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Rating The Underrated

Rating The Underrated

John Haber

January 04, 2008

So many critics end the year with its high points that someone should compile the top ten “best of” lists. It will not be me—but not because I prefer to look ahead. Not when art’s future makes so little sense.

Everyone loves to speculate about speculate about the state of the art. Right now, that has to take into account the expansion of Chelsea in all directions, the Whitney’s imminent loss of a midtown branch, the growth of the Lower East Side, and a glimmering New Museum of Contemporary Art on the Bowery. Yet the one sure thing about art right now is how much it is about looking back. Appropriation, full speed ahead.

One could describe Mannerism, by analogy to Postmodernism, not as the late Renaissance but the Post-Renaissance. It had much the same relationship to the recent past as art today—sometimes troubled, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes rebellious, and sometimes reverent. It had the same dependence on a newly burgeoning private market, with young celebrity artists like Parmigianino to match. It even had its fabled run-ins with religion, nations at war, and censorship.

By the same token, Mannerism could help illuminate art now. Sure, today’s art market means lack of a paradigm and overrated artists. Does it then represent the future or the past? Either way, it also afforded ample choice of very, very good exhibitions. But was there a best? And would saying so only add to the market frenzy, like the Oscar ceremonies?

For now, instead of the best, suppose I ask for the most underrated museums of 2007. They would have to include the Frick. It now regularly compliments its very special home for its very special permanent collection with exhibitions that expand what I know about art history. They seem so deceptively modest—until one looks. This year had nothing to match past displays of Hans Memling or late Goya, but I shall gladly settle for the loans from Cleveland or the brightened up Fragonard room.

The most underrated would also have to include the Studio Museum in Harlem, with its unparalleled eye for emerging artists. The underrated would include SculptureCenter, able to make even familiar artists look experimental. By comparison, the more celebrated P.S. 1 up the street can resemble an emerging-artist theme park.

For the first time in memory, too, underrated describes the dear old stodgy National Academy Museum. It came up with “High Times, Hard Times”—a revisioning by David Reed of abstraction after Minimalism.

Or one could ask for the best business as usual of 2007. The Met still has trouble putting on a show without too many works, too many skewed attributions, and way too many pains to celebrate itself. Still, it has been celebrating itself very well indeed this year, just by looking after the permanent collection. It has done that to honor Rembrandt, but even more with a new wing for Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art. New rooms for nineteenth-century art also snuck in just at the year’s end, with mixed results, and the Islamic wing has yet to reopen.


One can always mock MOMA for doing nothing but business as usual, in those 2004 galleries akin to hotel lobbies. This year, however, business practices just happened to encompass Jeff Wall, Richard Serra, Seurat drawings, and Martin Puryear. Seurat surely left the most wildly slashing marks ever to have gone into art history as mere dots. Puryear, in the first retrospective in the new building of an African American, was also the first to cope successfully with the vast atrium—a strikingly empty space at the museum’s heart.

Best business as usual of all, however, has to go to the Whitney, truly a new institution under Adam Weinberg. “Summer of Love,” like the 2006 Biennial, had a silly fixation on middle-aged men trying to coopt 1960s’ youth culture. I also often miss the museum that once taught me a canon of prewar American art, now squeezed into corners of the fifth floor. However, the year also held Lawrence Weiner. Better yet, the Whitney was willing to stake the joint on midcareer shows of three women, two of them black—Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, and Kiki Smith.

An award for biggest lost opportunity goes to the Brooklyn Museum, but worst business as usual by far will go to the Guggenheim as long as Thomas Krens remains in power. Richard Prince or the nonsensical blockbuster of Spanish painting could represent almost any museum’s trendy nadir. The Guggenheim, however, managed something sillier still. Its celebration of Italian Pointillism was about as relevant to Italian culture, pure color, or New York sophistication as the Olive Garden.

Galleries as usual had everything and nothing. People most talked about Chelsea’s big fall and the big, trashy installations that devoured one gallery after another. I cherished more a small show in a West Village brownstone, by Simryn Gill. Her installation reduced centuries of history to photographs—and to a few words that one could literally hold in one’s hands.

However, the year belongs most to photography and new media. They not only now sell up there with other forms but actually stick longer in memory. Photographers have found ways to evoke feminism, abstraction, Surrealism, and even installations. And they could do it all without just mimicking the look of “fine art.” Top video included Anna Gaskell, Sue de Beer, Chen Chieh-Jen, a summation of a life in art by Joan Jonas, and Doug Aitken outside the Museum of Modern Art.

How funny that the one white male among them created an urban arts community, all on a frigid winter night in midtown Manhattan. As cold evenings return, I wanted more than ever a happy new year—but do not overlook some, well, lesser awards categories.


Best exhibition title. Yes, the Met celebrated Rembrandt’s birthday with “The Age of Rembrandt.” Sorry, but some artists just do not tell their age. After four hundred, they may even lose count.

Best justification for feminism in the arts. Richard Prince beats out strong competition from any number of women artists—and hardly for any feminism on his part. The art world’s perpetual male adolescent came off all too eager to please, with soft-core porn, old jokes, and big money at the very center of his consciousness. Besides, another self-consciously nasty young man, Bruce Nauman, had done men on horsebacks before, in video.

Twenty years ago a handful of artists, most of them women, helped move photography into the mainstream of contemporary art, with strategies of irony and appropriation. Often their work came at the expense of gender roles and art institutions. Now, thanks to the most prominent male artist among them, suddenly Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Sherrie Levine, and Barbara Kruger have never looked better. The award certainly does not go to the Brooklyn Museum’s “Global Feminisms,” with its reduction of women to victims of or cheerleaders for their own bodies. However, an overlooked show at the Jersey City Museum, “The Feminine Mystique,” offered a quieter alternative.

Most dangerous exhibition. This one has lots of contenders. A year ago, video by Douglas Gordon at MOMA came with warnings about seizure disorders, and this year Antony Gormley had every reason to warn of panic attacks in his steam-clogged glass box. Urs Fischer asked one to descend right through his gallery’s floor and to walk on its frail remaining edge, while a note at the entrance threatened serious injury or death. One had to duck just to enter the installation.

Mike Nelson actually had people sign a waver before entering his hidden New York, in a recreated Essex Street food market. The new New Museum has won praise for a terrifyingly narrow stairwell, and “Love/Sex/War” at Exit Art greets visitors with light artillery. I refused to ask if any were loaded, but thankfully they mostly go back to World War II or Vietnam. When gallery-goers become suicide bombers, they will be sadly unprepared.

However, with so many trendy artists trashing the joint, only New York City lawyers can properly adjudicate this question. And they have. Sanitation crews have carted away an eight-foot-tall park bench because they found it inadequately affixed to the street. One might imagine that flaw easy to fix, but apparently not on the Lower East Side. Fortunately the guerrilla artists, Tod Seelie and Brad Downey, agreed to leave their street art “to the fates.”


Most necrophilic exhibition (apart from Damien Hirst). The art market thrives on turning emerging artists into rising stars. As critic Jerry Saltz has noted, that leaves precious little room for those who have not made a reputation by age 35. By the same token, it means finding new fodder, by solidifying the reputations of those who die young before it is too late. That must explain why the year ended with huge and strangely impersonal memorial exhibitions for Jeremy Blake, Jason Rhoades, and Steven Parrino.

Parrino’s exhibition at Gagosian centered on a swatch of black canvas set on the floor like a shroud. It must have worked: he promptly turned up in the Whitney’s show of recent acquisitions. For sheer desperation, however, I prefer the cordoned-off recreation of Rhoades’s LA living room, with a female voice chanting about her glorious “black pussy.” It makes yet another argument for more women artists in galleries and fewer overgrown male children, dead or alive.

Worst claim by an art critic. On the November “review panel” at the National Academy, Linda Yablonsky of Artforum announced that she never reads a press release. Thankfully, Arthur C. Danto quickly insisted that he does, and so do I. It is not just to make fun of artspeak. It is not just to welcome other points of view either.

Rather, all art takes words, quite as much as a conceptual artist like Lawrence Weiner. That is because art depends on connections and disconnections between vision, the art object, traditions, an artist’s intentions, and other narratives. Besides, I have made a fool of myself more than once by not reading up. Twice now, most recently in September 2007, I failed to notice that Ingrid Calame starts by tracing found urban markings for her luminous, layered abstractions in colored pencil on Mylar. What look as personal as Abstract Expressionism turns out to have come right off the streets.

A critic who trusts to looking has to be a formalist, a mind reader, or just plain smug. As for this coming year, I aspire to all three. It may get me into a better class of art magazines.

Much of this wrap-up first appeared on on New Year’s day weekend. (My site also has reviews of all the above.) I have rewritten it for ArtBistro.

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