Pop Art

Art, Not Advertisment by Chris Hall

Recently I've read that the iconic mural at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Deborah Whitehouse's Spirit of Atlanta, is being deinstalled after nearly 20 years in residence, to be replaced by a Porsche advertisement.  The mural was installed in 1996 to commemorate the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.  Though Spirit of Atlanta is not as cool as Leo Tanguma's ballsy murals at Denver International Airport (parts of which have also been deinstalled), I've always liked seeing this welcoming work of art as I headed up the escalator from the terminal trains below (well, everything except that diaper kid on the right; that kind of creeped me out).

Art to be replaced by an ad . . . no matter if you liked the mural or not, it certainly is better than yet another advertisement (visual pollution).  Although art and advertisement share the same language, their motives are completely different things.  Art aspires to truth.  Ads, however, are no different than political propaganda, as they both have an ulterior agenda behind the facade.  Since the 1960's (with Andy Warhol and Pop Art) and the advent of Postmodernism (with their expanded definition of what could be considered art) many have accepted advertisement as an art-form.  I will proudly remain a stick-in-the-mud, however, and a misanthrope if I have to be, working outside of the cultural norms and in defiance of this trend.  Nor will you find me a visitor to the High Museum of Art's Coco-Cola exhibit, either.

I can understand (but never agree with) how many people can be uncomfortable with Leo Tanguma's murals, In Peace and Harmony With Nature, and The Children of the World Dream of Peace; most people would choose ignorance and bliss over truth and consequence, but to favor an advertisement over art, as many have done in the comments section of the article I read, that I can not fathom.  Take this gem from the comments section by a person identifying themselves as DrSocrates:

Finally the airport is making some sense.  The airport is no place for artwork, museums, shopping malls, or fine dining.  It is a place for travel.  It could be a place for revenue-producing ads.  There are many places for ads.  Where the mural was, where you wait for the trains (think New York's subway), on the trains, at baggage claim.  Whether these ads increase business for the sponsors doesn't matter.  The airport should try to maximize its revenue generation so it can DECREASE taxes and fees. Period.  End of argument.  

What an obtuse ass.  And it only gets uglier from there.

In case you were wondering about Leo Tanguma's murals at Denver International Airport, it seems they have become part of a conspiracy theory involving a secret underground base, the Illuminati, the New World Order, Neo-Nazis, and Subterranean Reptoid Aliens.  I think we need more of this kind of art!  You can learn more about it here:  

On Celebrity Pop-Culture Fan Tribute Art by Chris Hall

I've seen variations of this image copied by a number of artists.  Very Unoriginal.

I've seen variations of this image copied by a number of artists.  Very Unoriginal.

"If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!"  Zen Master Linji.

Yeah, I might hurt some feelings on this blog, but it has got to be said.

I drew baseball players and rock stars once . . . when I was twelve!  Grow Up!  I am tired of seeing celebrity fan tribute art.  I see it everywhere and it is an eye pollutant.  I swear, if I see one more Batman, Joker “why so serious?,” Bane drawing, I think I just might vomit.  Same goes for Walking Dead and Breaking Bad art.  Pop culture drivel has very little place in art, even when it has an ironic message.  Life is serious business.  What you watch on TV is not.  Art deserves more.  What message is there in fan art?  There is none.  What is the critique?  There is none.  Can you come up with an original idea of your own?  I challenge you.  Fan art is everywhere.  The Deviantart website is full of it.  At least they have it in a category of its own, so you can separate the chaff from the wheat.

The same critique above also applies to Manga illustration.  I'm not anti-cartoon by any stretch.  There are a lot of really good cartoonists out there who produce high quality art and who have their own vision.  But for the most part, I find Manga style animation to be childish, uninspired, and unoriginal.  Grow the fuck up.  Find out what kind of art you might make, not what other people make.  Know Yourself.  Kill your idols.  

Sorry if I hurt your feelings.

Mark Rothko by Chris Hall

Mark Rothko was an American Color Field and Abstract Expressionist painter.  With Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, his considered to be one of the most famous postwar American artists.  Rothko's art grew from representational to amorphous mythological subjects, to pure abstract, non-objective fields of color and light.  Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia (now Latvia), in 1903.  Fearing that Mark Rothko's older brothers might be drafted into the army on the eve of the First World War, the Rothko family emigrated  to Portland, Oregon, in the United States.  

Rothko received a scholarship to Yale, but when the scholarship was not renewed after his first year, Rothko worked as a waiter and delivery boy to pay for his education.  He found the Yale community to be elitist and racist, dropped out at the end of his sophomore year, and moved to New York City to study art. Rothko enrolled in the New York School of Design, where he worked with instructor and abstract artist Arshile Gorky.  Rothko thought Gorky a domineering figure, and so he left to take classes at the Art Student's League, taught by cubist artist and instructor Max Weber.  Under Max Weber, Rothko began to view art as a tool for emotional and religious expression.  Rothko's early influences were the works of the German Expressionists and the surrealist artist, Paul Klee.  Rothko also met fellow artists Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman.  The Rothko family did not understand his decision to be an artist, especially in the middle of the Great Depression.  Rothko, however, like Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, many other artists, found employment with the Works Progress Administration.

When World War Two erupted, Rothko felt that a new art was needed with a new subject matter that would have social impact, yet would also be able to transcend the confines of political symbols and values.  Rothko also wanted this new subject matter to complement his growing interest in form, space, and color.  He temporarily stopped painting in 1940 and immersed himself in studying Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, the works of Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and others.  From this was born Rothko's “Mythomorphic Abstractionism” period.  

 Rothko's interest in using mythology to transcend the troubled times was not unique.  Gottlieb, Newman, and Pollock were at a similar crossroads in their art, using mythological symbolism to bridge the gap between representation and pure abstraction.  They were all interested in dream theory and the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and believed that by using mythological symbolism they could transcend specific history and culture.

Rothko had a noble goal in mind for his art.  He wanted to relieve modern man's spiritual emptiness, which he believed resulted from a lack of mythology.  Rothko felt his art could free unconscious energies in the viewer, which were previously liberated by mythological images, symbols, and rituals.  In this respect, Rothko viewed himself as a modern day “mythmaker,” and proclaimed  that "the exhilarated tragic experience is for me the only source of art.

Rothko debuted his new paintings in 1942, at a show in a New York City Macy's department store.  In response to a negative critical review of the show by the New York Times, Rothko and Gottlieb issued a manifesto where they stated, "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."  Rothko and Gottlieb also fired a broadside toward those who would prefer a less challenging art, writing that their work “must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration.”

In June of 1943, Rothko and his wife Edith separated.  Rothko suffered a long depression following his divorce.  Thinking that a change of scenery would help, Rothko returned to Portland.  From Portland, Rothko traveled to Berkeley, where he met and befriended the artist Clyfford Still.  At this time, Still had already eschewed surrealist representation in favor of pure, non-objective abstraction.  Rothko looked at Still's work and saw his future.  Rothko's experiments in unconscious symbolism had run its course; abstraction would be the next step.

In 1945 Rothko painted Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, showing his new-found interest in abstraction.  His new work possessed a more organic structure, often featuring blurred blocks of various colors.  They were devoid of any reference to the figure or the landscape.  Rothko thought that these new works, by shedding figurative qualities, had a life force  of their own and contained the “breath of life.”  Rothko discovered his trademark symmetrical rectangular blocks of two or three opposing and contrasting, yet complementary colors in the winter of 1949.  He also began to use large, vertically formatted canvases, which he intended to make the viewer feel “enveloped within” the painting.

Rothko viewed his work as living entities.  As he began to achieve success, he also began to be increasingly protective of his works, turning down several potentially important sales and exhibition opportunities.  Of this, Rothko would write, “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.  It dies by the same token.  It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.  How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally!” 

Beginning in 1950, Rothko started to meet with financial success and fame.  Despite his success, Rothko felt himself isolated and a sense of being misunderstood as an artist began to developed.  He feared that the people purchasing his paintings were doing so simply out of fashion and that the true purpose of his work was not being grasped by his collectors, critics, and audience.  Compounding his isolation, many of his friends began to abandon him, Rothko's new fame and patrons not sitting well with them.  Old friend Clyfford Still even asked for the return of his of gifted paintings.

Rothko defended himself against accusations of selling out.  He maintained that his work was “only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”

Some people, however, did understand Rothko's work.  New friend and poet Stanley Kunitz saw Rothko as "a primitive, a shaman who finds the magic formula and leads people to it." Great poetry and painting, Kunitz believed, both had "roots in magic, incantation, and spell-casting" and were, at their core, ethical and spiritual.  Rothko was insistent upon the proper interpretation of his work and worked hard to spread his message.  In 1958 Mark Rothko spoke at the Pratt Institute and gave his recipe for a work of art:

1.  There must be a clear preoccupation with death - intimations of mortality... Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death. 2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist. 3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire. 4. Irony, This is a modern ingredient - the self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else. 5. Wit and play... for the human element. 6. The ephemeral and chance... for the human element. 7. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.  I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results from the proportions of these elements.

That same year the beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons had completed their new building on Park Avenue.  Rothko agreed to provide paintings for the building's new luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons.  Other three months Rothko completed forty paintings in a series of dark reds and browns.  Shortly afterward, Rothko, with his new wife Mell, sailed to Europe aboard the SS Independence where he joked with Harper's Magazine publisher John Fischer that his true intention for the Seagram's murals was to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.”  He hoped that his paintings would make the restaurant's patron's "feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall."  Upon his return to New York, Rothko and Mell visited the nearly completed Four Seasons restaurant.  Rothko became upset with the restaurant's dining atmosphere, which he considered pretentious and inappropriate for his work.  Rothko quit the project and returned his cash advance to the Seagram and Sons Company.  

By the 1960's the art world began to turn away from Abstract Expressionism, turning their gaze toward the next big thing, Pop Art, particularly the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist.  Rothko labeled Pop artists as “charlatans and young opportunists,” and wondered aloud during a 1962 Pop Art exhibition, “Are the young artists plotting to kill us all?”  On looking at Jasper Johns' flag paintings, Rothko said, “We worked for years to get rid of all that.”  Rothko knew that his fame would be fleeting, and that he would eventually be replaced, but what he could not fathom was that he would be replaced by Pop Art, which he found sterile and vapid.

Rothko spent his last years working on a commission for a chapel in Houston, Texas, which he believed would be the artistic pinnacle of his career.  He would never see the installation of his work.  Rothko and his wife Mell separated on New Year's Day, 1969, and he moved into his studio.  On February 25th, 1970, studio assistant Oliver Steindecker found Rothko's body lying dead on the floor in front of the sink, covered in blood.  He had sliced open his arms.  An autopsy also revealed that he had overdosed on anti-depressants.  He was sixty-six years old.  On February 28th, 1971, at the Rothko chapel dedication in Houston, Dominique de Menil said, "We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine."  I believe Rothko would have agreed with him.  Initially the chapel was to be Roman Catholic, but within three years the chapel expanded to become non-denominational. 

Yayoi Kusama: Queen of Polka-dots by Chris Hall

1 kusama2.jpg

My first impression of Yayoi Kusama’s work was not favorable.  What I saw was phenomena art, kind of like Op Art . . . no real substance beyond just what you see.  It seemed to me that her work had a 60’s psychedelic design flavor to it.  I knew she was associated with Pop Art and had exhibited alongside both Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, both artists I do not care much for.  I also knew that she had no problem translating her art into pop culture consumer products.  She is shameless promoting her collaborative efforts with Louis Vuitton.  

Then there are the endless self portraits, photographs of her in front of her work.  I thought her art was kind of narcissistic.  Her outlandish clothing blurs into the paintings behind her, and blurs the line between fine art and fashion.  I am not one to really care about fashion and outward appearances, I’ve always been more concerned with what is deeper and inside, nor am I one to care much about cults of personalities.   I’ve always thought her self-portraits literally got in the way of the paintings behind her.

Yayoi Kusama is the Queen of Polka-dots.  Where Damien Hirst’s spot paintings are cold and pharmaceutical, Kusama’s art at least has a celebratory feel to it.  I’ll giver her credit for that.  This is a reflection from the peace and love idealism she embraced in the 60’s.  Still, I could not get past that a lot of her work was reminiscent of a fabric pattern.  

All of these negative things really colored my perspective of both her and her work.  So, it was to my surprise when I discovered that she had once identified with the abstract expressionists, this was before she changed allegiances to Pop Art in the 1960’s.  She made some really good work.  In reading about her, I found she could be really deep and psychically aware.  Here is a really good quote from her concerning one of her paintings, Flower (D.S.P.S.), 1954:

One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs straining my ankle.

It is clear that Kusama is sensitive to her surroundings, a signature of a good artist.  Perhaps this sensitivity is why she has chosen to live in a psychiatric hospital ever since 1977.  What about the polka-dots?  They are more than just decorative elements to her.  This is what she has to say about the dots:

A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement ... Polka dots are a way to infinity.

This might not always translate to me in her work, but I like that in her heart she still has an appreciation for symbolism (many in contemporary art do not).  I have also learned to like some of her recent installation work.  I find that it can be beautiful and even, at times, sublime.  Her work sometimes suggests to me self-obliteration, infinity, losing yourself, and dissolving the ego into the universal void.  There is some spirituality hidden in there!  This is not your average everyday Pop Art!  

It is good to be skeptical . . . just do not allow it to overwhelm your curiosity. I am glad I dug deeper into Kusama's art and gave it another chance.  I've learned to appreciate both the substance and motivation behind some of her work. Unfortunately we do have to be willing to get past work such as her video piece Manhattan Suicide Addict (2010) in order to access it.

Jeff Koons: King of Kitsch by Chris Hall

Despite being the King of Kitsch (or maybe because of it), Jeff Koons makes a pretty good dime off his work.  He holds the record for the most expensive work ever sold at auction, Balloon Dogs (Orange) sold for $58.4 million dollars.  He has regularly employed assistants for his work, stating in the 80’s with about 30, to the present, where he employs about 120 people, working in a huge 16,000 square foot factory.  Without any underlying critique in his work, Jeff Koons becomes the poster child of American decadence in art.

Jeff Koons began his career in the 80’s by displaying recontextualized everyday items, such as an inflatable rabbit and vacuum cleaners.  Later he would expand his practice by producing a series of basketballs floating in aquariums full of water.  

Perhaps acknowledging his new role in bringing the banal to the art gallery, he began creating porcelain sculptures, starting with Ushering in Banality (1988) and culminating in Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1998).

In 1989 Jeff Koons, with his then wife, the politician and porn star Ilona Staller, began making work for the Made in Heaven series.  Made in Heaven is essentially Koons and Staller making porn and recontextualizing it as art.  The work can get pretty explicit.  Below are some tame examples from the series.

In the mid 90’s Koons began making his giant Balloon Dog sculptures out of polished steel, and a series of plastic sculptures, such as his Lobster and Cat on a Clothesline (1994-2001).  His most recent works include a limited edition label design for Dom Perignon (2004) and a sculpture and cover art for a Lady GaGa album (2013). 

Despite his success in the art world, Koons has his critics.  In an article comparing the contemporary art scene with show business, renowned critic Robert Hughes wrote that Koons is “an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he's Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can't imagine America's singularly depraved culture without him.”

Andy Warhol: Art of Superficiality by Chris Hall

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962

“You’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty, and you’re even a killer of laughter. I can’t bear your work!” 
Willem de Kooning, yelling at Andy Warhol at a Larry Rivers party.


Where artist like Beuys sought to make the world a better place through their art, clearly did Warhol did not.  By mimicking the aesthetic of commerce and advertising, he only added to our cultural clutter.  By celebrating the idea of celebrity, he championed superficiality.  If artists like de Kooning are an ocean in their depth, Warhol is a dirty puddle.

One of Warhol’s first commercial successes was his 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962).

Andy Warhol, 32 Campbells Soup Cans, 1962

The soup cans at least could not be confused with the real thing, but Warhol soon remedied that with his Brillo Boxes, (1964).

Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1964

I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic. Andy Warhol.  By celebrating superficiality and celebrity culture, Andy Warhol became a celebrity himself.  

Soon Warhol puts himself before the work.  In Warhol’s first museum show at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art in 1965, the expected crowd was eager not so much to see the work, but rather the artist.  Warhol obliged them when Sam Green, fearing that the work might be damaged in the crowd, ordered that the work be taken down from the gallery walls.  

Andy Warhol at the Philadelphia ICA show, 1965

With fame came money, and Andy, true to his superficiality, loved money more than anything else in the world.  I'd asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions... Finally one lady friend asked the right question, "Well, what do you love most?" That's how I started painting money.  Andy Warhol.  Warhol also tells us, Making money is art.  And working is art.  And good business is the best art.  There is nothing wrong with making money from your art, but making money is certainly not art.  

Andy Warhol, 200 One Dollar Bills, 1962

The people gave Andy Warhol wealth and fame, and what does he give us in return?  He purposefully tries to bore us to death.  One film, Empire (1964), is nothing more than slow motion, static footage of the Empire State building, stretched out to eight hours and five minutes.  The video below is a ten minute excerpt, but a poor quality full length version is available on YouTube if you wish to torture yourself.

Excerpt from Empire, 1964

Oh, and here is another video, Andy Warhol Eating a Hamburger (1982).  No meaning, no aesthetic, nothing but banal, boring nonsense.  At least with his celebrity portraits there was a formal aesthetic, composition and color, but here the boredom seems calculated and cruel.  There is nothing here, nothing to take away, just Andy Warhol, eating a hamburger.

Andy Warhol Eating a hamburger, 1982

We Lost Another Painter by Chris Hall

Oscar Murillo, Untitled (Yoga), 2012

28 year old Oscar Murillo is an overnight sensation.  Born in La Paila Columbia, he moved to London at age ten where he started making paintings reminiscent of Cy Twombly and Jean Michel Basquiat.  His work, with its searching lines and bold colors is indebted to the Neo-Expressionist tradition, but also has flavors of Pop Art in that the works often have text scrawled on them, mundane words like:  yoga, milk, or burrito.  Now Murillo has his first solo show at David Zwirner Gallery . . . and guess what . . . he isn’t showing any paintings!  

The show is called A Mercantille Novel, and it’s a working rendition of a Columbian candy factory.  According to the press release, the factory is staffed with “experienced candy-making employees going about their daily work as usual.”  They are making Chocmelos, a chocolate covered marshmallow, and, if all goes as planned, the work is supposed to raise questions on immigration, globalism, displacement, and socio-economic conditions in the United States, Columbia, and beyond.  The work is a squeaky clean production line, set up at enormous expense by an outside corporation, which makes me even question whether the work can even technically be called Murillo's.  

When asked about why he chose not to show paintings for his New York solo debut, Murillo said that the work would have been “redundant,” that “this is where my practice is now.”  

It is a real shame that Murillo, with so much promise, chose to go over to the “Dark-Side” by championing the banal aesthetics of a corporation.  It seems we lost another painter.  

The gallery touts that "Over the course of the exhibition, tens of thousands of candies will be produced and given away for free,” and that "gallery visitors and volunteers are invited to take candy and share it throughout the city’s five boroughs, whether on foot, by bike, by taxi, by subway, by bus, etc., thus reflecting all modes of typical transportation throughout New York City and the diversity of its communities."  Well, at least there is free candy.

Oscar Murillo,  A Merchantile Novel , 2014

Oscar Murillo, A Merchantile Novel, 2014

Six Art Problems by Chris Hall

Postmodernism shuns useful rules and conventions and rationalizes inferior art by wrapping it in words—a suit of armor with no one inside. It thrives in the academy, where language abandons reality to serve ambition, and reputations rise on hot air. It is silly and joyless at the same time.  Postmodernism seems to be fading away. Let’s hope! But when it comes to trendy intellectual nonsense, academia is infinitely resourceful. What will it come up with next?
Walter Darby Bannard


Claes Oldenberg – The Store, 1961.  The Store was an installation, literally in a store.  In it Oldenberg sold life-size little objects made of plaster such as food, shirts, ties, cigarette packs, lingerie, and other commodities.  The Store both celebrated and critiqued popular culture and American consumerism.  It was also made to make fun of the grand gestures of Abstract Expressionism. Sure, nicely executed, but in championing the mundane, please don’t be surprised if I get bored and walk away.

Bridget Riley – Movement in Squares, 1961.   A fine example of Op Art, Op Art is all about movement and illusion . . . and not much else.  Essentially it all design without any critical commentary.  And since I don’t find anything attractive in it, even as a design, it is very easy for me to dismiss.  Despite not being well received by the critics, it proved to be very popular with the public.  Soon Op Art was used in a number of commercial contexts.  Bridget Riley sued an American company for incorporating her art into fabric designs, without success. 

Roelof Louw – Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), 1967.  There is nothing soulful about it. It is just a pile of 6,000 oranges, stacked in a pyramid.  Visitors to the galley are invited to take away an orange and eat it.  The work is meant to raise questions on ephemerality, the passage of time, and decay.  If that is the case, then it fails on me.  The Tate recently recreated the piece for roughly $47,000, so it comes out roughly to $8 an orange, proof that even a bad idea can be commoditized.

Lawrence Weiner -  A Rubber Ball Thrown on the Sea - Cat. No. 146, 1969.
It is currently displayed at the Hirshhorn Museum in large, blue, sans-serif lettering. Weiner is open to the seven words being produced in any color, size or font.  The work destroys any notion of the artist as auteur, because, like Sol LeWitt’s drawing instructions, it requires other people’s labor and decision making for it to exist.  It deconstructs the once widely held belief that art is something to be praised and is special.  

Wim Delvoye – Cloaca, 2000.  Cloaca, also known as the "poo-machine", is probably Wim Delvoye's most famous art installation. In 2000, he put together complex machinery at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, Belgium, that mimics the action of the human digestive system and converts food in feces. Real food is dropped down a funnel into a meat grinder (simulating the teeth) twice a day. Then, viewers can follow the food as it makes its way through a series of glass containers containing human digestive juices and enzymes, which represent the various stages of digestion. At the end of the tract, the machine produces feces which are then vacuum-packed and sold in translucent boxes.  When asked about his inspiration, Delvoye stated that “everything in modern life is pointless. The most useless object I could create was a machine that serves no purpose at all, besides the reduction of food to waste.”  

Attila Csorgo – Novecento, 2008.  It is a dead horse suspended from the ceiling.  At first glance, the work seems a bit gratuitous.  After some reading (why is it always necessary for me to read text in order for me to get conceptual art?) it turns out that the work references a 1976 Italian film 1900 (pronounced Novecento in Italian).  1900 is about Italian Modernity, presenting Fascism and Communism in opposition to each other.  Csorog’s Novecento is meant to be a eulogy for these 20th century revolutionary impulses.  What isn’t clear is Csorgo’s intentions:  is the artist lamenting the loss of radical politics or lampooning their failure?  Without clarity we are left with nothing but a dead horse hanging from the ceiling.

The Art of Suicide by Chris Hall

I recently read over a list on Complex.com, of the top 25 Performance Art Pieces of All Time.  I found many expected works of art, both good and bad, ranging from Joseph Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) to Pussy Riot’s 2012 Punk Prayer.  Acconci’s Seedbed was there, as was Schneemann’s Interior Scroll.  As much as I would like to discuss the merits and flaws of each inclusion, as art, I feel more compelled still to question the presence of one inclusion at all.  I am thinking of Yukio Mishima’s suicide (1970).

Yukio Mishima giving his speech to the soldiers just before he committed Seppuku.

Yukio Mishima was a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, and film director.  He is considered one Japan’s most important authors of the 20th century.  Indeed, he was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  

But Mishima was a troubled soul.  Having survived WWII, he became a fervent rightwing nationalist; he pined for the pre-war days with its samurai mythology, bushido code, veneration of the emperor, and other traditional Japanese values.  Mishima formed a militia called the Tatenokai (Shield Society) on October 5th, 1968.  Two years later, on November 25th, 1970, Mishima and four members of the Tatenokai, visited the commandant of the Tokyo headquarters of the Japan Self-Defense Force.  Once inside, they barricaded the office and tied the commandant to his chair.  Mishima then stepped out onto the balcony with a prepared manifesto and a banner listing his demands, and then addressed the group of soldiers gathered below.  His speech was intended to inspire a coup and restore power to the emperor, but instead the speech was received with mocking and jeers.  Finishing his speech, Mishima then returned to the commandant’s office where he committed the ritual of Seppuku (self disembowelment with sword followed by a beheading).  Later it was revealed that Mishima had been planning the suicide performance for at least a year and had composed a ritual death poem in preparation.  

While Seppuku is a kind of performance it is also a ritual with a long tradition, going back to the 12th century.  It was reserved for samurai who would rather die by their own hands than face dishonor and be captured by their enemies, as a form of capital punishment for samurai who had committed a serious offence, or performed by a samurai to atone for a great shame.  Did Mishima view his Seppuku as an art piece (did he hope to inspire change by his act) or did he view his act as a something more private and personal, an act of reverence for samurai tradition?  Did he know he would fail to inspire a coup and was seeking to atone for this failure?  Perhaps it was all of these things.  If it was a final work of performance art, I can think of no greater conflation of life and art.

Kathy Change during happier times, before she committed self-immolation.


Similar in circumstance to Yukio Mishima’s suicide by Seppuku, Philadelphia artist Kathy Change death by self immolation on October 22, 1996 on the University of Pennsylvania campus might be argued as being art action.  Born Kathleen Chang, she legally changed her name to Kathy Change to indicate her commitment to political and social change.  Change’s life was defined by acts of political activism as art and also bouts of mental illness.  For twenty years Change was a fixture in Philadelphia, giving street performances on the University of Pennsylvania campus and in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  She would sing, dance, play guitar and keyboard, wave handmade flags, and give speeches, all while dressed in different outlandish costumes.  Her performances were meant to education the audience on various government and economic issues of the day, and to wake people up from their complacency.  Perhaps feeling like her work was not getting through to her audience, she decided on final act . . . but was it art as suicide or just suicide as an act of despair?  Is art as suicide truly even possible?  Like Mishima, the suicide act was meticulously prepared.  She practiced with meat and different accelerants before settling on gasoline.  Unlike Mishima, we do know that Change had hoped that her self immolation would wake people up from complacency and inspire them to take action on the formation of a new government.  In a packet she delivered to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily Pennsylvanian, and to several of her friends, she writes:  

I want to protest the present government and economic system and the cynicism and passivity of the people…as emphatically as I can. But primarily, I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this I plan to end my own life. The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself. . . . Call me a flaming radical burning for attention, but my real intention is to spark a discussion of how we can peacefully transform our world.  America, I offer myself to you as an alarm against Armageddon and a torch for liberty.

With a history of mental illness, it is difficult to say whether her suicide was a matter of free will and artistic agency.  Much depends on how one perceives not only mental illness, but also the act of artistic creation.  But if she felt she had to kill herself because of a suicidal urge, that is a depression perhaps brought on by her perceived failure to change the world, perhaps, she decided to make the most of it, and turn the act into one final work of art.  

Artist Ray Johnson with painting.

I think of one final example of the possibility of art as suicide, Raymond Edward “Ray” Johnson’s suicide on January 13th, 1995.  Known primarily as a collage and correspondence artist, Ray Johnson was a seminal figure in the history of Neo-Dada and early Pop Art.  On January (Friday) 13th, 1995 Johnson was seen diving off of a bridge in Sag Harbor, New York, and then backstroking out to sea.  Earlier that day Johnson checked into a hotel in room number 247 (2 + 4 + 7 = 13).  The age of his death was 67 (6 + 7 = 13).  Witnesses have even suggested that the exact time of Johnson’s jump also added up to 13.  Could it all have been a strange coincidence, or was this Ray Johnson’s final art action?  We will never know for sure, as Johnson did not leave a suicide note.  Johnson’s body was found washed up on the beach the next day.  

31 Flavors of Bad Art by Chris Hall

31 Flavors of Bad Art:  Art, Artists, and Art Movements That I Either Find Problematic or Just Outright Dislike.

1.  Jean Honore-Fragonard – The Swing, 1767 . . . A fine example of Rococo art, in all its decadent decorativeness.  It isn’t critical of anything and serves only to please the eye, and that, not very well.  The ultimate in work inspired to produce in me a yawn. 

2.  Alexandre Cabanel – Birth of Venus, 1863.  Like most late 19th Century Academic Salon work, it is backward looking and fails to take any stance on Modernity.  At least it is interesting to look at, sometimes.

birth of venus.jpg

3.  Kasimir Malevich – Black Square, 1915.  Malevich was the founder of the Suprematist art movement.  In Suprematism (Part II of The Non-Objective World), Malevich writes:  Art no longer cares to serve the state and religion, it no longer wishes to illustrate the history of manners, it wants to have nothing further to do with the object, as such, and believes that it can exist, in and for itself, without "things" (that is, the "time-tested well-spring of life").  In his attempt to produce an art that no longer serves the state and religion, he also produced an art of negation, of life, of love, and of nature.  Contemporary to Malevich, Neoplasticist artists such as Piet Mondrian also striped their work of anything human, by reducing their palette to primary colors, black and white, and limiting their composition to horizontal and vertical forms. 

black square.jpg

4.  Marcel Duchamp and or Baroness Elsa von Freytag - Fountain, 1917.  Submitted for the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, Fountain was rejected by the committee, even though the rules stated that all works would be accepted from artists who paid the fee.  Duchamp, a failed painter, perhaps jealous of the success of his two brothers’ and sister’s success in the arts, might have created Fountain out of spite.  He would come to reject all art that he considered “retinal,” that is all art that relies on notions of aesthetics and aims only to please the eye.  Instead, Duchamp wanted to put art back into the service of the mind.  I think Duchamp was mistaken in dividing art into two camps, art made only to please the eye and art that is purely conceptual.  There are plenty of works of art that have grounding in both.  Duchamp’s Readymades were purely conceptual, “My idea was to choose an object that wouldn't attract me, either by its beauty or by its ugliness. To find a point of indifference in my looking at it, you see.”  In favoring the mundane and conceptual over aesthetics, Duchamp produced a black work that destroyed the primacy of the image.

5.  Fortunato Depero - Patriotic Storm, 1924.  Italian Futurism, an offshoot of Analytical Cubism, emphasized and glorified themes associated with contemporary concepts of the future, including speed, mechanization, technology, youth and violence, and objects such as the car, the aeroplane and the industrial city. It celebrates Fascism and many of the concepts that helped make the 20th Century such a violent and dehumanizing place.

6.  Lucio Fontana – Concetto spaziale (Spatial Concept), or Tagli (Slashes), 1949.  Like many of his works, it is a monochrome painting with sharp, precise slashes on the canvas, “to discover the space beyond”.  Fontana founded Spatialism, a movement reminiscent of Futurism, which celebrated rather than criticized Modernity. Fontana’s slashed and empty canvases seem to be a violent challenge against individuality. 

lucio_fontana_concetto_spaziale.jpg

7.  Yves Klein - The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void, 1958.  An exhibition held at Iris Clert Gallery, it featured an empty room, painted white.  Guests were served International Klein Blue colored cocktails.  Critic Thomas McEvilley, in an essay for Artforum in 1982, classified Klein as an early, though enigmatic, postmodernist.  Remember, postmodernism will not have anything to do with things enigmatic, favoring instead, the mundane.  Klein’s inclusion, no doubt, has much to do with his favoring of concept over the primacy of the image. 

8.  Frank Stella – The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1959.  Stella, an abstract post painterly minimalist, is heralded for creating abstract paintings that bear no pictorial illusions or psychological or metaphysical references.   It is, in a sense, superficial abstract art for corporations.  Unlike the abstract expressionist work before, there is no searching for something greater in the work; instead you are presented with a cold and indifferent face. 

9.  Andy Warhol - 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962.  Warhol’s work celebrates rather than criticizes modernity’s excesses of superficiality, celebrity culture, commerciality, and the mundane.  It is apolitical and devoid of emotional and social commentary.  The work seems symptomatic rather than critical of the times.

10.  Jospeh Kosuth - One and Three Chairs, 1965. A work that definitely demands a text for proper interpretation, it consists of a chair, a picture of the same chair in the gallery, and an enlarged photograph of a dictionary definition for chair.

11.  Bruce Nauman - The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967. The work consists of the enigmatic title text displayed in the language of pop culture, a spiral neon sign.  It is meant to question what we perceive the role of the avant-garde artist to be in society.  Is it a noble gesture or a mocking call?  On the work Nauman says this:  “The most difficult thing about the whole piece for me was the statement. It was a kind of test—like when you say something out loud to see if you believe it. Once written down, I could see that the statement [...] was on the one hand a totally silly idea and yet, on the other hand, I believed it. It's true and not true at the same time. It depends on how you interpret it and how seriously you take yourself. For me it's still a very strong thought.”  If one is to consider how seriously he practiced what he preached, one need only to look at other works such as his photograph Self Portrait as a Fountain,1966, which shows the artist spouting a stream of water from his mouth, or his installation, Clown Torture, 1987.  Nauman is also famous for saying, “If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art.”  I could not disagree more.  Fail.

12.  Donald Judd – Untitled, 1971. This work consists of six large, blue cubes lined up in a row.  It is cool, empty, detached, signifying nothing.  Judd might say that is the point, and to that I would say, you are a sad, sad man.

untitled 1971 judd.jpg

13.  Sol LeWitt - Wall Drawing #118, 1971 – Considered a founder of both minimalism and conceptual art, Sol Le Witt sought to destroy the notions of the artist author and as a champion of individuality.  Wall Drawing #118 consisted of a set of instructions for School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston students to make a drawing on a wall.  Not only did the work require other people’s hands, the set of instructions dictated that elements of randomness and chance be the guiding force necessary for execution.  I am not opposed to the use of chance in art.  Relinquishing some control in the art making process can produce interesting results, but to produce art that is totally dependent on chance, I do not believe that one can properly claim to be author of the results (assuming the results are even aesthetically valid).

lewitt 2.jpg

14.  Vito Acconci - Seedbed, 1971.  For two weeks in 1971, Vito Acconci laid below a ramp inside Sonnabend Gallery and jerked off while continually uttering his sexual fantasies about the visitors walking above him, which were broadcast through loudspeakers.  I am not shocked or disturbed by his actions; rather, I find myself asking, what is the point?  Aesthetics are certainly absent, so some sort of concept must be at work.  In an interview with The Believer, Acconci tells us the genesis of Seedbed:  “I wanted to be somewhere where I blended with the space . . . Under the floor seemed to be the most fertile, because I could move under the floor . . . But it still wasn’t clear to me at all what I would be doing there . . . So I’m stuck, and Roget’s Thesaurus sometimes is a kind of guide because it takes you from one word to another word that you might not have even known you were looking for. It’s—I don’t know if I can say it’s an idea-structuring system, but it’s an idea-loosening system. So I look up floor. Floor took me to expected words like structure, land, undercurrent. And then took me to the word, seedbed. Seedbed then clarified it that, OK, under the floor I could be making this seedbed, this bed of seed. How do I make the bed of seed? By masturbating.”  Essentially, then, Seedbed is about word play, not gender politic, not redefining the line between art and pornography, and not even about the precarious relationship between artist and art patron.  Fail.

15.  Sherrie Levine – After Walker Evans, 1980.  Levine’s work uses appropriation to raise questions of authenticity and commodification.  She deconstructs Modernism.  For After Walker Evans she re-photographed Walker Evans’ photographs, reproduced in an exhibit catalog.  Levine’s work does little to transcend Modernism, which she is obviously critical of, but rather works to belittle it, in order to make her look better by comparison.  She is a parasite.  Other artists she has deconstructed include Egon Schiele, Van Gogh, Degas, Cezanne, Miro, Mondrian, Monet, and Kirchner. 

16.  Tom Blackwell – Herald Square, 1983.  While it is possible to appreciate the realist aesthetic and the skill that goes into producing such works, it does nothing to comment on contemporary culture.  Photorealism, like Pop Art, champions the modern mundane.  Even supposing that it is a mirror held up to society, most mirrors are ineffective as a commentary.  They only flatter the subject.  Still, unlike a lot of Post-modern art, Photorealism technical proficiency is at least a labor of love.

17.  Jeff Koons – Two Ball 50/50 Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series, Spalding Dr. J. 241 Series), 1985.  The work consists of two basketballs floating in an aquarium.  That is it.  This particular work was my introduction to Post-modern art when I saw it at the Georgia Museum of Art in the summer of 1999.  I have been trying to understand ever since.  Perhaps there is nothing to understand.  Koons’ most famous piece, arguably, is his life-size gold leaf accented porcelain rendition of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988.  Like Warhol, Koons' apolitical work champions pop culture.  His work, by his own admition, contains no hidden meanings or critiques. 

koons.jpg

18.  Tehching Hsieh -   One Year Performance 1985–1986 (No Art Piece), 1985 - 1986.  For one year, Hsieh did no art, spoke no art, saw no art, read no art, and did not enter any museum or gallery.  This is a paradox.  If Hsieh did not create art for one year, then how can the investigation or result be considered art?  Hsieh is famous for his one year long endurance performances.  Other performances include voluntary incarceration, One Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece), where he was confined in a cell. He was not allowed to talk, to read, to write, or to listen to radio and TV.  In Art / Life: One Year Performance 1983-1984 (Rope Piece), he was tied to another artist, Linda Montano, for a year, with an 8-foot-long rope. They were not allowed to touch each other until the end of the one year period.  In yet another performance, One Year Performance 1981–1982 (Outdoor Piece), he had to avoid shelter of any kind for a year (buildings, cars, airplanes, tents, etc).  While it is arguable that these at least have some merit as art as sociological experiment, his (No Art Piece) definitely falls flat.

19.  Andres Serrano – Immersion (Piss Christ), 1987.  Perhaps you’ve heard of this one.  It is a photograph of Jesus on a crucifix suspended in a jar full of urine.  Despite some apologetic interpretations, aesthetics is not the issue here.  If aesthetics were the issue, then any number of alternative substances of similar appearance could have been used (amber, polyurethane), and Serrano would not have referenced to the use of urine in the title.  It might be suggested that Serrano was actively courting controversy, which is reverse pandering, shock for shock’s sake art.  Serrano, however, has gone on record as saying the art is a relativist concept, meant to provoke questions of what he perceives as a cheapening of Christian icons in contemporary culture.  This is in line with Sister Wendy Beckett’s interpretation, which is that it is a reflection of what contemporary culture has done with Christ and his teachings.  I still contend, however, that if Serrano truly respected the value and power of symbols, he would not have disrespected the icon.  Serrano’s argument, then, exposes him as a hypocrite.

20.  Rirkrit Tiravanija – pad thai, 1990.  In this work, and in several others following, Tiravanija takes over a gallery, prepares food, and shares it with gallery visitors.  Art historian Rochelle Steiner says of Tiravanija’s work, it “is fundamentally about bringing people together.”  I do not see how changing the context, from kitchen to a gallery, makes this art.  If all Tiravanija wanted was to bring people together in a gallery, wouldn’t a proper exhibit of art produce the same results?  And concerning Tiravanija’s obsession with sharing food, I believe the world would be better served if he instead volunteered his time in a soup kitchen for the homeless. 

21.  Damien Hirst – Untitled (With BlackDot), 1988.  There are over a thousand variations of similar, spotted works, created by Hirst and his army of assistants.  All trace of human intervention is removed until the finished product appears to be constructed mechanically.  Lacking in anything resembling authenticity, Hirst’s paintings can only be enjoyed ironically.  As Jonathan Jones writes in his article for The Guardian, “They are paintings to show off at cocktail parties; paintings to decorate PR company offices:  paintings to snort coke in front of.”

22.  Paul McCarthy, Painter, 1995. This video performance piece mocks the modern myth of the painter as a great hero.  While I like that he uses humor to challenge bourgeoisie mores in his other work, notably their uncomfortably with sex, (his publicly displayed Christmas themed works bear an uncanny resemblance to butt-plugs), I did not care for how he turned the notion of modernist painting as something sacred into something to be ridiculed.  Without any sign of idealism, McCarthy’s critique and art becomes hollow, and the artist reduced to being nothing more than a nihilist clown.

23.  Chris Ofili – The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996.  Another shock for shock’s sake piece along the lines of Serrano’s Piss Christ, Ofili’s work pictures the Virgin Mary painted with elephant dung and collaged with pornographic elements.  I truly doubt Ofili’s sincerity when he said the work shouldn’t offend, that the work is only meant to be experienced aethetically.  If the work mocked Buddhism, Islam, or Judaism, however, I would hypothesize that the art world would not be so forgiving.  Ofili was also in another controversy in 2005.  While serving as a trustee on the board for the Tate Gallery, Ofili brokered the sale of his The Upper Room for over a million dollars to the gallery, all while the gallery presented itself as being in trouble and solicited, with Ofili’s help, donations of free work from other artists.  Notably, a collection of Stuckist work valued at over $500,000 dollars was rejected.

24.  Tracy Ermin – My Bed, 1998.  A disheveled bed, everyday bedroom objects and detritus, and condoms.  It is literally the artist’s bed moved into a gallery setting.  There is no commentary, no craft, and no concept, other than the artist’s own narcissism for her to assume that the mundane aspects of her personal life were of any interest to the public.

25.  Marco Evaristti, Ice Cube Project, 2004. Brought to you from the artist who created Helena, 2000 (the live goldfish in the blender) Ice Cube Project is Evaristti’s attempt to cover an iceberg off the coast of Greenland in red paint. Of the work he says,“We all have a need to decorate Mother Nature because it belongs to all us. This is my iceberg; it belongs to me.”  We are forced to decide whether the work is sacrilegious or ironic statement.  Even if one takes the statement ironically, and we read the work as a critique on environmental destruction, we are left with the artist’s actual work being hypocritical.

26.  Jacob Collins, Red Head, 2004.  A fine example of Classical Realism, Classical Realism seeks a return to classical ideals of beauty; it champions the production of art reminiscent of late 19th century Academic Salon work, although some elements of Impressionism have also been incorporated.  It is backward looking, idealism for the past without much concern for the future.  While it is possible to appreciate the skill that goes into producing such works and to admire the beautiful work that results, it does little to comment on contemporary culture.  It failed to do so in the late 19th Century and it fails to do so now.  Still, there are at least some things redeeming in the work; it is at least a loving quest to discover beauty, and there is something noble in that.

Red Head.jpg

27.  Martin Creed, Being Sick (Work No. 547), 2006.  There is nothing noble here.  Being Sick is a video loop of close ups of 19 different people vomiting. Creed won the Turner Prize in 2001 for Work No. 227, an empty room where the light goes on and off at five second intervals.  There is nothing here, no commentary or concept other than pure nihilism.

28.  Nathan Coley - There will be No Miracles Here, 2006.  A sad but challenging work, it is a large illuminated sign spelling out the phrase named in the title.  Ironically, the text piece depends on text in order to get to the concept.  The work refers to an obscure event that took place in the French town Modseine in the 17th century.  So many miracles were reported in the town that finally the message “there will be no more miracles here, by order of the King” was sent in order to keep things under control.  I would have preferred that the sign was meant to be a wake up call to artists, to produce in them the desire to once again make miracles, but this is not Coley’s M.O.  In interviews, Coley, like many other Post-modernists, seems a bit of a skeptic.  I believe we have to take the sign at face value and figure that Coley would believe that miracles in art are no longer possible.  There will be No Miracles Here won the Turner Prize in 2007.

29.  Aliza Shvarts – Untitled (Abortion Art), 2008. In 2008 Yale undergraduate gained fleeting prominence for a year long performance where she documented her repeated artificial inseminating of herself, and then repeated self-induced miscarriages.  She described her efforts in typical postmodernist opaque language: ‘This piece – in its textual and sculptural forms – is meant to call into question the relationship between form and function as they converge on the body. The artwork exists as the verbal narrative you see above, as an installation that will take place in Green Hall, as a time-based performance, as a [sic] independent concept, as a myth and as a public discourse . . . It creates an ambiguity that isolates the locus of ontology to an act of readership.’  Abortion ethics debate aside, Shvarts’ work naively makes light of the emotional difficulties that a woman would experience in the course of an induced or natural miscarriage.  There is nothing else naïve about the work, however.  It might be cynical of me, but I believe the work was nothing but a publicity stunt to jump-start her career in the arts.

30.  Pedro Campos - Hot Day III, 2008.  Hot Day III is an example of Hyperrealism, Photorealism’s more recent offshoot.  Most Hyperrealist work continues Photoralism’s tend of promoting the mundane and banal in art, although there is some hope in the work of artists such as Gottfried Helnwein.  Helnwein uses Hyperrealist technique to produce work that is both humanist and a social critique.  A decent example of his art can be seen in Downtown 20, 2002.

31.  Marni Kotak – The Birth of Baby X, 2011.  And I thought there was nothing more narcissistic than Tracey Ermin’s work.  In The Birth of Baby X, Kotak gives birth to a child in a gallery, re-contextualizing her life/art.  Before this, the artist often took events in her life and recreated them as art.  Ever since then, she has exploited her son, Ajax, as part of her ongoing performances of Raising Baby X