Social Medium: Artists Writing; 2000 – 2015
(Paper Monument, 2016)
There’s a new art form in town. After the “End of Painting” and its rebirth, the rise and fall of minimalism, the up and down lifecycle of performance and multimedia art, newly coined movements and -isms now whiz by with dizzying speed. Post-Conceptual, Bad Painting, crapstraction, Zombie Formalism. The New-New ripens into rot just moments after it becomes the New. So what is today’s all-new bright and shiny art form? It’s called Writing.
Yes, the printed word. It’s been repurposed and retrofitted—not just a tool to talk about art, sometimes it is the art. Its avatars have names like Juliana Huxtable, Karl Holmqvist, Jill Magid, Liam Gillick. Some of them might also paint, draw, sculpt, but their focus is the ideas they tap into their iPads. The artist’s use of the written word is not a brand new idea, but one fine day the social media spigot opened and all this art writing poured forth.
The range in quality of this writing yo-yos from unreadable to excellent. But there is so much of it that to wade through the rivers of text in search of good, better, best is a daunting enterprise. Another problem is that many of the best pieces are printed in mags like Mousse, Turps Banana, and Peep-Hole Sheet—not always in stock at my local newsstand.
So, happy day when Social Medium appeared, with its plain-Jane, dull purple cover, as if to say, “We don’t need any come-hither photo or artwork on our cover: we’re serious.” Yes, serious stuff within, but also a lot of playful, funny, beguiling and even thought-provoking content. Some of the writers here, like Yve Lomax, Pope.L, and Xu Bing, contribute writing as the artwork. In fact the last section of the book is subtitled “Artists Writing As Art,” but you could make a case that the lion’s share of the book represents this kind of work.
The collection begins with “Image Boink Text: The Erotic Relationship of Language and Art,” visual artist Bill Beckley’s historical overview of the co-mingling of art and language, and the writerly and philosophical sources of conceptual and minimal art since the 1970s. Beckley begins with the word-images of Jasper Johns and brings us up through the influence of Baudrillard’s simulacrum on Haim Steinbach and Jeff Koons. Beckley was a founding father of Narrative Art in the early ’70s, and though he never attained the stature of fellow travellers Gordon Matta Clark, John Baldessari, and Ed Ruscha, his influence flows out through the many documents of contemporary art he’s written and edited, and through the work of former students like Mark Dion.
Similarly educative, but in a more freewheeling, hilarious tone is Glenn Ligon’s “Black Light: David Hammons and the Poetics of Emptiness,” in which he addresses the knotty question of the continuing “special status” of African-American Art. Ligon characterizes this art as “A noisy cul-de-sac at the end of a long and winding road that lots of folks are curious about but only want to visit in the summertime.” Which is a poetic turn on the fact that African-American contemporary art has yet to be fully embraced as simply Art; the underground railroad line between Jack Shainman’s (excellent) gallery and The Studio Museum is an express to 125th Street, with rarely a stop on Museum Mile. Ligon doubles-down in his attack on the status quo, by recording the following exchange, part of “an overheard conversation at an exhibition of Lorna Simpson’s work”:
CURATOR TO SIMPSON: What does your work have to do with black women and our lives?
SIMPSON’S REPLY: (Silence.)
Some of the pieces do keep one foot firmly planted in the essay department while taking stylistic flights that land them in an artistic zone: Mira Schor’s “The Imperium of Analytics” (2011) tackles with giddy zeal the humor and inequity of contemporary cyber-criticism. “Of my writings published online on this blog and the Huffington Post since 2010,” Schor writes, “the ones that have in any small way gone viral, relatively speaking, were ones I wrote fast enough about current hot news items relating or engaging with art-world celebrities. For example, ‘Looking for Art to Love, MoMA: A Tale of Two Egos’ was picked up by various web aggregators. It did very well because of my speculation about how or whether Marina Abramovic peed during her performance The Artist Is Present at MoMA, a subject of much prurient curiosity.” We know sex, and bodily functions, sell. These objects of “prurient curiosity” attract hundreds of eyeballs and a carpet-bombing of likes and hash tags—the contemporary yardsticks of cultural import.
Editor Jennifer Liese, who currently heads the writing program at the Rhode Island School of Design, toiled for twenty-odd years in the trenches at Artforum and Cabinet, and it is this experience that enables her to ferret out up-to-the-moment texts like the amazing “Black Dada” by Adam Pendleton. She tags the twelve-page performance-poem as “constructing an alternative history,” and naming what Pendleton calls “a temporary canon.” Whatever it’s called, it’s heady stuff. Here’s an exemplary passage:
Black Dada is a way to talk about the future while talking about the past; it is our present moment
a common doubt expressed about the “practice-based” researcher is whether they are equipped for “competent reading”
yellowing gauze curtains
remember the wedding?
the raised highway above the flood plain
regular communication by email with a commitment to responding within a reasonable time frame
so did i love this
the performer must not be credited
the performance must be done on location
feet, do your stuff
sigh and then breath
Pendleton’s work seems to be everywhere right now; he has two quasi-abstract but politically cogent text-based pieces in the Jewish Museum’s The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin. These two works herald a bridge between the inroads made by artists like Ligon, Pope.L, and Lorraine O’Grady, and the next generation of a new black power art. “Back Dada” is a teaser to Pendleton’s anticipated Black Dada Reader (2017), out soon.
Social Medium is a collection blissfully short on jargon (though, if you need to see Kant cited, you will), unlike its predecessors Brian Wallis’s Blasted Allegories (1987) and his de rigueur Art After Modernism (1986), and Peter Selz and Kristine Stiles’s brick-thick doorstop Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings (1996). These valuable tomes relied to a certain extent on artist interviews, and the Selz/Stiles book is tooled for the classroom—two virtues and/or liabilities that Social Medium does not share. Seeing it propped up in the front window at McNally Jackson Books nearby the New Museum speaks volumes about its cultural import.
Just what is it that makes this book so different, so appealing? Social Medium introduces a new crop of names and faces, and the references are so timely that you have to wonder how Liese did it. For example, the inclusion of Jutta Koether’s rumination on Jo Baer’s work as the “re-fetishization of craftsmanship, constrictions in the terrain of self-staging, and early forms of self-branding.” Fortuitously, this same Jo Baer is prominently featured in this year’s Whitney Biennial with a roomful of paintings.
Certain artists’s names are so synonymous with writing that their work had to be included here, as with Adrian Piper’s “My Job Description” (2001) and “My New Job Description” (2011). Her wonderfully dry contributions enumerate the hours an artist working in the university must spend on... non-art tasks. In “A Reconstructed Conversation Between Kay Rosen and Virginia Woolf” (2010), Rosen, also a wordsmith from the jump, considers the nuances of language within art: “The critic Jerry Saltz once told me my work has a slight autistic gene. I think he was referring to this neutral tone, to the detached third-person voice that comes from 1) minimal intervention into 2) found language, just to the point where the viewer can take over and interpret.”
Could this book and these word-pieces incite us readers to start branching out from “creative” tweets and texts, toward longer forms with some meat and pizazz, something that approaches, encourages and expands dialogues on art and the zeitgeist? That’s not the stated purpose of the book, but think of the artist Victor Burgin’s call to arms: “Empower the ‘dispassionate spectator’ to become ‘interested readers and learners’ committed to an interactive production of art.” Wouldn’t that be nice?
Timothy Francis Barry has written for the Boston Globe, New Musical Express, Aesthetica Magazine, artcritical and artsfuse.org. His first column was under the editorship of Byron Coley at Take-It Magazine. Summers he operates Tim's Used Books in Provincetown, Mass., which book critic David L. Ulin, called his "favorite bookstore in America." (Los Angeles Times, 8-29-13) He lives in New York.