On Thursday, October 23rd I went to a talk at the Jewish Museum titled “What’s at Stake for Abstract Painting Today – and Where Do We Go From Here?” The panel piqued my interest because of the lineup of artists whom I respect and admire from near and far: Joanne Greenbaum, Philip Taaffe, and Stanley Whitney. This panel was rounded out by moderator Bob Nickas, a curator that I was not privy to prior to the event, (although through my post-panel research have come to realize that I know, respect, and love some of his curatorial work and the artists that he has advocated throughout his career).
(Above photo courtesy of Roger Kamholz, The Jewish Museum)
I was entering the room with relatively high expectations, only because a few months ago I went to a similar artist panel at the Jewish Museum on painting that was thought provoking and exhilarating, (it’s the little things). I learn primarily from other artists, and I attend panels and talks to get outside of myself and think about ideas beyond my own practice. I expected that this panel would be nothing short of thought provoking, as I had a deep investment in nearly every component making up the framework for this discussion. However, by the end, I left feeling unsure if I was angry, offended, or simply disheartened – so I knew I needed to sleep on it and write it out.
Perhaps I was being completely unrealistic by assuming that this panel of painters would be talking about abstraction – perhaps referencing at length their own paintings, their history with abstraction as it is rooted in art history, and their opinions, (good and bad), of what is happening in painting today. While these topics were touched upon sporadically, they were often cut short by Nickas, who prompted the pendulum of questioning to swing further and further away from my painterly preoccupations, toward sore topics that, on this evening, rubbed me the wrong way. The topics that would soon drown out any compelling conversation, in this painter’s humble opinion, were the age old conversation about the over-inflated and exclusive art market, the abundance of conservative institutions and curators, and the overwhelming amount of entitled young artists that inhabit these worlds despite their lack of credibility or validity by the standards of this panel.
To be completely honest, this was a difficult conversation for me to listen to. It is possible that I take it too personally when people are speaking about young artists as a whole, but I am a strong believer that generalizations are never a wise idea. Age is also not the most accurate measure of value, intelligence, or heart. Perhaps what really turned me off of this conversation was the disclosure that Nickas considered having a “young artist” on the panel, but didn’t want them to be “eaten alive.” I found this to be a distasteful comment. Why not just have a candid discussion featuring amazing painters in conversation about painting? This seems like the most likely formula for success, rather than pushing artists to speak about art as commerce and restrictive institutions for the millionth time. Furthermore, it was a bit surreal to hear a curator on stage at a major institution speak about the faults of curators and institutions, as if there was nothing he could do about it. As an audience member, imagine how powerless that made me feel!
Listening to Nickas continuously insult and undermine the validity of “young artists” and laugh with a pleased tone left me appalled. His broad strokes across a generation were genuinely shameful– and the laughter from many in the audience around me was equally disturbing. It reminded me of that omnipresent moment while in a movie theater, watching a horror movie, you see someone’s neck sliced open. And then people cheer. And then you wonder if you are the only person that is still human in the room.
Not every young artist is positioned in this idyllic gallery land of milk and honey – and most understand this. I would rather go to a panel where, instead of complaining about the hot shots, (let’s call them the 1%), the issues facing every other young artist hustling in New York City, (the 99%), would be discussed. Why not be proactive, have a panel with artists speaking of how they made it where they are today, what they had to sacrifice, or perhaps they didn’t have to sacrifice at all? There is no clear manual for being an artist – it would be wonderful to not always have to learn via trial by fire. Everyone has a different story, and that is where I believe these generalities about youth truly mucked up this panel – a panel that could have gone in a completely different, (and far more productive), direction.
There are always going to be “young artists” who don’t work “hard” but get all of the glory – I’m sure this has been going on since the world was round. However, I’d like to keep the faith that those of us genuinely invested in the love of painting/making are always here, no matter what generation, or what amount of “success,” if that is some sort of quantifiable measure. And hopefully we all want to learn from each other – no matter what age gap may or may not stand between us.