ArtForum Top Ten List
published in ArtForum
1. NICOLE EISENMAN, SELECTED WORKS 1994-2004 (Leo Koenig, Inc.)
With this career-spanning tome, out this month, our Daumier gets her due. Henry James told us that caricature is "journalism made doubly vivid." Ezra Pound added, "Literature is news that stays news." Back to James on Daumier's contemporary, Gavarni: "the wittiest, the most literary and most acutely profane of all mockers with the pencil." And Vincent to Theo van Gogh: "Daumier's drawings are so true they almost make me forget my toothache." One Eisenman every eight hours keeps three dentists away.
Nicole Eisenman, Commerce Feeds Creativity, 2004, oil on canvas, 51 x 39 1/2".
2. AGNÉS VARDA'S CINÉVARDAPHOTO (2004)
Having already made the greatest New Wave film (1961's Cléo from 5 to 7), and the most potent social documentary of the millennium (The Gleaners and I ), Varda culls her archives to make three short films about photography. Watching them makes one marvel at how rare and accomplished her cine-essay form is. At cocktail parties in New York everyone used to talk about real estate and movies. Now it's real estate and documentaries. Varda's essays are more personal, more self-effacing, more fictional, more gleeful, and giddier than today's standard Sundance fodder.
3. PHILIP ROTH
Every time a new Roth novel is set to come out, I feel like an Athenian days before the Dionysia, lining up for tickets to the latest Aeschylus. I can't think of another writer whose late novels get so exponentially better (not Faulkner, not Nabokov, not Dickens) or another so savvy I'd gladly keep prostrating myself before, begging to get kicked in the gut over and over for four hundred pages. His American Trilogy and now The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) are so necessarily painful, he sometimes seems the only American awake.
4. WILLEM DE KOONING
When I moved to New York, in 1992, if you'd asked me which mid-century artist's spirit would come to dominate gallery walls in '05, I'd have guessed fifty others before de Kooning. Back then no one I met would admit to being a painter, even when their studios were filled with canvases, albeit shoved behind the single video or installation or text piece. Ten years later I would still have balked, as the typical painting was taped off and passionately calculated. Suddenly, the man who had it all has it all again. Gestural, figurative, psychological, instinctual, naive, virtuosic, he was impurity personified. Today, each block in Chelsea is a safari of painting that's a little gestural, a little figurative, a little decorative, a lot tsetumult, if you ask my grandfather. One beefy library biography and a scrum of handy followers makes de Kooning very much the man.
5. VIC CHESNUTT
My favorite artist in any medium. Vic's new album, Ghetto Bells (2005), features guitar-Dante Bill Frisell and Beach Boyenabler Van Dyke Parks. Of course it doesn't matter who plays with a guy who can write a line like "Christian charity is a doily over my death boner." Self-laceration and specieswide disgust from a pen so joyous and specific with language, we share the rousing exaltation of his most uplifting song, "Look at Me," from Left to His Own Devices (2001): "Something bold and beautiful occurred: I'm not interred!"
Vic Chesnutt, Athens, GA, 2005. Photo: Ben McCormick.
6. ELLEN GALLAGHER/LOUISE BOURGEOIS
These two shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami opened simultaneously to the sound of an enormous baton being passed. On the walls and vitrines of both LB's "Stitches in Time" and EG's "Murmur and DeLuxe" is the image of a woman refusing to conform to familiar cultural, aesthetic, or sexual models. At the shows' edges are two artists too practical and elusive, too certain with materials, and too balletic with conceptual constraints to allow any easy readings to hem them in.
7. RACHEL MASON'S MODEL ANTHEM, 2004
In the tradition of Komar & Melamid's most and least wanted songs (and the Marx Brothers' "Hail, Hail, Fredonia"), cagey Cagean Mason used probabilistic language models to refine the mean phraseology and musical structure of 193 national anthems. She then videotaped a hired orchestra performing this stumbling, blunt, militaristic march, which is without question the music playing inside George W. Bush's head.
Rachel Mason, Model Anthem, 2004, still from a color digital video, 12 minutes.
8. GOD AND GRAPHIC DESIGN
My neighborhood mosque, Madina Masjid at Eleventh and First, recently solved one of the great graphic designbased theology problems since the Jews figured out how to spell YHWH. "THERE IS NO GOD" their sign used to read, in foot-high green sans serif type. The second line, much smaller, magenta, and punctuationless, went on, "but allah mohammed is the messenger of allah." The sign's been changed now, but if only more houses of worship would advertise that there is no God, perhaps the world would emerge from its latest dark age.
Darsie Alexander's show at the Baltimore Museum reminds us that not all photography has metastasized into painting-size furniture, pointing instead to a longer-standing engagement with the reproducible and fleeting. Kodak has stopped making slide projectors, further damning us to clean, well-lit digital purgatory and limning this show with the urgency of a Lomax-like field recording.
Helen Levitt, Projects: Helen Levitt in Color, 1971-74, 1 of 40 color slides shown in continuous projection. From "Slideshow"
10. HEYDAY, MY, MY
A well-known art critic recently told me, "You know, photography is over." To which I responded, "Actually it's art criticism that's over." He humbly offered that it had never been here, but I'd intended genuine condolence. It must be hard to be a critic at a time when the only thing notably absent from the art world is fierce dialogue. Not only is there no Salon to be refused from, there are no camps, no ideologies, no methods, no movements. Anything is possible, and that is the definition of a heyday. Isn't it?