Step Into the Art Star’s Studio: Tony Oursler’s Hipster Solipsism

I’m mad at the Met. Sure, it’s one of the world’s great museums. Tourists flock to its treasures, and New Yorkers, though perhaps a bit blasé about an institution in their backyard, nonetheless know it’s a marker of the city’s cultural significance. And it’s true that in recent years, guided by director Philippe de Montebello, the museum has been on a spectacular roll. Given the upcoming exhibition schedule—drawings by Vincent Van Gogh, Indian manuscripts and paintings by Fra Angelico—that’s likely to continue. So why am I tempted to march along Fifth Avenue with a sandwich board calling for a boycott of the place?

Tony Oursler’s Studio (2005), that’s why. Maybe at some point in the Met’s history, they’ve displayed a more meretricious piece of work, but I doubt it. Not even Thomas Struth’s installation in the great hall a few years back—those giant videos of people staring into space—can match the sheer pretentiousness of Mr. Oursler’s riff on Gustave Courbet. Yes, that Gustave Courbet.

What, you might ask, does a 21st-century installation artist who specializes in projecting videos of grotesque faces onto biomorphic sculptures have to do with a 19th-century French realist? Other than a commission from the Musée D’Orsay to reinterpret Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio (1855), a prize of that museum’s collection and one of the painter’s signal canvases, not much.

Presumably, though, the tenuous Courbet connection is what attracted the Met to Mr. Oursler’s mixed-media “environment”; the French master endows the video installation with an imprimatur of high culture—or so the logic goes. (It also makes the Met—you know, that stuffy place with all those old paintings and sculptures—seem a bit more with it.) Yet straining for historical credibility can’t help Mr. Oursler’s Studio transcend what it is: an exercise in hipster solipsism.

Wedged into the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of the Met, the “NYC Version” of the installation is higgledy-piggledy with stuff: speakers; a “genetic code copyright”; a stack of books, Philip K. Dick and Sybil among them; home movies of the artist’s child; and “inspirational objects” by the architect Rem Koolhaas, the sculptor Aristides Logothetis, the maven of found paintings Jim Shaw, the artist’s wife Jacqueline Humphries and others. A big green blob with myriad blinking eyes is Mr. Oursler’s self-portrait. Just like Courbet, get it?

There’s also a video projection featuring skewed and flashing images of David Bowie, Leonard Nimoy, John Waters, John Baldessari and other luminaries. Accompanying the tableau is a soundtrack of droning feedback, rumbling sounds and stream-of-consciousness jabber. It’s the first time I’ve heard the word “cocksucker” issue forth from a work of art at the Met.

The aesthetic distance between Mr. Oursler and Courbet is unbridgeable. Mr. Oursler looks at Courbet’s masterwork, and rather than seeing an encompassing and enigmatic manifesto of artistic principle, he senses an opportunity to inventory his buddies. Granted, Courbet included Baudelaire, Proudhon and Champfleury in The Artist’s Studio, yet their specific identities are subservient to the pictorial sweep of the painting. Such a notion is beyond the ken of Mr. Oursler: The Friends of Tony are simply paraded around as emblems of an insular and often privileged art-world elite. The ultimate effect is to alienate anyone not a party to that sociological sphere. To paraphrase Chevy Chase: He’s Tony Oursler, and you’re not.

“Just as Courbet was defining his reality,” declares Mr. Oursler, “I want to mark our time. Today the simulacrum is as real as anything.” It’s hard to know what’s more dispiriting: an artist who can’t imagine a “real” world outside the confines of his own narrow purview, or a great museum wasting space on that selfsame artist. The Met, having stumbled, has the wherewithal to pick itself up and dust itself off. Mr. Oursler doesn’t have the gumption or the vision to do either.

Studio: Seven Months of My Aesthetic Education (Plus Some), NYC Version, is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, through Sept. 18.

Wood Dove

On my way to the Oursler fiasco, I whisked through the Met’s lively collection of early American modernist painting and sculpture. Given that I was “on assignment,” I barely did more than tip my hat to old favorites—Patrick Henry Bruce, John Storrs, Guy Pene du Bois, Marsden Hartley, Florine Stettheimer—and then boom! There it was, snuggled into a corner of the permanent collection as if it was an afterthought: Tree, Forms and Water (circa 1928), a pastel on plywood by Arthur Dove. Where has the Met been hiding it all these years? It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen by Dove.

Well, not that unlike: As with Dove’s finest work, Tree, Forms and Water makes an intriguing hash of the divide between representation and abstraction. Would we recognize the subjects without the title? Certainly we’d intuit that Dove’s craggy shapes and heaving rhythms have their basis in the natural world. The abruptly cropped composition may obscure the imagery, yet it also intensifies the interdependence of shapes and forces.

Tree, Forms and Water is anchored by a large, blood-red form—the tree, I think—but the manner in which Dove applied pastels, grinding them into the grain of the plywood, gives it a visceral quality hugely at odds with the rest of the man’s oeuvre. We rarely think of this humble man of the soil, this American mystic, as a muscular artist. Here, Dove strong-armed his way into the not always pleasant intricacies of the human body. It makes for an unnerving and surprising picture.