vendredi 4 juillet 2008
Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns? (Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York)
commissariat: Urs Fischer et Gavin Brown
Two Coats of Painting
Tony Shafrazi, the man who tagged Guernica, tries another way of superimposing new art and old.
'Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?” is an early contender for Gallery Group Show of the Year. It has 22 artists—or 25, if you count those on view in reproduction. But really it has no artists at all. The show centers on a collaboration by the two impresario-organizers, gallerist Gavin Brown and artist Urs Fischer. It is all about memory, morals, redemption, tribal loyalty, and railing against cozy cliché. One of its causes can be traced to February 28, 1974, the infamous day when Tony Shafrazi, a 30-year-old Iranian-born artist, entered the Museum of Modern Art, yelled, “Call the curator. I am an artist,” and spray-painted KILL LIES ALL in red letters across Picasso’s Guernica. I’d always assumed Shafrazi meant to paint “All Lies Kill.” However, he recently told me he wrote exactly what he wanted to write, and that it was meant to be read in “a Finnegans Wake way” so that it said something whichever way you read it. (It’s still gibberish to me. Whatever.) Asked about it later, Shafrazi stated he wanted to bring Guernica “absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life.” Regardless, the painting had a protective coating, was cleaned soon after, and now hangs at the Reina Sofía in Madrid. Shafrazi was arrested, charged with “criminal mischief,” and released on $1,000 bail. The story gets weirder from there. Around 1980, Shafrazi opened a Soho gallery and began exhibiting artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat—who also graffitied over things. Shafrazi’s gallery became a hot spot. Or so I heard: My inner Church Lady got the best of me, and, except for occasional shows, I smugly boycotted Shafrazi’s gallery for the next two decades. By the time my moralism calmed down and I started going again, the gallery was only a shadow if its former self. These days, Shafrazi isn’t in the limelight so much. No one would have expected to see this new show in this gallery. He’s known mainly as a dealer of secondary art and blue-chip artists, but “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?” changes that, at least temporarily. Shafrazi claims, “I put my life in their hands.” Gavin Brown puts it this way: Shafrazi’s previous show had been up for months, and “there needed to be an intervention.” The intervention they came up with produces a discombobulating retinal wallop. Fischer, the living master of visual disorientation, had the previous four-person exhibition photographed, including the ceiling and the guards. These images were reproduced in perfect one-to-one scale and wallpapered into the gallery, even on the ceiling, in an exact replica of itself. Then a new show was hung atop the old. Initially, you don’t know what you’re seeing. Everything looks as if it’s on top of everything else, an optical overload. It’s uncanny. There’s a Picabia on top of a Donald Baechler, Francis Bacon atop Kenny Scharf, a Lawrence Weiner overlapping a Jean-Michel Basquiat. Lily van der Stokker has painted over graffiti painters, a Cady Noland leans on a Haring, a real Haring hangs on top of a photographed one. Some juxtapositions are nasty. Sue Williams’s man slapping a woman while calling her “stupid cunt” is next to Richard Prince’s rephotographing of the naked preteen Brooke Shields; Cindy Sherman’s picture of vomit is placed in the mouth of a Scharf. Other juxtapositions read like homage: Rob Pruitt’s eternally burning lighter in front of a John Chamberlain sculpture. Knitting this whole phantasmagoria together is a fantastic smudged white carpet by Rudolf Stingel. “Who’s Afraid” is like some mad replicating vision machine, or a walk-in Louise Lawler. The ghosts of shows past have their way with the present; the art of now elbows aside the art of “then.” “Who’s Afraid” allows you to optically experience how every work of art is in dialogue with, building on, reacting to, or fighting against every other work of art ever made. The gallery says that the show “demonstrates how each work of art has many selves hidden within, and how forces outside the frame constantly … limit a work’s interpretation.” Brown and Fischer suggest that the purposeful white cube of the modern art gallery is also a curse, that it neutralizes art and our thinking about it. Some visitors have called this show adolescent and self-serving. Time Out’s Howard Halle called it “deeply cynical.” But cynicism can also be a creative force. “Who’s Afraid” isn’t insincere and misanthropic. True, the organizers are criticizing the insider art world from as deep inside the belly of the beast as possible. Everything here is A-list. Yet “Who’s Afraid” is a labor of love and a rebel yell. It communes with artistic ancestors and resurrects art no longer in fashion. Insularity notwithstanding, Brown and Fischer want to set art free from the context of the white box. Successful or not, something freeing did happen the night of the opening. It was Shafrazi’s birthday. At the large after-party, Brown and Fischer presented him with a five-foot-long cake decorated with a perfect rendition of Guernica. Brown climbed atop a table and, amid much yelling, toasted Shafrazi. He then thrust a cake decorator filled with red icing into Shafrazi’s hands. As the crowd screamed, Brown implored, “Write, Tony! Write!” Shafrazi started moving the device over the cake. Slowly he wrote the words I AM SORRY. Time stood still. It was like an angel of redemption had entered the room to take away Shafrazi’s guilt. The room went silent. I was shocked. Then, Shafrazi began writing again. He wrote one more word: not! It was like the Sopranos finale. Just as you thought everything was going to change, everything only became more of what it already was.
When Artworks Collide
“Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?,” a group show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Chelsea, is the latest proof that you don’t have to be a museum to shake things up. It was organized by Gavin Brown, who has a downtown gallery of his own, and Urs Fischer, a Swiss artist he represents. Demonically aerobic for brain and eye, the show conflates two exhibitions and several different times, styles, art markets and notions of transgression. Highly site specific, it may also be one of the last words in appropriation art, institutional critique and artistic intervention, not to mention postmodern photography and, especially, wallpaper. The histories entwined here begin with Mr. Shafrazi, an infamous one-hit-wonder graffiti artist and longtime graffiti art dealer. In 1974 he spray-painted, in red, the words “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s “Guernica,” then at the Museum of Modern Art (he meant to write “All Lies Kill”). By 1982 he had a SoHo gallery known for showing graffiti-related artists like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Donald Baechler. In 2004 Mr. Shafrazi relocated to an austere second-floor gallery in Chelsea, putting up long-running shows and concentrating mostly on the resale market: not only the graffitists but also blue-chip works by Picasso, Picabia and Francis Bacon. In October he reprised his glory days with “Four Friends,” an echt-’80s exhibition of paintings and a few sculptures by Haring, Basquiat, Mr. Scharf and Mr. Baechler. Mr. Brown and Mr. Fischer had been lobbying Mr. Shafrazi to let them organize a show at his gallery, and “Four Friends” only spurred their determination. “The show had been up for six months,” Mr. Brown said. “There needed to be an intervention.” About six weeks ago Mr. Shafrazi finally agreed; Mr. Brown and Mr. Fischer went to work. The resulting exhibition is an adventure in juxtaposition and visual argumentation; either way it’s a far cry from the quiet contemplation of isolated art objects. Nothing escapes unimplicated or unmanipulated, least of all the show’s announcement: a picture of Mr. Shafrazi being arrested at MoMA in 1974. You suspect that curatorial limits will be tested even before you ascend the gallery’s broad concrete staircase. Water is cascading down half of it like a mountain stream in April. The work, “Viagra Falls,” by Rob Pruitt, is sophomorically titled but noisily invigorating. But the dominant fact, stage-setter and to some extent gimmick of the show is Mr. Fischer’s wraparound wallpaper extravaganza. It continues his penchant for radically altering art spaces by knocking holes in large walls (as he did for the 2006 Whitney Biennial) and in floors (as he did last winter at Mr. Brown’s Greenwich Street gallery, creating a 10-foot-deep wall-to-wall pit that was part earthwork, part bomb crater). What he has done at Shafrazi is much gentler and far more pervasive; it unsettles perception by subtly confusing original and copy. To begin, Mr. Fischer had every square inch of the “Four Friends” show photographed: not only paintings, frames and their shadows, but also blank walls, windows, ceilings, views through various doorways and the gallery’s two guards. He then converted the images into trompe l’oeil wallpaper that, meticulously applied, lines the gallery with a same-size simulacrum of itself, which enables “Four Friends” to stay in place while a second show is installed on top of it. All this is a lot less obvious than it sounds. The oeil is really tromped in a veritable echo chamber of stylistic and generational clashes: real artworks “deface” real-looking copies of other works, evoking Mr. Shafrazi’s transgression against “Guernica.” In the first gallery, for example, Malcolm Morley’s 1976 “Age of Catastrophe” — a vibrant blue painting of a mangled airliner and colliding ships that is a precursor to both 1980s Neo-Expressionism and appropriation art — hangs atop a Haring graffiti canvas of purple and green figures on yellow. The Haring is only an image on the wallpaper, but it’s a sharp, convincing one. A Picabia pulp-fiction portrait of a woman is affixed to a Baechler depicting an old-fashioned man in a top hat. A gray-on-gray Bacon portrait is atop the wallpaper copy of a bright Scharf painting, which is also partly draped by a pink dripping blob. This is actually painted directly on the wallpaper by the Dutch artist Lily van der Stokker. The Bacon has some of the Scharf’s cartoonishness, but its Expressionism also counters the kitschy cool of the Picabia, which in turn presages the Morley. Finally, a thin bundle of wood studs — a sculpture by the German maverick Georg Herold — leans against a wall that is bare except for two trompe l’oeil wood wall mounts. A painting was removed from the “Four Friends” show before the photographer arrived. In the second gallery, an enormous wallpaper Basquiat triptych, “Gastruck” (1984), is seemingly stamped with a piquant word piece by Lawrence Weiner — the phrase “As Long as It Lasts” — in big letters of a bright red that matches the fiery hues of the burning truck. On other walls a more classically photorealist painting by Mr. Morley, as well as works by Christopher Wool, Richard Prince, Sue Williams, Mike Bidlo, Robert Ryman, Gilbert & George, Cindy Sherman, Cady Noland and Sarah Lucas, argue among themselves and also with the “Four Friends” paintings. Topics include appropriation, high and low, art and history, materials and abstraction. Ms. Van der Stokker returns in the third gallery, swamping especially handsome efforts by the four friends in what appear to be bright blue waves: perhaps the 1980s art market, or our present one, going under. Other than the guards standing next to their own images, this room contains the only matchup of art and double: a real Keith Haring white-on-black subway drawing, cut from its original site and framed under glass, on top of two similar Harings (which also include the reflection of the Baechler across the way). In a little space where even the windows, brick walls and view of the stairs are actually wallpaper, a Jeff Koons painted wood sculpture of flowers from 1991 hangs like a big corsage on a 1982 Scharf of Fred and Wilma Flintstone. The summary of found-object sculpture that began with Mr. Herold’s work in the first gallery continues — on the show’s smudged wall-to-wall carpet piece by Rudolf Stingel — in works by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Robert Morris and John Chamberlain. The show might be seen as concluding with Mr. Pruitt’s “Eternal Bic,” a perpetually burning cigarette lighter that answers the elemental waterworks at the show’s start with fire. There is a refreshing fearlessness to this exhibition, which takes its title from a story that Mr. Shafrazi told Mr. Brown and Mr. Fischer: that the original title of Barnett Newman’s four primary-colored abstractions, “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?,” was “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?” The kicker — that Mr. Johns objected — is probably apocryphal. Objections are overruled in this show. The network of references it unleashes defies any coherent visual or interpretive cartography, and it is pleasantly impossible to know which of them are on purpose, which are dumb luck and which are simply your own reading. It can’t be by chance, for example, that Mr. Prince’s “Spiritual America” (1983) — a photograph of a photograph of an under-age, overly sexy Brooke Shields — and “Dessert” (1990), an acidly feminist early painting by Ms. Williams, share a wallpaper Basquiat like two strangers on a beach blanket. With their play of copies and originals, Mr. Brown and Mr. Fischer might mean to imply the triumph of appropriation art over 1980s painting. But then you realize that quite a bit of the visual firepower is coming from the works in, not on, the wallpaper. On top of the exhibition’s view of art as a continuing form of argument is a visceral reminder that art history’s books are never closed.