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There’s a particular kind of artist that gets a pass for bad work. Typically, these artists have produced some truly iconic work in their careers — so iconic that these pieces give everything else a special sheen. Whenever we look at their new work, we see it through this lens. When the new work seems terrible, we hope we’re wrong — we don’t want anything to diminish the genius that created that heroically original piece; when the new work is great, it’s further proof that we were right about them all along. And ultimately, collectors reliably buy the new work either out of a genuine interest in the artist, a desire to increase their social status, or to protect previous investments.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that as this fall art season gets underway, Chelsea feels overrun with A-list artists making middling work. Take Maya Lin at Pace Gallery. Her earthworks, public art, and memorials are some of the most moving works of the 20th and 21st centuries. This includes the Vietnam Memorial Wall, a piece that lists all the names of the fallen American Soldiers as its structure appears to sink into the ground, and her Wave Field series, a pair of Land art works (one at Storm King and another at the University of Michigan) that consist of undulating grassy hills resembling waves 10 to 15 feet high. These pieces create a sense of awe, enormity, and poetry through simple forms. Her work at Pace did none of that.
For her show, Ebb and Flow, Lin created 11 forgettable works that explore the different states of water. The first piece a viewer encountered when entering the gallery, “Folding the Columbia,” is what appears to be a root system made from thousands of green marbles affixed to the wall and the floor. (It’s actually a map of the rivers in Colombia contorted to fit along the wall, floor and ceiling.) Another wall piece functioned the same way, only using recycled silver. The piece resembles something you might imagine Tara Donovan making if she were short on materials. Were it a work by Donovan, though, it would merely be a failed experiment in aesthetics; because Lin’s work is inspired by environmental concerns, whatever message there is gets reduced as well. In this case, that means representing a finite and more valuable resource (water) with a more common recycled material (silver), which isn’t exactly challenging the collector. Are the oil barons and princes buying the work and supporting Lin going to change their naughty ways now that they’ve been schooled? No.
While there was only one bad art show with a cause above 23rd street, there was more than one crappy exhibition by an A-list artist. Cheim and Read is showing new works by the 78-year-old artist Louise Fishman. She has been making work forever, and while I’ve never cared for much of it, I get why it’s popular: it looks a lot like the grandiose Abstract Expressionist work we’ve seen a million times in museums. She is best known for a body of iconic works: large abstract paintings that evidenced a love of the grid. Back in the 1990s, she created greyish paintings made with beeswax and ashes she brought back from Auschwitz. They packed a punch. Fishman’s new works do not.
The exhibition at Cheim and Read features a group of her recent paintings, mostly indistinguishable from Willem de Kooning’s Abstract Expressionist work of the ’60s. Think thick, single-gesture brushwork against the canvas with a limited palette. In fairness to Fishman, I actually enjoy the openness of these new works, in contrast to her more densely-layered work. But they still have the same problem most of her works have: aside from the fun of identifying a few historical references (Joan Mitchell, de Kooning, Robert Motherwell), there’s not much else that sticks. Her worst works resemble mud. I left thinking about how much easier it must be to sell work to collectors that looks like what they already know, than to try to convince them to take the groundbreaking stuff no one knows they want yet.
Repetitiveness is a common problem, and at the higher levels this usually manifests in blue-chip artists making endless knockoffs of their most sought-after work. James Turrell, Damien Hirst, and Julian Opie are probably the worst offenders, but most artists have something they produce a lot of to pay the bills. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it suits some kinds of work better than others. Amanda Ross Ho, for example, has made more than one oversized t-shirt — and usually I find them quite funny. Not this time. Though there are no biggie tees at Mitchell-Innes and Nash, she still managed to turn a pretty good joke (the show’s title, My Pen is Huge) into a groaning one-liner.
That title is the first thing you see upon entering the gallery. It’s a whole lot less funny once you get into the show and realize it’s a statement of fact, not a metaphor. Inside the gallery, there are two oversized, Ikea-type tables covered with ginormous pencils, pens, paint brushes, scrunchies, coins, cups, and wine glasses. Some regular-size objects are sprinkled in, too — some napkins and a comb, for example. And around the walls are several large paintings of clocks.
Many of the works in Ross Ho’s show were produced in the gallery over the month of August, when she used the space as a studio after losing the lease on her Los Angeles studio. There may be a story here about gentrification, but as a viewer I felt about as much sympathy for the artist as I did when Hauser and Wirth was forced out of its enormous location on West 18th Street. Sure, it sucks, but this is an artist whose livelihood will not be destroyed by displacement. As such, the exhibition reads more like a checklist of trademark features collectors were likely to seek out than an effective social message.
As I reflected on the shows I’ve seen above 23rd Street this season, it occurred to me that the most unexpected exhibition wasn’t by an art star who failed to perform, but rather one who for once didn’t disappoint. Specifically, I’m talking about Robert Motherwell’s paintings at Paul Kasmin.
Motherwell is an artist whose work I have come to dread due to the ubiquity of unbalanced abstraction in the secondary market. So it was a pleasure, a relief, and a great joy to see a collection of works that actually show off his skill as a painter. “Orange Personage” is an abstract painting in yellow and orange that depicts a stick figure staring into the sun. (Is this painting evidence of Motherwell’s truly visionary thinking — a premonition of President Donald Trump staring into the eclipse?) The palette undulates gently, suggesting a hot summer evening in the woods or a strange circus act. Nearby, “La Belle Mexicaine (Maria)” recalls the paintings of Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso, minus the anguish. It’s a simple painting of a woman who also resembles a chicken. It’s very strange and kind of wonderful, in part because, whether woman or chicken, the figure seems perfectly happy.
In the end, the Motherwell show made my trip to Chelsea pretty good. I like being surprised and, somewhat unexpectedly, he came through in that regard. But I also wondered if there might not be a lesson in all this. I had no expectations for Motherwell, so when I saw paintings I loved, I was happily surprised and humbled. Lin, Fishman, and Ross Ho are in a less enviable position. Artists like these have been lucky enough to have one or more breakthroughs. But with that good fortune come expectations that those artists will not just have one, but continued breakthroughs throughout their careers. These are unfair standards and it makes me think that lowering expectations just a tad might be beneficial. Doing so won’t transform bad art into good — it probably won’t even create more Motherwell experiences — but it will blunt the disappointment of seeing extraordinary artists make the same mistakes over and over again.
Maya Lin’s Ebb and Flow was on view at Pace Gallery (537 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) from September 8 until October 7.
Amanda Ross-Ho’s My Pen Is Huge continues at Mitchell-Inness & Nash gallery (534 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until October 14.
Louise Fishman’s self-titled solo exhibition continues at Cheim & Read (547 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until October 28.
Robert Motherwell’s Early Paintings continues at Paul Kasmin Galley (293 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) until October 28.
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