Posted on 02 January 2013.
The art market has yet to discourage Nate Lowman; he’s a pet with collectors, but critics not so much. While Lowman’s market appeal appears unflappable, critics have been chipping away at his ironic, celebrity-driven art for years. The most recent instance of this comes from Andrew Russeth over at GalleristNY, who goes so far as to recommend Lowman straight up “quit.”
Russeth attributes Lowman’s success to the market’s embrace of “bland, derivative art.” But also the fact that his work looks familiar, “fixated on America’s trash culture, pop tropes and historical trauma, following a path already well traveled by appropriation artists of the 1980s and ’90s like Cady Noland, Richard Prince and Michael St. John.” Collectors, dealers, and the like, Russeth argues, go with what they know, what already works.
But unlike these artists, Lowman suffers from a particularly bland case of nihilism. “[T]here’s nothing behind it,” Russeth writes, and from his descriptions of Lowman’s current work, the artist’s output falls into one of two categories: they’re prey to either a “mind-numbing obviousness” or an unawareness of art history.
By now, everyone’s probably heard about how, for this exhibition, Lowman rented O.J. Simpson’s infamous white Ford Bronco; it’s parked on the front lawn of the Brant Foundation. It’s just one particularly blatant example of how Americans are “obsessed with sex, death and violence.”
From what I can tell, nobody seems to like Lowman’s current show at the Brant Foundation; the vast majority of pieces written about the show tend to be style pieces, not reviews. Still, I’m pretty sure Lowman hasn’t always been terrible. There was a moment, in the mid-2000s, when Lowman, and those in his New York cohort like Dan Colen and Dash Snow, seemed au courant. Even if you didn’t like the work, it at least had an aura of nowness. That’s probably one reason why Lowman was one of the more popular art idols when I was in art school. By the end of the decade, his work began to appear dated, and even worse, pointless.
Now, for all this show’s faults, we don’t think Lowman should quit. Telling an artist to quit isn’t constructive, and it doesn’t quite get at what Lowman is trying (and perhaps failing) to achieve.
Back in 2011, Brian Boucher reviewed Lowman at Maccarone and Gavin Brown’s, and he gave what’s probably the best, most nuanced takedown of this work. There’s no real zingers here, but Boucher does get down to some truly insidious problems with Lowman’s practice. Namely, for Lowman, “art is a game,” but beyond being able to come up with dumb jokes, he’s not very good at that game. Boucher writes:
If you truly think art is a joke and images have no meaning, fine. But for anyone who believes that extremely poor taste is a valid concept, a combination like this exemplifies it perfectly.
That’s better than telling someone to quit.
In the long run, what good is it for a critic to tell an artist to quit? Lindsay Pollock might have dug up an answer. In “Mama MoMA”, Pollock’s in-depth article on the life of indefatigable MoMA curator Dorothy Miller, she opens up with an anecdote about The New York Times art critic John Canaday. He hated MoMA’s 1959 exhibition Sixteen Americans so much he wrote the museum a letter about it.
“For my money,” Canaday wrote, “these are the sixteen artists most slated for oblivion” referring to a slate of the 20th century’s most well-known artists, like Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ellsworth Kelly.
Well, Miller continued to show those artists, and they certainly never quit. Canaday, too, continued on his same path, assaulting nearly every one of MoMA’s Modernists. The critic’s resentment remained on Miller’s mind for years:
One of the things about Canaday and his bitterness is that he’s a destructive man and he really wants to destroy an artist that he doesn’t like…But he found that he couldn’t do this. He found that no matter what he said, no matter how devastating, that artist was going to go right on working.
In this case, it appears to be the critic who was doomed to oblivion.
Karen Rosenberg knows how to subtly dismiss a show. For Ed Ruscha’s current showing at Gagosian, she complains that “he is still treating the book as a kind of empty Pop container or Conceptual signboard.” More than just grumbling that Ruscha’s doing the same thing over and over again, Rosenberg then adds, “And often he is doing it in the medium of painting, collapsing trash onto treasure.”
That trash consists of decomposed books and the like, but here Rosenberg reveals her biases toward the preciousness of painting—her “treasure.” It’s kind of a weird statement, but it’s the type of subjectivity that gives reason for conceptual artists, or artists of any ilk, to turn to working on canvas.
Overall, it appears that Rosenberg likes the show, and how Ruscha views the death of print without an iota of nostalgia. But if Ruscha hadn’t made these works on canvas, perhaps she wouldn’t have liked the show as much. Especially so since the piece ends with Ruscha’s drive toward the worthlessness of printed matter:
And yet the unsentimental rendering of worm-eaten pages, and the absence of text on them, reminds us that books are just paper; or as Mr. Ruscha might say, it all ends up in the trash.
That emptiness? It sounds a bit like Nate Lowman.