text /// Chris Rusak

The Stefan Simchowitz Solution

On Hyperallergic, Marion Manekar provides interesting insight on the current, hot, capitalistic phenomena exciting the art world: Stefan Simchowitz. I’ve made some small points regarding art flipping in my last post, but I think there’s more to be said now.

If you take the time to read Simchowitz’s responses to Paddy Johnson’s Facecrook discourse, and some of Flipper’s quotes in the recent New York Times profile, “The Art World’s Patron Satan,” and discount any concern of selective editing by its author, you will nevertheless understand why a man who says this to an artist:

On the walls of the studio were a series of canvases smeared with black paint that feebly gestured at Abstract Expressionism. Bewilderingly, one was inscribed with a global-warming slogan. “There’s going to be three subcategories in the series, and then they all start cross-contaminating each other,” Murphey haltingly explained. As Simchowitz perused the works in progress, he began to look worried. “Just try to work out some of the ideas,” he said, looking straight at Murphey. “Keep the show focused. I need you to work. You’re very distracted.”

Murphey smiled nervously. “Focus?” he asked, chuckling.

You either want this or you don’t want this,” Simchowitz said sternly. He was clearly referring not just to Murphey’s show but to his career as a whole. “If you don’t want it, do something else. Focus. There’s no alternative.” (emphasis added)

can also write a wordy, hasty, poorly edited Facecrook comment/reply which totally fails to once demonstrate underlying concerns about technical quality, art history, or long-term narrative. Granted, he responds to qualms about artistic autonomy over that narrative for history — but that seems to be a really small pit surrounded by a much, much larger cherry. He does confirm one absolute and blindingly bright point that anyone who cares about art as more than just a financial transaction notices: money is meaning. We know what Simchowitz ultimately wants and the consternation stems from the realization it’s probably not ultimately the same thing the artist wants. Heartburn ensues.

Stefan Simchowitz Comments on Facecrook

Comments by Stefan Simchowitz on Facecrook

Art viewers and patrons find varied value in enjoying the produce of our industry. And we are an industry. Some of us completely get off on objectless, temporal, public performances which somehow renew an intangible and fervent reaction within us as a result of being its audience, or instead it pisses us off (I have yet to read that he has represented or supported artists whose primary medium is not transactionable objects.) Some of us collect prints and paintings and enjoy a private experience ownership affords. And some of us enjoy all of that, much more, and the numbers game running on the side, too. Simchowitz sees art’s values, first, for its numbers. There is no cross-contamination to be had, of narrative or meaning or deeper aesthetic reasoning beyond poptasticness, in his primal valuing method.

I’m okay with this. Honestly, here are our choices:

1. We can accept Simchowitz’s presence as a patron in our industry.
2. We can reject Sinchowitz’s machinations as anti-art, bitch and grovel, and little will change the opinion of his customers or the financial abysses of the artists with whom he first transacts.

I’ll take the former and focus my criticism on the work the artists whom he represents produce. I’ll focus my criticism on critics who espouse questionable mechanics like his, who wax poetic helium-filled patronage like his, who waste time and column space arguing about him and keep a spotlight off the artists. I’ll call out art historians down the line who similarly aim to use his reins for their own creative ascendancy. And, most importantly, I’ll continue to practice as an artist who writes about these ideas as much as I create as a result of them.

The problem for Simchowitz will always be one of (re-)marketability: “Should I buy into this artist?”
The solution for artists is to ask oneself, “Why should I buy into Simchowitz?”

Being an utterly broke Angeleno artist, I’m looking forward to a time I might get to meet him and score his excitement (maybe I should join Instaglam). Why? Because, given the chance, I will do, what I imagine many other artists who were either too timid, too naive, too desperate, or too emotional to do in the first place, and that is negotiate terms more beneficial to the concerns I prioritize as an artist. And perhaps those terms will be chosen not for their payoff, but for their power. I’d love gallery representation as much as the next artist, but I’m more concerned about its role as a relationship than for its choice of off-white on the walls. I suspect no artist has been forced into an indentured relationship with Simchowitz and that they each willingly chose to work with him: That’s exercising artist autonomy. If you get in bed with the devil, don’t expect critical sympathy after being art-historically burned.

Negotiation is not a sure thing, indeed, but neither is continuing to produce art without a Simchowitz in near sight, and yet I keep making.

Crises of art criticism.

The end of the year is nigh and listicles are aplenty. The art sphere, no different, is passing around its best.

Many of the best on that list contain hopes for the future of art, after varied assessments of art’s presence. (Zombie) Formalism is out, race is in, flipping is here to stay, formalism is in, curation is out, curation is in crisis, formalism is out, flipping is here to stay, and critics are aplenty.

Here are some of my hopes for art and criticism of the near future:

First, I’d like to see more artists write about their work and self-publish it somewhere: social media is not self-publishing since you turn over copyright. I’d like the rest of us to prioritize those words in terms of authority, too. Earlier this year, after attempting to assemble a bibliography for a writing project on criticism, I began to realize how parasitic critics are. I don’t necessarily mean this in a pejorative way, though there are a gaggle of voices that dependably upset me. What I mean — and unfairly without providing examples (that project is a dirty work in-progress, alas) — is that I get the impression some critics are hopeful of presenting as a certain type of artist themselves, and their pigment is often ground-up artists and ground-up market and ground-level provocation. Criticism, artful or not, is always derivative of its subject. This is why I enjoy reading BOMB. Through printed dialogue an artist can, hopefully, speak naturally about their work, perhaps as close as we’ll ever get to a notion of “truth” through art. Critics, in general, certainly provide a service to the art community at large, often crafting third-party perspectives which sharpen and burnish ideas transacting though culture. Blaming artists for market problems, however, is only purposeful if we call them out for the deals they directly make and not solely their thinly conceived objects and experiences; and, even then, can we fully fault starving artists for assenting in alms-like moments proffered by the Madoffs and Ponzis and Enrons of the market? I’ll tell you right now I’d love nothing more than to sell all my work in storage for five figures and wipe out my college debt. I’d be hard-pressed to say no if confronted with the option, regardless of its proponent.

Second, this chatter about zombie formalism, it has made me recently rethink and reexamine everything I have written and published thus far. It has made me step back from my own studio practice (are we still supposed to stop calling it a “practice”?) and doubt everything and made me see all the work I’ve loved my whole life in a new light. I get what critics and writers and whiners are trying to say when they use a phrase like zombie formalism or crapstraction. I get the consternation about flippers, that is to say investors, they who buy a rundown house, one disregarded by neighbors on its block, fix up its image, and make a buck off the process and build a business therewith. Okay, I get those sorts of things, but here’s my real point:

All of the critical idealism against style and against market maneuvers is not going to change a damn thing, in fact, it’s the heavily philosophical idealism on which earlier formalist critics, interpreters and artists in-general have depended that leads to the sort of soulless quagmires I think anti-crapstractionists are against. There is nothing more absurd than listening to artists egoistically quote post-Marxist philosophy or simply revere idealist sensibilities, eschewing materiality or work-processes, as it underscores, immediately, their sophomoric grasp of that philosophical genealogy and how it hoped to change society. Or, rephrased, stop trying to justify object creation as an ontological revelation from your ideas in order to purify your shame about existing inside capitalism. Look around: Objects matter.

Plenty of chatter and criticism today feels hostile from within. We discuss artist starvation and one stanza later we chide coronated success. The latter ameliorates nothing for the former, and discussion of the former is, clearly, absent from the dialogues created by the latter. Maybe we’re discussing the wrong things and giving breath to the wrong figures.

This brings me to the one maxim that seems to restore my sanity in moments or weeks of doubt, and that is artists create experiences. The experiences of (“pure”) formalism I had in my adolescence are what led me toward exploring its practice; it was not because I wanted to make better lines, or better quadrangles, or copy my influencers. And, christ, I do not want to change the world or revive painting from the dead. Sure, I once thought of purity and balance, espousing art as a religion, but purity and balance are the evident first layers to works of earlier (or any) generations. But, and as I try to wrench into my own work, I believe great (“purely”) formalist work is more about tension and error — one thing we often want to overlook and another thing we directly overlook. Perhaps flippers never access this level, and neither do those quick to write off the — using the most simplistic catch-all I can — style, either. Yet, I am aware of a multitude who love new formalism as much as classic formalism, treating it not like a disposable, merely consumable soda, but as something else. They express a real appreciation for art history and new efforts accreting here and there. As much as there will always be a market for political work in and against which to be traded as it tirades, there will be interest and desire for seemingly apolitical work whose efforts encompass more than a singular statement or stabs towards incitement, but rather processes of confidence and results under reflection. Spraypainting a wreath over store-bought canvas is both apolitical and hoping-to-incite commercial interest, while the obsessive dedication of sitting in a gallery and shaping raw materials into ordered constructs is quite political yet reflective and igniting.

And this leads into my final point about criticism, particularly reading criticism, and it is a point Howard Hurst brings up in his article Who Has the Cure for “Zombie Formalism”?. Throughout the past several years of working in a process of painting through collage and now with paint and fiberglass, I have attempted to maintain a narrative. I’m not telling a story and I’m not writing an autobiography, no matter how self-reflexive processes remain. But, there are connections that, when works are taken out of their historical progression, become blurred easily; moreover, the consistently made point that judging work via JPEGs is like critiquing a restaurant solely through its menu deserves repeating. In any case, young successful artists might not deserve their acclaim for no other reason than the fact that only the first few chapters of a narrative have even been scribbled down. Nothing has reached a point of true editing. Critics, trying to craft their response into words, have little but the hot item-of-the-times to read from and some press releases or “history” supplied by the artist herself. I’m not saying emerging artists don’t deserve attention or critical response, but I do believe, from the articles I have read this year, some on that aforementioned list and no, fail to acknowledge progress as a process itself.

Finally, this bullshit about atemporality people love to rest upon — please stop. Idealists who claim atemporality are idiots in the philosophical regard since heretofore nothing has been proved outside of time. Everything in our lives is temporal, and that includes the chapters (tired metaphor, I know) of artists’ practice (oops, said it again) to judge experiential progress instead of manufactured excitement. Atemporality is looking at one artwork, one exhibition, a small facet of a larger process, and believing your reaction to it, no matter the effort of refinement and editing, somehow creates something that preserves a time. This, though, is the same reason we can accept progress and change from artists and thinkers who might renounce earlier positions, since we inherently realize nothing is static, especially idea(l)s. Critics who try to create a moment with and of buzzwords and newfound genres are no better than artists trying to go viral or investors looking for a cheap deal on the block. Can we revere the artists and thinkers, instead, who attempt to keep change in motion, who faithfully demonstrate long-term investment in art, and not those trying to chisel themselves into history? The latter, really, is a process accreted only long after we’ve returned to stones.

Chipped paint, Window, San Francisco.

Chipped paint, Window, San Francisco
Chipped paint, Window, San Francisco
Digital photograph, 2012

The Danger of Corporate Curators

The more I think about it the less I like the idea of art on corporate platforms, and specifically here social media, that is to say work created by artists, identifiably, which relatively exists only on that platform. For instance, auctioneer and collector Simon de Pury said today that “Instagram makes everyone an artist.” I disagree, as did megacurator Klaus Biesenbach during the panel where the statement was made.

Simon dePury Art Basel Quote

First, if everyone is an artist on Instagram, then all of the content on Instagram is art. That is simply not the case.

Second, de Pury’s claim suggests that merely joining Instagram “makes” one an artist. Everyone would agree that’s bullshit, especially working artists of any variety, schooled or auto-didactic. Instagram is a proprietary platform whose ultimate purpose is, and whose value and/or revenue derive(s) from, generating data and traffic. While data and traffic are essential to any businesses, artists and galleries indeed, art’s functions are greater than accumulation and thoroughfare, no matter what businesspersons lead you to believe.

Furthermore, usage of a proprietary platform whose end-user agreement makes no offer of remuneration for the services of its laborers is predatory. Instagram explicitly states such a contract:

Instragram EULA snippet

Worse, in addition to no upfront payment to artists making work on Instagram, any work subsequently sold, at any time, in any format, in perpetuity, is royalty-free. This contractual “license” can be sold itself, like a commodity or a financial derivative instrument, as well. Anyone, artist or not, sells their creations and the rights to them — two things, not one — if they create art on the platform. If a gallery were to come knocking and offer to sell your art, but only for free, would you sign that contract? These are zero-sum deals any artist should plainly avoid and refuse.

My guess is de Pury wasn’t thinking about any of these points in the moment he made his comment and was instead aiming for an optimistic, feel-good quote which romances art and its membership’s perceived free license: Anyone can call themselves an artist and anything could be art, so everyone is an artist, and everything is art. How empowering.

Well, this line of thinking is also bullshit. If any of those four statements are true, they are all true, which is illogical. And if everything were art, or were able to be categorized as such, then nothing could be art, because by definition art is something of some notable distinction that distinguishes it from the rest of time and matter.

So, auctioneer de Pury’s promotion of free licensure as pathways to art is just more stroking of the gavels and fashionably lapelled, well-crafted dissonance the reeks of respect for or even ponderation of what the fuck art is. Rather, de Pury is from the same camp in which gallerist and Los Angeles expellee Jeffrey Deitch unrolls his sleeping bag. And that is the belief that if someone takes gifted detritus and “channels their vision” with it into an assemblage that they are comparable to an artist of great gravitas or effect. Presumably, they are saleable to collectors, too. With fresh, ample inventories! This is the stench evident in his recent statement comparing pop star Miley Cyrus to the late artist Mike Kelley, whose recent retrospective at MOCA easily did not evidence such.

de Pury and Deitch are out for themselves and the business side of the art industry. They are image men, art emcees hogging the stage and spotlight even as they grip and shove the shoulders of their actors. Deitch’s statement particularly makes me ill, as it truly reveals either a perverse sense of qualitative evaluation or a willingness to stop at nothing for the next marketable phenomenon, the next billion-dollar-start-uplike artname; perhaps it reveals both. And Instagram is out for itself, too, no matter how much its service actually helps facilitate revolutions or increases artist exposure. The monolithic accumulation of a photographic collection unparalleled to any other in art history, just like Flickr, will be something for future art historians to behold. But, why do this for them and create “art” in some collector’s archive for free? What a shitty sidetrack to impermanence.

This is the danger of corporate curators: The shows they stage may feature artists, but the story’s stars are the ones hawking up a scene. It may be fun to run into their theaters and laugh at or pan their charades for free, culture’s critics applaud and hiss, but building their sets and ushering in the ticketed patrons for them is just foolish volunteerism. Exposure is a terrible carrot to thrive on and the rabbits waving that opportunity are really wolves. The sales pitch disguised as aphorism is one fairy tale more artists, writers, and critics need to stop endorsing and instead use to call out attention to the inane parasitism we’ve allowed ourselves to support.


Addendum: Corinna Kirsch at Art F City provides some takeaways from the “Instagram as an Artistic Medium” talk I reference.

Demands for future artists & critics.

Here’s what I think we need to demand of artists & critics moving forward:

A return to the aesthetic experience. Stop smoking the concept bong that turns your commentary on your work into theory-laden drivel, stop emulating your MFA professors, stop appealing to critics or even the art-going public. Let’s get honest and all start agreeing in our admissions, finally, why we make art and what its purpose(s) are. The surrounding illusions are helping no one.

A return to the intelligible word. Stop smoking the theory bong that turns your commentary on others’ work into ideal-laden drivel, stop emulating your advertisers, stop appealing to social media or even the non-art-going public. Let’s get honest and all start agreeing in our admissions, finally, why we enjoy art and what its purpose(s) are. The surrounding illusions are helping no one.