Artistic License at the Guggenheim Part: 1

Curated by Cai Guo-Quiang, Paul Chan, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince and Carrie Mae Weems, May 24, 2019–January 12, 2020


“Non-Brand” (detail) Cai Guo-Quiang

A tip: Don’t elevator up and walk down.
By walking up the ramp you start with each artist/curator’s stated modus operandi. Thinking about curating in this show and beyond it is the way to get deeply into the exhibition. Explicit in some of these statements and implicit in all of them is a criticism of the collection for excluding women and racial diversity. That the Guggenheim allowed this criticism comes as a surprise and a relief from the usual cultural institutional hype.


Piet Mondrian, “Summer Dune in Zeeland” (1910)

In some cases I disliked the statement and liked the works chosen and in others, vice versa, but in every group there are some wonderful paintings.
For example, Paul Chan, Sex, Water, Salvation or What is a Bather? promises summer, pleasure, water, a revolution with dancing:
“Progress without pleasure at heart is not progress at all.” I heartily agree, but some of his selections are dry and remote from sensual enjoyment. Among others, Laurie Simmons’ bathrooms don’t do that for me. But a de Kooning is a trip to the beach and there’s a Mondrian that doesn’t remind me of bathing at all but is entrancing in a different way—I drank it in.

And Cai Guo-Quiang (installation shot of Non-Brand above), who has made a wonderful selection of what he calls early works, describes his choices in a very confusing way:

“The common starting points are realism and figuration, the result is a world seemingly captured through the eyes of a newborn child. In artist’s childlike innocence, one can perceive an unyielding love of painting and a shared “primordial complex,” or fixation on unprocessed, unedited fundamentals that manifest as an art that transcends both artistic movements and the pursuit of a trademark style.”

“On the difficult path to procuring their place in art history, artists make rational decisions to create methodologies. Delving into their sensibilities to unearth new potentials, they eventually arrive at a mature style characterized by an established, trademark style.”

Pablo Picasso, “Vase of Flowers” (1905-6)



Maybe we agree that the specific pursuit of a trademark style is boring—I can’t tell. But we do disagree on this point: there is a major difference between trademarks and a mature artist’s work. The trademark—that’s the recent language of consumerism and a weird, sad part of contemporary visual art—and blockbuster movies, top 40 radio, etc.

A great visual artist strives to find their own true voice just as a great singer does—it’s not a trademark just because we recognize it. And if they are so great that they show us the world anew, it most certainly is not because they have a childlike innocence.

Giacomo Manzu, “The Long Night” (1977), Joseph Beuys, “Untitled” (1952)





Nonetheless his selection of seventy-five mostly small pieces, hung salon style, is a beautiful thing. There are a range of emotions: sex, love, tenderness, angst, spirituality—and a range of ways to go about expressing them—a whole world that could be inspiring to those artists, curators and collectors who do want to rethink what painting can be when they are not searching for a signature style but have something more important in mind…






Piet Mondrian, “Blue Chrysanthemum” (ca. early 1920’s), Cai Guo-Quiang, “White Camelia” (1982)

When I saw this Mondrian chrysanthemum next to Cai Guo-Quiang’s own early painting of camelias, stupidly, a tear sprang to my eye. Across years and continents, two artists speak to each other.
By the way though, this is not an early work of Mondrian’s. In the early 1920’s, Mondrian was almost fifty; it is concurrent with his abstract work. He was never looking for a trademark; I think he would be quite horrified by that idea. Mondrian sought a transcendent spiritual unity and harmony. I see the trees and flowers and his geometric works as part of an indissoluble whole. The Beuys (above) is also a mature work: he was thirty-three, everything is there, the beautiful touch and the hare—a recurring metaphor.
I could go on about Non-Brand, but there is simply too much here to describe it all—it is a must-see.

Jenny Holzer, Good Artists, took on the self-assigned, sad task of showing women artists of the collection. I would have enjoyed it more if Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Bontecou and Louise Bourgeois were among my favorite artists—but they aren’t. I know, I know—I have my limitations as a viewer. Or perhaps I would have liked it more if these women had more of a dialog with each other.

The Joan Mitchell however blew me away. I don’t think I’ve seen it before or at least I’ve never seen it before. My photograph does not do it justice.

Joan Mitchell, “Canada 1” (1975)

Have I mentioned I have a diploma in sexual harassment? I was a bartender in 1980 for the US Army in Berlin (long story) when the army did a study showing how much money and expertise they were losing—women were being driven out of the army because they were treated so badly. They decided to make all soldiers and civilian personnel take a class in sexual harassment.
I aced it.

Do you see what I’m saying? The United States Army realized how much they needed women in the ranks before the Guggenheim did.

I tend to get sad, I always think I don’t want to live mad, but really, which is worse?