“Stupid as a painter”—it’s a French phrase connoting, not a painter’s literal stupidity, but the reason he picks up a brush: because words fail him. I always took it to be a sardonic compliment, a wry acknowledgment of a painter’s intrinsic need to communicate through purely visual means.
Now I’m not so sure. After a cursory Google search, I discovered that the phrase was a favorite of Marcel Duchamp. For a figure who considered painting (and art) a dead end, “stupid as a painter” takes on a different and altogether cynical connotation. Then again, I always felt that Duchamp’s abandonment of painting was due less to nihilistic principle than the self-realization that he wasn’t any good at it. Proving, I suppose, that Duchamp was smart enough to recognize he wasn’t “stupid.”
“Stupid as a painter” came to mind while looking at the recent paintings of David Row, currently at Von Lintel Gallery. Mr. Row is, in many respects, a painter’s painter, an artist particularly (not to say narrowly) attuned to the properties of his craft. Juxtaposing snarled brushstrokes, diagrammatic forms and small exclamatory circles against squeegeed runs of vivid color, Mr. Row creates abstract art for the age of virtual reality. Notwithstanding the expert manipulation of oils—there’s no doubting Mr. Row’s knowledge of the medium’s physical capabilities—the paintings threaten to disappear before our eyes. They seem bodiless. Their light is artificial and sharp, the gestural marks secondhand, the space deep and airless. The overall tenor is distant and thin. The pictures are inconceivable without the advent of the computer.
That they are self-conscious and overintellectualized almost goes without saying. Mr. Row may be “stupid as a painter,” yet that doesn’t prevent him from scrambling to keep up with the technological Zeitgeist. He poaches upon its authority, aiming to endow the paintings with a contemporary zing. Like most new forms of technology, Mr. Row’s abstractions are equipped with built-in obsolescence. There’s no way the canvases aren’t going to look dated in 20 years. Artists are better building upon the past than partaking of the future.
This isn’t to say that Mr. Row’s paintings don’t work. There, too, they share a similarity with the latest in gadgetry and gizmos: Sleek and efficient, the paintings make up in dazzle what they lack in durability. Body and Soul (2004), the best piece here, can claim neither of the title attributes, yet its icy sophistication has an undeniable allure. David Row is at the Von Lintel Gallery, 555 West 25th Street, until Oct. 9.
An afternoon in Chelsea is unimaginable without walking into a darkened gallery, the lights having been dimmed for a video projection or a hulking installation. The Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist provides both at Luhring Augustine with her latest project, Herbstzeitlose (meadow saffron or fall time less) (2004). Utilizing a cutout diorama of the Alps, a tree branch decorated with recyclable goods, a mock Swiss country house, a table, three chairs and two encompassing video projections, Ms. Rist attempts to evoke … well, what is she attempting to evoke? It’s hard to tell.
The videos aren’t much help in clarifying matters. On the north wall we see a blurry rush of movement, maybe foliage caught in the wind; on the south and west walls are alternate scenes of the Swiss landscape, an eyeball, a guy’s tongue, a Ritter chocolate shop and a woman sucking on a toy cow. All the while a musical soundtrack, with its morose violin and loping bass, sets the mood. The press release tells us that Ms. Rist’s creation is an “interweaving of inside and outside, subjectivity and environment,” invoking “a dialogue between mortal and spiritual [ sic].”
How much you enjoy Herbstzeitlose will depend on how charitable you are in defining “mortal and spiritual.” If the response of visitors to the gallery is an indication—they meander, engage in small talk and, if I saw it correctly, balance their checkbooks—New Yorkers aren’t charitable at all. They’ll have little do with Ms. Rist’s arrant pretensions and threadbare theatrics. Which leads me to wonder if the main qualification for being a hot artist—and Ms. Rist is hot —is the ability to encourage and sustain apathy in your audience.
If it’s art that embodies the human condition you want, skip Ms. Rist’s discursive travelogue and take the No. 6 train to the Met. There you’ll find paintings by an artist named Rembrandt that will fit the bill. Pipilotti Rist: Herbstzeitlose (meadow saffron or fall time less) is at Luhring Augustine, 531 West 24th Street, until Oct. 23.
Clunky, Not Upside Down
There’s one thing you can say about Georg Baselitz’s recent sculptures, on display at the Chelsea branch of Gagosian Gallery: They’re right side up. Mr. Baselitz, you may remember, achieved notoriety during the Neo-Expressionist craze of the 1980’s for scrabbled and hasty paintings of figures—upside-down figures. I’ve never quite fathomed the rationale for their being upside-down. You think maybe Mr. Baselitz wanted to convey the impression of a world gone topsy-turvy? Or perhaps he was making a grand statement about the thin line dividing representation and abstraction. If an image is upside-down, or so the reasoning goes, you’d have to look at it in purely formal terms, right? Either way, it was a shameless and schlocky gimmick—a marketing ploy intended to draw attention away from the fact that Mr. Baselitz doesn’t paint very well.
He doesn’t sculpt very well, either. Why he chooses to sculpt is a question that is unanswered by the six totemic characters milling about Larry Gagosian’s huge main gallery. Using a chain saw on wood, Mr. Baselitz carves what could best be described as angst-ridden Tiki Gods. A mother and child, a bare-chested tourist, a woman holding a bag of kitchen utensils—each piece is rough and chunky, punctuated with horizontal incisions and slathered with pink, blue and black paint. The ghost of the American painter Philip Guston, a considerable influence on Mr. Baselitz’s paintings, haunts the sculptures; it’s there to see in the palette, the lumpish forms and huge, goofy feet.
Would that Guston’s spirit inhabited the things—then they’d have a reason for being. As it is, Mr. Baselitz’s foray into sculpture is the kind of arrogant indulgence only a major rep and an unlimited budget can allow. There are cowboy artists who wield a defter chain saw; better Mr. Gagosian should showcase their folksy efforts than trot out the latest dreck from this overbearing has-been. Georg Baselitz: Recent Sculptures is at the Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, until Oct. 30.