October 16, 2013 · Print This Article
The Art Market is inflating out of control, making all but the wealthiest few cry foul. Like it or not, this is affecting the way contemporary art is viewed and thought about. Meanwhile, Jeff Koons continues to be the perfect Poster Boy for the inflation, and it just so happens he has work depicting the nothingness inside the bubble. Simultaneously, Banksy goes for a stroll in New York’s neighborhoods proposing a different model. Is this the beginning of the end of the glutonous market? Or is this merely a long beginning?
Don’t make the mistake of trying to analyze the Jeff Koons album cover work for Lady Gaga as if it were art. Think of it instead as a publicity stunt to drum up hype for his upcoming retrospective at the Whitney this summer. On the day the album cover was released, mtv.com ran a story with the headline: “Lady Gaga is Jeff Koons’ Biggest Fan…But Who is He?” This collage of leftover studio remnants and a Botticelli print gets him access to a generation of people who are not likely looking at a lot of contemporary art, beefing up his celebrity status which he craves, at the same time adding to ticket sales. This, and the animosity from art enthusiasts will help make his retrospective THE BEST EVER!! Just a couple weeks before the Lady Garbage cover, T magazine – the glossy pulp supplement in the NY Times – had a stereotypically vapid conversation with the artist about his recent commission from Dom Perignon to made a limited edition DNA – shaped champagne bottle. Low end and high end commodity containers from ol’ Koonie Balloonie. Not too different from anything he has done in the past, but the labeling becomes ever more irksome. Consider his output for the last decade, where most of his work is sold before its finished, and may only show at auction instead of a gallery or museum. Not that this is such a terrible thing. What has basically become a high end boutique practice is frustrating mostly because it is helping fuel the glut of the art market, and then regurgitated into the art world as important to the production and dissemination of art, to negative affect. As long as we wallow in the crystal palaces of Koons, Hirst and Murakami, we’ll think that art is as uninspired as Gormley, Marden and Whiteread.
Koons is in this rare position of being accessible to everyone but only collectable to a small handful of the richest in the world. As Carl Swanson recently stated in Vulture: “Koons can be the art world’s great populist artisan, even as he operates as its most exclusive salesman.” Everything about the work is right there, so there’s nothing to get. It is perfection and simplicity, the kind of thing that mocks you for looking too hard at it. Since critics are trained to look hard at things, they tend to hate Koons. And its boring to write about art just by describing what it looks like, so people tend to write about his career, his collectors, his record breaking prices at the market, his studio and the process of making his work. This only helps to build a persona around the artist, giving him the superstar flair that these major collectors are after. (And with this week’s art fair, London’s Frieze officially bigger and more bloated than ever, superstars have never been more in vogue.)
Both interesting and frustrating is how Jeff Koons’ rise to the art commodity machine that he is may have helped shape the way the art market is an increasingly insiders game of fewer and fewer players more knowledgable about trading commodities than how to tell good work from bad. And with the auction prices soaring, the big named galleries just keep getting bigger in a kind of go-for-broke mentality* (not breaking them, just the artists they rep, in less of a financial type of broke and more of an artistic quality and integrity type.)
[*for a throughly depressing take on this, see Jerry Saltz’s article on Vulture this week.]
At the same time all the grumbling about Koons’ latest fart hit the web, Banksy has been doing a residency in NYC, creating work in the city in his typical fashion – covert and unannounced – the opposite of how you’re supposed to make art. While seemingly on the other side of the art world, there are a lot of similarities between the two artists. Maybe Banksy isn’t able to sell his graffiti work for 33 mil, but he is still operating inside the art market, selling regularly and at high prices. Lately, his work is often either garishly covered by a piece of plexiglass bolted to the wall he painted it on or is removed and sold, either way being seen by an enterprising public as separate from graffiti art and reborn as high art/commodity. His work is no stranger to auctions, museum and gallery shows, while being loved by mainstream society. His imagery is understood at first look, you don’t need to read into it, and if you are, then you probably don’t get it. Also like Koons, art critics hate writing about Banksy, saying there isn’t enough to write about, because it is too surface and he isn’t playing the game. But this game is being co opted by the wealthiest of collectors who have realized there is a market that won’t burst and can’t crash, so they’ve taken advantage of it. Buying a Koons gets you a ticket into a very exclusive club. Buying the Banksy at auction though, means that you probably don’t get it, because his work is to be freely viewed and is mocking the very lopsided system of capitalism that allowed you to buy it at auction in the first place. Getting it, though, is no longer important. Its having it.
As his position in the art world becomes more clear, Banksy’s art frequently criticizes the market, and the latest example of this was a street sale of many of his iconic works on white canvases for $60 on the sidewalks of NYC. The work and the sale later appeared on his website, which is his way of providing provenance. These single color spray painted politically charged images lost all meaning shoved within the borders of these small store bought canvases, sold on the street among vendors hocking watercolors and prints of impressionist styled paintings. Subverted now to talk about the politics of class, taste and accessibility in a market that is more often hurting artists and keeping way too many people out of collecting art. It stifles artistic creativity to the point where every idea is either a recombination of greatest hits by the artist or an experiment to see how much money can prop up a bad idea. Artists start to flounder when they should be thriving. Shows are created for the specific tastes of the market and of a few clientele. Everything becomes dross and it feels like you are wading through a lake of effervescent puke whenever you go to a big exhibition, and anymore, they’re all big. ‘Cause if not, they may as well not happen at all. More and more, it sucks harder and harder to be a practicing artist in this climate. Unless, of course, you’re Jeff Koons.
Two weeks ago, I wrote here about one relationship between art and album jackets, specifically The Beatles’ White Album and Paul McCartney’s Thrillington, released under a pseudonym. That same week, I was asked to give a talk on the broadly interpreted theme of “jackets” and so I followed the album jacket vein. Along the way I rediscovered Barney Bubbles, the long forgotten graphic artist who designed incredible jackets for many of the quirkier members of Britain’s punk scene in the late 70s and early 80s. Most of his work was deliberately uncredited. Some examples of his work and my experience rediscovering Bubbles for myself follows.
Who among us hasn’t burned off a drizzling afternoon in Wikipedia limbo racking with tab after tab of hyperlinked articles? Often enough its done out of boredom, you could be stuck behind a desk at work and have nothing else to do, but that doesn’t exactly mean that you read these articles without interest. You could start an afternoon on the entry for Operation Barbarossa and easily end up reading about the Latvian hockey team. With your interest and your time, you create the proper conditions for an accident to happen. In my experience, research is not a method with clear steps to follow. It’s closer to a test of interest and patience as well as the faith it takes to believe those two qualities combined will bear fruit.
Before the turn of this century, when computers lurched and gurgled as they connected to the Internet, I regularly spent hours in front of a grey Compaq desktop in my family’s living room browsing disc after disc of the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. I would do this after a full day at Central Junior High, where rudderless classes like Mrs. Crutcher’s Honors Biology would routinely devolve into unsupervised poker games. My brain was not fed at school and so I filled it at home, aided by the interactive gizmos of Grolier’s
CD-ROMS. I watched animated maps of the Marshall Plan and learned about the founders of Adelaide. I discovered the Celtic words for the Irish potato famine and found out that the county I grew up in was originally called Mosquito.
Nothing much seemed to happen in Mosquito County. Sitting as it does on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Salty air and tropical weeds wipe out signs of the past that tourism and the aerospace industry haven’t already eclipsed. With Grolier, all the history hidden from
me in person was suddenly laid out at home on a computer, made all the more attractive by its digital glitz. In my wanderings through the encyclopedia, I came upon an entry titled “History of Rock and Roll.” It was in this article that I was first exposed to
Elvis Costello, the musician who would become the musical touchstone for the remainder of my teenage years. A thirty second audio clip of Costello’s 1978 song “Pump It Up,” his sixth single for the iconoclastic British punk label Stiff Records, played through the puny computer speakers in my family’s living room.
After hearing “Pump It Up,” I got a ride to Barnes and Noble and bought a best of CD. In its liner notes, I scrutinized the one square inch images of albums I had never known existed. By the time I finished High School, I had heard them all. Through Internet
browsing, I learned of and heard the music of Costello’s early label mates at Stiff: Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe. Barnes and Noble didn’t sell these musicians’ albums. They wouldn’t even order them for me.
This was all, of course, before iTunes displayed a handy thumbnail image of the album you’re listening to in the bottom corner of your screen. If I had downloaded an album, probably from Napster, my knowledge of its cover was cursory at best. CDs weren’t much better. As I wouldn’t appreciate until I began collecting records AFTER I’d already amassed piles of compact discs, much is lost in the journey from twelve inch LP to five inch jewel case. What a terrible name, jewel case. Now that most of us save things to our hard drives and beam music to our cars’ stereos through iPods, it’s absurd to glorify those obsolete plastic discs by comparing them to jewels. The things that vinyl LPs come in have a much better name. They’re called album jackets.
Because I wasn’t experiencing albums by Costello and his label mates on vinyl LPs, I didn’t understand that there was one designer behind what seemed like wildly different jacket designs. That designer was Colin Fulcher, known better for most of his career as Barney Bubbles. His designs did not stop at compelling imagery, they creatively engaged with the form of records themselves—from packaging conventions through to mass manufacturing techniques. Without handling the jackets yourself, pulling out the disc, and rifling through the liners, the core qualities of Bubbles designs are lost. Here are a few examples.
Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Do It Yourself, 1979.
For this album, Bubbles suggested that Stiff buy up reams of actual Crown wallpaper and print the title information over it. Dave Robinson, Stiff’s owner, actually negotiated a deal with the wallpaper company to get the product for free. Crown agreed to the deal as long as Stiff left the catalog numbers of specific designs on the paper. The cover features a character called Tommy the Talking Toolbox and a Stiff Records logo redesigned to look like a hammer from a home toolkit.
Nick Lowe, I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass, 1978.
For this design, Bubbles simultaneously quotes a dadaist motif from the portfolio of artist Theo van Doesburg and, applying a classic Bauhaus photogram technique, quotes the tools of his own trade. Laid out on the jacket are some of the tools Bubbles would use to assemble his designs: a magnifying glass, a pair of tweezers, an x-acto blade, and a paperclip. One of the more raucous elements of the studio’s atmosphere makes in into the image in the form of a pull-tab from a beer can.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, This Year’s Model, 1978.
The instantly recognizable cover of Costello’s second album shows him behind a medium format camera, peeping out at the viewer and directing you to shift just a little bit to his right. Where Costello was the subject of the photo on the cover of his debut album My Aim Is True, here he IS the photographer. Jake Riviera, the owner of Stiff spin-off Radar Records, wanted to make a bold gesture to Radar’s distributor—Warner Music—that Riviera was serious about making album jackets his own way with no interference. He made this clear to Bubbles, who ran with the idea. Working from the image of Elvis as a photographer, Bubbles continued the photography theme. He designed the cover as a misprinted proof, with the normally present color test bars running down the right hand side. The bars take up enough space to push the first letters of both Elvis and the album’s name off the cover completely. It’s a tiny tweak, but completely in line with the album’s sneering impertinence.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Accidents Will Happen, 1979.
Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton—pioneers of early computer graphics—generated the imagery for this single. But as with This Year’s Model and Do It Yourself, Bubbles intervened in the printing process. He had the factory print the seven inch sleeve inside out. It looks blank until you take the disc out and peep inside. Then you get the joke: seemingly, during manufacture, an accident has happened. It’s a strange moment in anti-marketing. As with Dury’s Do It Yourself, the managers were not only prepared to indulge Bubbles’ designs, but were enthusiastic about doing so. It served the manager’s purposes by giving Stiff and Radar recording artists an edge of “cool.” But the design choices Bubbles made on these jackets were hardly market-researched or audience-tested. They were made in the midst of a chaotic office environment, where Bubbles, the quiet, tidy craftsman, would listen to the songs on the record he was designing for and, drawing upon his own knowledge of art history and personal reserve of eclectic interests, respond directly to the music he outfitted.
Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, 1978.
Barney Bubbles’ jackets effortlessly complement the aesthetic impulses of the artists whose music they contain. For Costello, he responded to the joy Elvis takes in playing with words, even snide and cynical ones. For Ian Dury, who was a college art professor before his music career took off, Bubbles designed jackets that played to the singer’s taste for Bauhaus and evoked the solid core of principles often disguised by a man and music frayed around the edges. And nowhere is Nick Lowe’s sensibility summarized so effectively as the jacket for Jesus of Cool, below, where Lowe dressed up as a number of rock archetypes: lounge act, new waver, pub rocker.
Nick Lowe, Jesus of Cool, 1978
What’s even more remarkable is that even on labels as central obsessed with personality driven music as Stiff and Radar, Bubbles humbly toiled behind the curtain. By the mid 70s, Bubbles had stopped crediting himself on jackets, leaving the work of attribution up to die-hard fans. It’s part of the reason that people are only now beginning to take notice of his designs’ wit. They stand on their own without the aid of a personality cult.
Bubbles’ jackets are seeds that have lain fallow for years only to bloom now. His work is a repository of modest charm and small moves with delightful delayed payoffs. At least for me, that describes the process of research pretty well too. It’s less the result of one person’s skill and more a collusion between the right atmospheric conditions. Of course, it takes putting oneself out there in those conditions again and again over long periods of time before the flower blooms, the fruit ripens, and you get what you didn’t even know you were looking for and hadn’t even realized you needed. The generous attention you give to something when you’re in the research mode is a frame of mind applicable to the world at-large, not just the world in books, or the world on the Internet. That doesn’t mean putting everything under the microscope, but allowing that the people, places, and things that populate our everyday lives don’t necessarily reveal their gold on first, second, or fifth glance. Often enough, they’re time-release capsules that only burst open to reveal themselves in the presence of those two essential components of research: time and attention. And with patient, smoldering curiosity, accidents will happen.
Thanks to Anthony Stepter, Amber Yared, and Nate Dorotiak.
As Paul McCartney played “Paperback Writer” during his concerts at Wrigley Field this past July, details from Richard Prince’s nurse paintings flashed behind him on stage four stories high. I was confused.
For a concert with tens of thousands in attendance, the connection is subtle. The images in Prince’s nurse paintings come from pulpy dime-store paperback novels and the song is, of course, about a writer of paperbacks. If—after years studying contemporary art and much longer as a Beatles fan—the connection was lost on me, I’d guess it was lost on much of the audience as well. If it was lost, it didn’t seem to matter much. The Baby Boomers around me still bopped along. We can only assume that Paul, or maybe the tour’s art director, got a little kick out of the embellishment.
Either way, juxtapositions like this are nothing new in McCartney’s career. He’s been nuzzling up to contemporary art since at least the mid sixties. He has both collaborated with visual artists and produced artwork himself. Many of these associations are chronicled in Ian Peel’s 2002 book The Unknown Paul McCartney: McCartney and the Avant-Garde. He’s made albums of concrete music and masqueraded under pseudonyms. In 1977, a conductor named Percy “Thrills” Thrillington released the album Thrillington, an orchestral version of McCartney’s 1971 solo album Ram.
Prior to its release, Thrillington took out announcements in the society pages of English newspapers that seem as much like Fluxus provocations as buzz marketing. These snippets mention the album, but also describe Thrillington’s whimsical adventures in high society, including highlights from a ski trip in Switzerland. The album’s provenance remained mysterious even though the back cover shows McCartney reflected in the studio glass. No one could say for sure that Paul was behind it. It wasn’t until 1989 that McCartney revealed it had been him all along. He’d produced the album a month after Ram’s release. With wife Linda McCartney, he wrote the ads for the society pages as a lark. Old copies of Thrillington immediately tripled in value.
McCartney’s art gestures will attract attention from people whether the work merits it or not. He is, after all, a millionaire, one of the most recongnizable human beings alive, and a knight of the British Empire. But there are also instances where McCartney has collaborated with artists directly, and the interest the work generates does not derive primarily from his celebrity. For example, he enlisted his friend, the artist Richard Hamilton, to design the sleeve for The Beatles’ 1968 self-titled album, better known today as The White Album.
Think about that for a moment—because of an artist’s design, we refer to an album by the biggest band in the history of the world by the way it looks rather than what the band named it. What’s more, the design itself apes the aesthetics of conceptual and minimalist art emerging at the time. “The Beatles,” the only words on the album’s front, are not printed but are simply embossed into the object itself. Sleeves were manufactured with seemingly unique serial numbers. By some estimates, there are over three million copies. Especially now that seriality has been recognized by art historians as a primary concern of late sixties artworks, Hamilton’s serial edition of three million spread in homes, record stores, and radio stations across the world comes off as a prescient joke on a massive scale.
As an artist, Hamilton brought more than simple imagery to the album jacket. Visual artists’ work had appeared on album jackets before The White Album and continues to do so today. Hamilton’s design focuses attention on both the album’s construction process and the circulation of the album itself. It makes us acknowledge the album’s birthplace in a factory, printed plainly and efficiently and stamped finished with a serial number. The serial number also makes tacit the existence of all the other Beatlemaniacs out there. We’re both the owner of a unique artifact (“No. 0382937 is all mine!”) and an object that’s come off the assembly line. What you make of this contradiction built into the album’s design depends on your point-of-view. It could just as easily be a perverse illustration of commodity fetishism as a light-hearted prank meant to give fans a laugh. It’s easy to think of the legions of Beatles fans as simpletons who could swallow the inscrutability of The White Album because their devotion to the group was forged during the mop-top years. But to know the real truth of that assumption, you’d have to interview a lot of Beatles fans. Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that the group never let any presumptions about their fanbase’s intelligence or sophistication get in the way of unconventional aesthetic maneuvers. The cover is a white canvas to project on anyway, the possible interpretations as numerous as the copies in circulation: it’s an aesthetic retreat from the Pop art cover of Sgt. Pepper’s released the previous year, an absurdist quantitative measurement of the world’s Beatles fans, and a comic skewering of the concept of originality in art.
I am a fan of the austere gestures of conceptual art as well as the sophisticated humor of popular music. Historically both sides, although not without exceptions, have tended to avoid the contamination of the other. Side A thinks Side B is poisoned by the market. Side B thinks Side A is willfully pretentious. With this stand-off the status-quo, the occasions of overlap are jarring. When Richard Prince’s paintings appeared fifty feet high on screen at Wrigley Field, I was jolted. I thought I’d come to the concert as a McCartney fan, not as someone trained to recognize an artist’s work from memory. But my knowledge of Prince’s work and my reserve of Beatles trivia reside in the same brain, maybe they even share neurons. The same goes for my understanding of early conceptual art and the story behind The White Album. Both emerged at the same time in like places involving similar people. It would be silly to pretend that they didn’t share some common stock. At least in this case, the less boundaries I have between professional interest and private enthusiasm, the more I might see where the two fields overlap and, consequently, enrich my understanding of the instances where open-minded cross-pollinatation has produced curious hybrids that exist in the world without much concern for what club they belong to.
Right now your doing one of two things probably
- 1. Shoping for beverages for a party
- 2. Looking for music for a party playlist
Well BaS is here to help and even though our tastes run a bit indie-rock and instrumental we can promote the biggest hits of 2009. Luckily someone has done the work for me and remixed the top 25 songs of this year in one song. Yes one song and one music video. Hopefully this will help in your search, if not you can always go with “Blitzkreig Bop” but that’s like black it goes with anything.
I still think “Take Your Shirt Off” by T-Pain is a underrated masterpiece that will be remembered years from now