The soaring prices for paintings in the “post-war/contemporary” category– that is to say, 20th century modernism through the most recent art– makes headlines with every auction. This month’s walk wasn’t just about the market value of paintings, but the way that paintings comment on, critique or make fodder out of these ever-weirder questions of value.
We started with German artist Isa Genzken’s Geldbilden (Money Picutres), on display at Hauser & Wirth through May 26. In this series of works, produced in 2014-15, Genzken jams coins and bills into the surface of her canvases, often using paint to glue them in place. Sometimes the coins looked like coins, scattered alongside other paper ephemera of Genzken’s life like receipts and photos, as if tossed on a dresser. Sometimes they were placed to mark the contour of an image (a graffiti-style floating dick, a starry sky.) Money seemed both dirty and petty, but also alchemical, changeable. Most of our art walkers started out somewhat hostile to these paintings– “gimmicky,” “ugly”– but after spending some time with them, the humor of the images softened our responses. We noticed visual puns and hidden references (Genzken is awakening your memories of Cubist and Dada collage ). We admitted that there’s something compelling about money–especially paper money, with its intricate webbed engraving and its dense symbology– that comes to life when it’s taken out of circulation and pegged to the canvas.
At Sadie Coles gallery, we saw new paintings by the American artist Jonothan Horowitz. The show was entitled 304.8 cm paintings, a conversion to cm of the ten-foot-square format of most of these works, and a hint at both the influence of conceptual art on Horowitz’ love of rules, and the centrality to these works of conversion or translation. In 100 dots, Horowitz had 100 different people follow the simple instruction to paint a perfect 8-inch circle: the results were wildly different, but assembled into a 10 by 10 matrix, the ensemble looks like some undulating, calculated 1960s op-art. If anything, Horowitz is doing everything he can to deny all the ways that paintings have value: He uses assistants (his hand, to our art-walkers’ astonishment, is nowhere to be seen in these canvases), he uses cheap and crappy source material (internet images of Beyonce), and sometimes his paintings even look like fakes or knock-offs (as in his series of paintings after Roy Lichtenstein.) Ultimately our art walkers found Horowitz’ games of authorship and reference pretty entertaining but felt they were thin on the visual level: “Who wants to look at a painting of Beyonce their whole life?” asked one person. Er, maybe Beyonce?
We ended at the tour at Marian Goodman Gallery for the last day of a really great show, Pictures & Scripts, recent paintings by John Baldessari– Goodman Paris concurrently exhibited a retrospective of this elder statesman of conceptual art (Baldessari is now 83.) Pictures & Scripts is a series of paintings displaying just that– one side a film still, the other side a typewriter-font dialogue. The short dialogues are familiar Hollywood argot– “I can’t, kid” seems like it must have been said by Bogart at some point. But curiously, art-world language pervades them– “critical gamesmanship” and “the discursive,” art dealers and sales figures seem to have replaced the usual heists and dames. “Are these real movie scripts?” someone asked, before shaking her head: “I guess that’s impossible,” pointing to a dialogue that referenced Courbet, the 19th-century painter– not a name that popped up a lot in Hollywood noir. Baldessari’s “paintings” are mostly inkjet prints, with very small passages of overpainting by hand. But the odd poetry of the dialogues, their oblique relation to the accompanying stills, and the visual discipline of black-and-white gave these works real heft in our eyes. Our group could be heard occasionally giggling through Goodman’s enormous, pristine gallery space, responding to the visual analogy of art dealers and collectors to cinematic criminals and fall guys.