The Third YearAugust 16, 2012
The news story that had the most traction and furthest reach on Art Practical over the past twelve months was the announcement of the death of the collector Herbert Vogel at age 89. Vogel, a postal worker, and his wife Dorothy, a reference librarian, amassed one of the country’s most significant collections of minimalist, post-minimalist, and conceptual art. Most people are familiar with their story through the 2008 documentary Herb and Dorothy, which culminates in the sale and gift of their collection to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. 1
What makes their story so compelling is their application of their modest incomes toward becoming committed patrons of artists producing complex and challenging works of art, frequently acquiring such work long before the market and well-heeled collectors took note. Equally remarkable was their acknowledgement of their careers in the public sector by selling and gifting the collection to the National Gallery. Although many major museums pursued the collection, the Vogels’ decision was based on the fact that access to the collection would be free for the public and the agreement that the National Gallery would not subsequently sell any of the work. “We wanted to do something for the nation,” Herb Vogel said, and the massive number of retweets, shares, and comments expressing admiration for the man and sadness over his passing demonstrates the widespread appreciation for this gesture.2
Unfolding alongside this news was another story that has received as widespread attention but provoked very different responses. On June 27, Eli Broad, the board director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA), fired Paul Schimmel from his position as chief curator. Broad subsequently published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, in which he laid out the argument that the museum’s survival depended upon a shift away from its insular programming toward a more populist sensibility that would greatly increase attendance. His argument was met with criticism from all corners of the art world and catalyzed the resignation of the four prominent artists on MOCA’s board.
In 2008, when MOCA teetered on the brink of financial ruin, Broad bailed out the museum with a $15 million matching grant, so it is hard to argue against his investment in the institution. And one could draw a comparison between Broad and Vogel to note that both individuals prioritized access to art. But the comparison would quickly fall short and not just because of the disparity in financial resources available to each. The two men’s perspectives differ strikingly in their confidence in an audience’s reception of the art of our time. While Broad advocates for MOCA’s director Jeffrey Deitch, whose recent exhibition proposal centers on disco culture, Vogel, who had no formal education in art history, was assured in the public’s interest in rigorous ideas and in minimalist, post-minimalist, and conceptual art. The Vogel collection also brings to the public’s attention a cognizance of patronage born from active dialogue with artists. Herb Vogel described how he spent many nights listening to artists in conversation at the Cedar Tavern in New York; Herb and Dorothy documents the hours the couple spent in artists’ studios, looking at everything. The depth and prestige of their collection evolved not from unlimited resources but from investing the most invaluable one—time—in looking and listening.
Art Practical was created to foster and document such investments of time: in the studio, at the bar, in the gallery, at the opening. Overtly, there is the structure each issue configures, the categorization of information into features, reviews, events, and news. Behind that structure is a more amorphous exchange of ideas and observations that happens continually and casually but that catalyzes production and action. There are multiple ways in which the editorial staff makes the effort to bring this interchange to light; the most remarkable aspect of our endeavors over the past year has been the support they’ve received from local organizations near and far.
In February, the Charlotte Street Foundation, in conjunction with their Rocket Grant program, commissioned Art Practical to produce an issue focused on the public interventions, collaborative endeavors, and socially engaged projects at work in Kansas City.3 Our first night began with a town hall–style public program, “Loosed of Limits and Imaginary Lines,” that posed questions about the conditions influencing the intentions and activities there, the potential for and actualization of critical dialogue, and the crosscurrents between Kansas City and the Bay Area. The end result was Issue 3.10/Kansas City, which highlighted specific projects and included contributions from writers local to Kansas City.
This fall, we will go to Miami for a writing residency awarded by Legal Art , with the projected outcome to produce an issue that profiles the local art community. Our motivation to go to Miami is the same as that of Kansas City: to offer “a comparative context in which to consider two communities: one that we experienced for a short period of time and another in which we are immersed and choose to call home.”4 Our targets for these off-site issues are communities like San Francisco—places whose ongoing generative influences lay outside the market forces and that have limited international visibility as a result.
The introduction of activities external to those in the Bay Area is crucial to reorienting our perspectives about the infrastructure and visibility that artistic communities need. It is also already an integral part of artistic production here. This year we inaugurated the Visiting Artist Profile column, which draws from the many academic and museum lecture series in the Bay Area to highlight individual artists, curators, performers, or theoreticians. Our profiles have covered a broad range, from Mariam Ghani and Allan Ruppersberg to Walid Raad and Tania Bruguera. The column’s goal is to record a seemingly ephemeral but profoundly influential aspect of developing an artistic practice in the Bay Area: firsthand access to the ideas of significant cultural producers and the opportunities to find parallels in one’s practice. The Kadist Art Foundation has funded the column in recognition of its complementary objectives with the Foundation’s Wednesday-night conversations and Saturday events.5 Their events promote a collegial, communal sensibility not only by hosting a cocktail hour before each Wednesday-night event but also by collaborating with other institutions to host exhibiting artists as residents and to produce programming.
Similarly, the Asian Contemporary Arts Consortium (ACAC-SF) incorporates cross-institutional collaboration into its mission. The Consortium’s goal is to share resources to generate awareness and sustain interest in Asian contemporary art and design in the Bay Area. Perceiving critical dialogue to be a crucial component toward meeting their mission, the organization funded the ACAC Writing Fellowship for Art Practical, which creates a platform for emerging writers and aims to encourage critical thinking and writing on Asian contemporary art practices in the Bay Area.6 The inaugural fellow is Ellen Yoshi Tani, a graduate student at Stanford University, whose research centers on “work of transnational artists, attending to how they activate sites of difference or sameness, using race and/or identity as medium rather than positioning it as subject.”7
It was with ACAC-SF that Art Practical hosted “An Evening with Holland Cotter” at the Asian Art Museum on May 15, 2012. Through a conversation with Jay Xu, the Asian Art Museum’s director, and Vishakha Desai, the president and CEO of the Asia Society, Cotter laid out the challenges for Western audiences in reading and understanding Asian contemporary art and the opportunities to “figure out [one’s] own prejudices and preconceptions of what art should be like.” This conversation, and the subsequent profile and podcast interview, encapsulated the core of Art Practical’s mission and so much of how we try to exercise it: the event reflects our collaborations with Bay Area organizations, our public programming, our partnership with Bad at Sports, our commitment to generating dialogue, and our interest in bringing insight into arts criticism through the practices of established writers. Cotter reminded us of the passion, generosity, and love for language we could aspire to bring to our writing, that criticism is not judgment but a gift of close attention.
In speaking both publicly and informally with Bad at Sports, Cotter delved into his personal history of looking at art, describing the long afternoons spent as a child with Japanese Buddhist sculptures in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, feeling “protected, included, and at home.” A group of Art Practical editors and writers witnessed the wonder of looking and absorbing art at a young age when we collaborated with 826 Valencia to produce “Art Smarts,” a three-part workshop on art writing for middle school students. Catharine Clark Gallery graciously hosted us for two Saturday mornings in March to take the exhibition Portraiture Post Facebook as our subject. The students—Aaron, Bella, Britta, Irene, Jade, Kyra, Laura, and Lilah—spent the mornings either intensely looking at the exhibition or sprawled on the floor of the gallery, recording their assessments of the works of art. In conversations, they were ebullient, opinionated, or reticent but always keenly observant in their comments about the work, and their shotgun reviews for Issue 3.12/We Are, I Am, You Are reflect their intelligence and curiosity. I will not easily forget Irene’s concentrated scowl as she studied Al Farrow’s 2011 sculpture, Skull of San Guerro (III), or her words: “He makes sculptures into tales of darkness by using material like an author uses words.”
That simile succinctly intimates the critic’s aspiration to conjure experience from words and the challenge in online publishing to build an archive of experiences without the presence of printed forms or material objects. January marked the publication of our fiftieth issue, a feat for the magazine, which had at that point been in existence for two-and-a-half years. We marked the occasion with the thematic issue “Printed Matter,” which operates as “a self-reflexive pause within the space” between an ephemeral present moment and an archive’s constancy, as guest editor Catherine McChrystal notes in her introduction. To engage directly with the issue’s material-culture subject matter, we invited our readers to subscribe to our Mail Art series, in which six artists—Anthony Discenza, Alicia Escott, Anthony Marcellini, Colter Jacobsen, Martha Rosler, and Allison Smith—would create a piece of correspondence as art in response to something they found in our archives. For the second and third editions, Escott and Marcellini each produced letters that evoked the search for something irretrievably lost and an archive’s tenuous capacity to conjure its semblance. Escott concludes her work by writing, “These links on websites…take you to the strangest places. I reach out to them. In a way, if I follow them far enough, they lead me always back to you…”
In a different moment, the effort to grasp and retain something tangible, to seek how the archive might stem the loss inflicted by time and distance from an event, might not resonate so strongly as it has this year, when the Bay Area art community lost two of its most widely admired and generous participants: Steven Leiber in January and Bruno Mauro in May. Their deaths have hit particularly hard and close for several Art Practical contributors, including myself. So many efforts since their passings seem to be a tallying of some karmic balance sheet that reconciles presence against absence, loss against gain. Grief reverberates in both directions, backward and forward; it has a tendency to co-opt other emotions and memories and create a void. Absence cannot cast a shadow. To halt its entropic progression requires a concerted effort—a conscious act—that counters the absence with form or gesture. And so in these issues, we share our belief that art has the power to make things visible and real and unrepentant in their existence.8
This is what Herb Vogel seemed to understand so clearly: art’s stubborn refusal to yield to grief—or love or happiness or rage—to anything that would project itself onto art and alter it in the process. A work of art may invite us to make such projections, but no matter how that encounter is rendered in our minds, the object remains unaltered and available for the next encounter. Vogel readily relinquished his encounters to us. And even as we record our encounters in each issue of Art Practical, what will be most notable about them in retrospect is not what they were but the extent to which we aspired to share them.