It’s Art Week in New York – a bit like Fashion Week, only bitchier. The
Whitney Biennial‘s just opened, the
Armory Show is upon us,
and -scope is setting up shop on 9th
Avenue. The upshot is that there’s more new art on show this weekend than any
human being could hope to comprehend: the only rational response, and one which
is certainly going to be adopted by most of the international art-world types
who are arriving in Gotham by the 747-load on an hourly basis, is to get exceedingly
If they have a little bit of spare time, however, I would actually recommend
that they go to yet another art
show. It’s called Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated), and it’s
on at the Guggenheim. My friend Geoff went to see it a few days ago, and immediately
sent me a disgusted email: the words "quite an abomination" stood
out among his grudging props for the Turrell.
I can see why he says that. The wall texts are dreadful: dull artspeak at its
most banal. I gave up reading them halfway through the first one, when I reached
the phrase "this exhibition posits". And the actual art is of highly
variable quality, mainly because the cash-strapped Guggenheim basically cobbled
the entire show out of its permanent collection. As a result, Frank Stella,
one of the godfathers of minimalism, is represented by a rather incoherent early
black painting, rather than by one of the great stripe paintings which more
or less formed the historical basis for this entire show.
Neither novices nor experts, then, are likely to learn much from this exhibition,
and it certainly won’t change anybody’s mind about minimalist and conceptualist
art. And yet, I still reckon this show is well worth seeing, for a handful of
Firstly, there are some familiar artists who are interestingly tweaked in the
context of the Frank Lloyd Wright spiral. Dan Flavin has a small sausage-chain
of fluorescent lights running out and down along the floor, which looks fantastic.
And a big Carl Andre floor piece is probably the best I’ve ever seen. All his
floor works make you hyperaware of your own physicality and weight while you’re
standing on them: that’s what makes them great. But when the floor is tilted
and curved in the way the Guggenheim’s is, that feeling is only enhanced. It’s
almost impossible to describe without resorting to hyperbole: you feel almost
as if you’re taking off, defying gravity, peforming twisting and looping stunts
in space. Just by standing still. Or, to put it another way, stepping off the
piece feels much the same as stepping off a fast-moving people-mover in an airport
– which is quite impressive considering that the Andre isn’t moving at
More importantly, however, the Guggenheim is showing some major works by major
artists who don’t get exhibited nearly enough in the normal course of events
at contemporary art museums. The first is Brice Marden, who’s represented by
a series of his signature encaustic monochromes. These are lusciously gorgeous
pieces, in deep and subtle colours, which put the lie to anybody who says minimalism
is soulless. All the contemporary art experts I know revere Marden, but for
some reason I rarely see his work exhibited in museums, and these are a real
Best of all is a mind-blowing installation by Robert Irwin. It’s called Soft
Wall, and it was originally installed at the Pace Gallery in 1974, but
I doubt it could have looked better then than it does here. Irwin’s had an amazing
career, and I would highly recommend anybody who likes either art or biographies
to buy Lawrence Weschler’s masterful book-length study
of him, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. That book
was written in 1983, however, and since then Irwin has gone downhills rather,
doing things like designing the car park for Dia:Beacon.
The piece in the Guggenheim dates to when Irwin was doing his very best work,
with light and scrims and exquisite subtlety. Irwin has done something which
seems very simple: he’s taken one of the Guggenheim’s rectangular galleries,
painted it white, put a white scrim in front of one of the walls, and added
a white line running horizontally around the top of the gallery near the ceiling.
That’s it, really. But just walking into that room changes the whole nature
of the way you perceive your surroundings, and the way you perceive yourself
perceiving your surroundings. Not only that, but you’re also filled with the
utter certainty that this is one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen.
I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
I should also note that Irwin’s work is just about the most unphotographable
art there is: no photo of any of his gallery pieces can possibly do it justice.
But just to add insult to injury, the photo
on the Guggenheim website is of a different scrim piece entirely. Don’t judge
by that: go and see for yourself!
If you want to saunter past the Sol LeWitts, then, feel free: his wall pieces
really don’t work all that well in the rotunda’s niches. If you don’t want to
walk all the way to the top of the spiral to admire thousands of Damien Hirst’s
dead houseflies, that’s fine too. I would simply urge anybody who’s in town
for some serious Art this week to make sure they check out the Robert Irwin
piece at the Guggenheim. I can’t imagine that anything at the Whitney, the Armory
Show or Scope is even going to come close – although I’m keeping my fingers