This week, the 13th edition of Documenta, the art festival that arrives every five years in the small German city of Kassel, opens to the public, and over the course of its 100-day run it is expected to attract more than 750,000 visitors. One of the international art world’s most serious, intellectual affairs, it used to attract a fraction of that number—art insiders on the pilgrimage route. But the audience for avant-garde art has expanded. Once a rarefied, remote realm of culture, contemporary art is now dead center; for proof, consider that George Condo had his New Museum retrospective after doing a Kanye West record cover.
Many of today’s superstar artists, like Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami (who also did a West record cover) and Damien Hirst not only do not shy away from publicity-rich spectacles, but embrace and engineer them with a vigor that would have impressed even Andy Warhol. Mr. Koons dreams of hanging a 70-foot-long smoke-puffing locomotive over the High Line, a public-art bauble par excellence; Mr. Murakami donned a plush flower costume and waved to fans from a float in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. As for Mr. Hirst, he trumped his epic 2008 single-artist Sotheby’s auction (which garnered $200.7 million) with this year’s Spot Challenge, the globe-trotter’s version of the contest on the back of a cereal box, for which all 11 Gagosian galleries fell into line behind him. These artists demand the love—or at least the attention—of the masses.
Nevertheless, it is rarely the nature of cutting-edge contemporary art to offer itself up so easily to the general public, which accounts for a counterbalancing force, a way in which the avant-garde maintains the initiates-only atmosphere that has always defined it. So it was that just as the last of the 128 people to successfully complete the Spot Challenge card were having their cards stamped at the beginning of March, a painting of a musician by the British artist Merlin Carpenter was going on view at the Independent art fair in Chelsea, after having been locked away during a show at the Berlin gallery MD72 the year before. During that show, collectors willing to part with €5,000 (about $6,900 at the time) were afforded the privilege of viewing the work. Those among the general public interested in viewing Mr. Carpenter’s latest work were strictly excluded from the real painting, able to view it only in reproductions printed on playing cards.
Welcome to the world of secret art. Artists are organizing exhibitions open to just a few people, in out-of-the-way or hidden locales, and making art that operates on rumors or may go unnoticed by all but the most perceptive, clued-in viewers. Still others are concealing their identities through pseudonyms or acting collectively under layers of assumed names and fictive institutions.
Though you might not know it, quite a bit of this willfully obscured art has alighted around New York in the past year or so. Last month, at Frieze New York, a smattering of shopping carts filled with battered belongings were to be found on the lawn outside the fair’s tent on Randall’s Island. Unmarked on Frieze’s public-art map, they were, in fact, sculptures by Swiss provocateur Christoph Büchel, the belongings of homeless people that he had his gallery’s employees purchase for up to $500 a cartful. They were for sale for a hundred times that price, though the only way to know this (until news of the project broke on The Observer’s website and in the daily edition of The Art Newspaper) was to hear the rumor and make inquiries.
A few weeks ago, Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard tucked pieces from a new clothing line by the painfully hip label Hood by Air in a corner of the basement of the Lower East Side gallery Ramiken Crucible, typically used as office and storage space, as part of a show he organized. Ramiken has also rented a tiny, decrepit storefront about a mile away on Delancey, where they host fly-by-night shows visible only from the street: the lights are on, but the door is locked. Passersby are often to be seen peering in, baffled. First, there were a few dozen chairs by Andra Ursuta—their tops are molds of people’s behinds outfitted in day-glo jeans—but those recently gave way to small plaster piece by Gavin Kenyon. There are no press releases for the Delancey shows, and no listing of its existence on the gallery’s website. It’s hiding in plain sight. Rumors spread quickly in the art industry, though, and the Ursuta show hit blogs and Twitter shortly after it first appeared.
Nearby, in a Chinatown mall, the mid-career artist Dave Miko has been inviting select friends to see the painting show he’s installed in one tiny stall. As the artist and writer Sam Pulitzer put it in a recent essay, he’s “managing the show’s attendance to the point of obscurity.” The fact that Mr. Pulitzer—who also helps run a blog called Art Observations With Jerry Magoo, which publishes vitriolic, sometimes anonymous diatribes about various artists and curators—wrote this in Artforum foregrounds the peculiar logic of this type of art: one way or another, the secret needs to come out. To paraphrase that tree-falling-in-a-forest koan, if an artist puts an artwork in a show and no one knows about it, did it ever exist?
The sculptor Darren Bader has tested that one. Few people were able to say what he contributed to MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” exhibition two years ago because his works were not labeled. (In fact, they included an M.I.A. song playing in a hallway, water bottles, a laptop showing an image and a copy of a Peter Halley painting.) And for a 2010 group show at Harris-Lieberman called “And so on, and so on, and so on…,” his name was listed on the checklist but there was no information about his piece. “It was a no-work work,” a gallery representative informed The Observer.
Then there are the no-artist artists. Late last summer a group of monochrome paintings went on display at Carriage Trade in Tribeca. Big slick works in loud colors—pink, blue, orange—they were attributed to someone named Henry Codax, but the uncomfortable thing about Mr. Codax is that it seems he doesn’t exist. He’s a character in a 2005 novel called Reena Spaulings—which is also the name of a fictional artist as well as a real art gallery on the Lower East Side, and the nom de plume of two other artists. Reena Spaulings the novel was written by an 18-year-old collective called the Bernadette Corporation, which will have a full-scale retrospective at Soho’s Artists Space this fall. (There is a real Bernadette, but never mind.)
A rumor circulated at the time of the show that the white-hot young artist Jacob Kassay and painter Olivier Mosset (who has painted monochromes similar to Mr. Codax’s for many decades) had teamed up to create the paintings and adopted the Codax name. Some pieces sold and a gray one popped up at Christie’s back in March, tagged definitively in the catalog as the work of Messrs. Mosset and Kassay, citing as evidence an Observer blog post about the ongoing rumors. And then, just before the auction, the auctioneer, according to several sources, read a note from Mr. Kassay denying involvement in the work. (This was first reported by blogger Greg Allen. According to a representative at Christie’s, the statement from Mr. Kassay read, “The information in the catalogue attributing the work to artist Jacob Kassay is incorrect. Jacob Kassay was not a collaborator on this work.”) The rumor, one might surmise, was fine; market-established authorship not so much. So a handful of collectors now have on their hands artworks whose maker is nowhere publicly established.
There are scores of other recent examples of secret art—shows of paintings by Wade Guyton and Stephen Prina that appear suddenly, announced to only a select group, each year for a single day at Friedrich Petzel Gallery (most recently in March); a two-person show last summer at the Untitled gallery with a rear wall that, when pushed, swiveled and, like a James Bond-style hidden-door bookcase, opened onto a prodigious group show; the recent obsession over Kraftwerk’s über-secret studio in Germany in advance of the group’s MoMA retrospective; the hidden rooms and trap doors in Swedish artist Klara Lidén’s shows (there’s one in her current New Museum retrospective); and a drawing by David Hammons at MoMA that was covered with a cloth and unveiled only a few minutes a week by appointment at select times. (Mr. Hammons is a patron saint of this type of secrecy: his contribution to the 2006 Whitney Biennial was an unexplained painting by Miles Davis—yes, that Miles Davis.)
Why this fixation on obscurity? It’s a common cliché that art mirrors society, but it also can work against it, and even attempt to ameliorate some of its shortcomings. As digital technologies began to connect people at distant locations in the 1990s, so-called relational aesthetics brought them back together, however superficially. In the 21st century, when information and, to be sure, capital travel invisibly and at breakneck speeds, artists are working to slow things down and disrupt the way viewers see art. “With one foot outside of the information superhighway, art has a chance to stay dangerous, provocative, unruly, independent and curious,” curator Anthony Huberman wrote in 2007 in a landmark essay on the topic called “I (not love) Information.” He argued such surreptitious tactics can allow “artists the focus to perfect a skill, to sharpen a single idea, to deeply pursue an obsession and to find an invested audience.”
Such tactics also, of course, enrich the aura of art and transmit a level of exclusivity—the more obscure the venue, the harder the entrée into its world, the more attractive the offering. Think of New York’s speakeasies, invite-only restaurants and temporary underground clubs (all firmly within quotation marks)—places without signs and websites, like the Back Room bar or the Bohemian sushi restaurant in Noho, or open only to members, as one of the pioneers of this trend, the cocktail bar Milk and Honey, once was. (One more relatively new art space on the Lower East Side called Cage operates on similar terms: its myriad activities are organized by a network of people and publicity is scant.)
What is thrilling about this new art is that, at its best, it really does alter the way we look at and think about art. At a moment when one can breeze through blogs to catch up on the latest art developments from Berlin to Brussels to Zagreb, there are real pleasures to be had in being forced to work a bit to see art in the flesh. As one young art dealer suggested to me, this secrecy allows for something of the initial thrill of learning about art for the first time—realizing that any item in a room could be that unidentified Darren Bader sculpture, that any person one meets might be Henry Codax.
Those Codax paintings may one day be ensconced within museums next to wall labels that explain their whole complicated history and reveal their maker or makers. If so, that’s perhaps just as well. By then, artists will have some new tricks up their sleeves.