Loren Munk’s time charts appropriate and parody Alfred H. Barr, Jr’s famous diagrams tracing the evolution of modern art. And his depictions of various postmodern schools of painting demonstrate the complexity of recent New York art history.
What most interests me, however, are his map paintings, which present the locations of galleries and artists’ studios in a specific time and place. In “SOHO Map” (2004–06), gallery names and addresses, painted in multicolored text boxes, are arranged in three columns on the left, while the artists’ lofts, listed in lozenge-shaped configurations in shades of brown, circle around three sides of the map, with impossibly tangled, overlapping lines pointing to their sites on the map. And at the very center, a multi-faceted star marks 420 West Broadway, the former site of the Leo Castelli Gallery, then the most influential player in the art world.
The mapped streets are all but obscured on this densely laid out image, which reminds me a little of another urban image of visual overload, the Tokyo subway map. The tangle of lines is a reminder of how many galleries and artists there once were in Soho. No doubt there were far too many for more than a few to prosper or even survive. And there were far too many to readily visit.
For some years I have been writing a book about the art in the historic center of Naples. And so I am fascinated by Didier Barra’s “Bird’s-Eye View of Naples” (1647), a large map-like painting in the Certosa e Museo di San Martino, a former monastery in Naples, which shows the city from high above the bay. In the book Fierce Reality: Italian Masters from Seventeenth Century Naples (edited by Thomas J. Loughman, Skira, 2007), Frederica De Rosa writes:
What is distinctive about this work is the precision with which the details are shown: the dense labyrinth of palazzi and city walls emerges from a succession of brush strokes using white lead, which gave the artist the possibility of recreating spaces of light and shadow in the narrow grid of streets running through the city.
In the painting, what is now the tourist art center is almost entirely visible. The vista is the same one that modern-day travelers see as planes departing from the Naples airport soar low over the city. For that reason it’s hard to imagine how miraculous this painting must have looked when only birds had such vantage points. There’s nothing similarly miraculous about Munk’s “Soho,” if only because nowadays we’re accustomed to such aerial views.
An artwork and a map can look similar, but we customarily distinguish between artworks like Barra’s, which inspire a contemplative response, and maps, which are simply utilitarian tools. By being a map-like artwork, and including so many written names, Munk’s “SOHO Map” deconstructs that distinction. When you walk in Naples, you use the maps in guidebooks to locate the city’s treasures. “Bird’s-Eye View of Naples,” which was based upon engravings by cartographers, offers a painter’s fanciful interpretation of the visual facts. And “SOHO Map” draws upon Munk’s vast collection of art-world memorabilia, complementing the videos he makes as his alter-ego, James Kalm, the proprietor of The Kalm Report, which document openings, gallery visits, and other events.
It could be argued that his body of work, in its relentless coverage of artistic invention in New York’s founts of creativity — the East Village, Chelsea, the Bowery, Bushwick, and elsewhere — also deserves comparison with other works depicting art’s making: Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656), which includes a cameo of himself before a large canvas; and Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Truth (2019), films about the making of films.
And since Munk maps the contemporary display system of art, it would be marvelous to compare “SOHO Map” to such varied precedents as Hubert Robert’s “Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre in Ruins” (1796); Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” (1831-33), which depicts a room densely hung with pictures; ; and Mark Tansey’s “The Occupation” (1984), a fantasy image of Soho occupied by German troops, satirizing the influx of German Neo-Expressionists into the art market at the time he made the painting. And of course discussion should consider Thomas Struth’s photographs of people looking at art, like “The Museum of Modern Art / New York” (1994). Unlike these images, “SOHO Map” doesn’t take you inside the places where art is displayed; it simply points you in their direction, if they indeed still exist.
Compared with these grand works “SOHO Map” is admittedly funky, and therefore well-suited to represent the site where so much funky art was on display once upon a time. And just as I enjoy now looking at a reproduction of Barra’s “Bird’s-Eye View of Naples” because it takes me back to my walks in that city, “SOHO Map” inspires pleasurable memories as well. I recall climbing the stars to the gallery 55 Mercer; entering Mary Boone’s at 417 West Broadway; and walking into Deitch Projects on Grand Street, to name just three of many. And I remember the lofts of the artists Stewart Hitch and Thornton Willis on Mercer Street.
Other people surely have much fuller memories. An astonishing essay by Jerry Saltz, “A Year in the Life: Tropic of Painting” (Art in America, October 1994) tracks 610 exhibitions in the 1993-94 season. His stamina is admirable, but I have never had either the time or the desire to be that systematic. Although I certainly frequented the best-known spaces, I always had a special fascination with hole-in-the wall sites. I didn’t love most of the individual exhibitions or galleries. And it would be sheer, willful Romanticism not to acknowledge that the rise and fall of Soho largely depended upon real estate speculation. But “SOHO Map” offers a visual record of that densely peopled art world — how many varied artists aspired to be recognized!
Although I have known of Munk’s works for many years, only recently did I realize why my present response to some of his map-paintings is now so intense. When he calls up memories of a world that has now been gentrified away, he inspires complex feelings about loss and even regret. Soho has long been gone, the galleries that survived decamped to Chelsea and east of the Bowery. But right now I fear that a large part of the whole gallery system devoted to contemporary art is about to disappear. For almost 40 years, I loved the challenge of writing criticism, mostly about art in New York. But that period, I now expect, has almost ended. What will the life of our new art be like?