUSIQUE in Paris.
The hall is wrapped within a spiraling lobby, a disorienting shape to move through: it puts you in mind of music's capacity for temporal displacement. The hall itself is shaped like an ellipse. Acoustical engineers doubted whether the design would work, but Portzamparc wanted this shape because he thought it would make a more sociable space. And he was right. Especially in the balcony seats, the hall allows a precisely pitched balance between sociability and concentration. (The design incidentally also works magnificently on an acoustic level.) You feel you're with people you want to be with: some of us play instruments; others listen. And their place expands your awareness of time, beyond the duration of a composition, to the history of musical life in Paris. Portzamparc's design shows how an enclosed space can be as generously urbane as a street.
TRUMP INTERNATIONAL HOTEL AND TOWER, on Columbus Circle in New York, is like a scene out of a horror movie: just when you think the beast is dead, up it rises from the pit, bigger and more hideous than ever. This time the monster has three heads: Donald Trump! Philip Johnson! The '80s! Eeeeeek!!!
Trump made his Manhattan debut by stripping the stone off the old Commodore Hotel, wrapping it in foil, and calling it the Grand Hyatt. At Columbus Circle, he's removed the dark glass from the old Gulf and Western Building and wrapped it in gold lame. For Johnson, the project also represents a return to roots: press releases tout the venture as an homage to the International Style and Mies van der Rohe. Right.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||art and media|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1995|
|Previous Article:||Culture vultures.|
|Next Article:||Dieter Appelt.|
|Around the world with John Deere.|
|Film critic sees `emptiness in the soul of Hollywood'.|
|the best of TMR.|
|Vuk Cosic. (Hotlist).|
|The state of music in the United States.|