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You Paid 200,000 Francs For This Shit?

by Hannah Kushnick

The fictional painting in Art was inspired by the 20th century’s parade of scandal-provoking real-life artworks. Modern art generally eschews artistic tradition in favor of innovation and novelty with an inclination toward abstraction. Its history is rife with controversial “masterpieces,” discarded works of genius, sensational incidents of artistic vandalism, and (of course) troublesome all-white pieces. This history tells us a lot about the way modern culture tries to determine the value of a piece of art. All of the following stories, like Art, share the themes of wildly fluctuating standards of judgment: a work will be in the trash one day and in the Guggenheim the next. THE WHITE STUFF The fictional painting by Antrios at the heart of Art is modeled on actual (and highly controversial) pieces of modern art. Early in the century, Ukrainian painter Kasimir Malevich began experimenting with black and white paint in abstractions such as White on White (1917), an off-white square on a white background, intended to express distilled feelings so intense that pictorial painting could not achieve them. A few years later, his fellow countryman, Alexsandr Rodchenko, exhibited a series of three monochromatic (though not white) paintings, Red Yellow Blue (1921) as representative of the “death of painting.” In the 50s and 60s, two American painters continued Malevich’s experiments with white. Robert Ryman, often considered to be the inspiration for Art’s Antrios, painted white/offwhite expressionistically brushed surfaces for his entire career. The ever-irreverent Robert Rauschenberg created a series, White Paintings with housepaint and rollers—they had completely flat surfaces devoid of any human touch—as a joke about the artistic merits of Ryman and his ilk. Rauschenberg also attracted a flurry of attention with another off-white response to an older artist with his Erased De Kooning Drawing (1953). He spent a month erasing an ink-and-crayon drawing by Willem de Kooning, a much-revered artist of the day, and displayed the empty sheet as a work of his own. Interestingly, controversy arose not from this act of “vandalism” to de Kooning’s work, but from a surprised de Kooning’s hurt feelings that the final piece was publicly exhibited rather than kept as a personal keepsake. ART, OR WHAT? As controversial in the art world as Art’s painting is within the play, Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain was not only minimalistic, confrontational and white, but during the 20th century found itself variously vandalized, insulted, ignored, revered, trashed, recreated and much discussed. The piece consists of a mass-produced urinal laid on its back and signed “R. Mutt” (a play on Mott Works, a sanitary fixtures manufacturer of the day, and the comic strip Mutt and Jeff, among other things). This urinal was submitted anonymously to an open exhibition, whose organizers (Duchamp was among them) had promised to display every piece submitted, as an experiment. After deliberation the organizers ultimately couldn’t bring themselves to display the piece because they weren’t sure it was art, as the artist hadn’t fashioned it himself. To add insult to injury, the gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, a close friend of Duchamp’s, seems to have thrown Fountain out with the garbage from his gallery shortly after its making. In Duchamp’s magazine The Blind Man, this retort to the exhibitors was given: “Whether Mr. Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object.” The piece proved so influential and important to later artists that Duchamp authorized a reproduction, and now eight Fountains reside in museums around the world, nearly all of which have been urinated in—in public, without permission—by cheeky performance artists claiming they are merely completing the work as Duchamp intended it. DID HE?, OR DIDN’T HE? A controversial piece from Art’s own era is Tom Friedman’s 1,000 Hours of Staring (1992-1997). Friedman was known for his obsessive transformations of mundane materials. (This is a man who once perfectly re-rolled a roll of toilet paper without its cardboard center, and recreated every pill in the Physicians’ Desk Reference out of Play-Doh). He claims to have stared at a mass-produced, regular piece of 8.5”x11” white paper for one thousand hours over a five-year period, investing it—without even touching it, let alone handcrafting anything— with what he terms a “stare on paper.” Art reviewers were initially convinced the piece was a lie, since Friedman provided no proof that he had actually done what he said. In 2008, it was acquired by the drawings department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. HE DID, OR…WHO DID? The skillfully executed paintings of a master forger were considered valuable only as long as they were believed to be made by 17th century painter Johannes Vermeer. Han Van Meegeren, a dashing, clever forger of Vermeer paintings, pulled off a sensational hoax on the European art world during World War II. Even the highest-ranking Nazi officers were taken in by his deception; he was basically celebrated as a folk hero after Hermann Göring traded over one hundred paintings from his collection in exchange for Van Meegeren’s “Vermeer” The Supper at Emmaus. On trial after the war, Van Meegeren rakishly claimed he had forged the Dutch masters to prove himself as an artist, not to swindle collectors, and that the high prices he charged were merely needed to convince the art world of their value: “Had I sold them for low prices, it would have been obvious they were fake.” OH, NO HE DIDN’T! Even more infamous was the series of knife attacks on Barnett Newman’s canvases in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. First, in 1986, the attacker made five cuts in Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III (1967), and then, years later, when the painting had been very expensively restored, returned to slash it again…and couldn’t find it! Controversy over the quality of the restoration—some accused the restorers of using acrylic paint and a roller to repair the brush-painted oil original—had caused the museum to take it off public display. Not deterred by this change of circumstances, the attacker slashed Newman’s Cathedra (1951) instead. He was convinced that he and Newman were linked by destiny, and that his knife cuts would complete the pieces. TRASHING ART LEFT AND RIGHT A couple of other famous pieces have endured the trashy treatment: French painter Henri Rousseau’s Portrait of a Woman, now in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, was held in such low regard that it was languishing in a junk shop that sold canvases to be painted over, with a five-franc price tag on it—and it was lucky enough to be rescued by a young Pablo Picasso, who promptly brought Rousseau back into the circle of the avant-garde art world with a riotous party. Much later in the century, British sculptor Damien Hirst’s piece Untitled (2001), an installation recreating a stereotypical artist’s studio, complete with trash from the previous night’s gallery opening, was mistakenly tidied up and thrown away by a gallery janitor. While the janitor was quoted in The New York Times as saying “It didn’t look like art to me,” the components were retrieved by a team of dumpster-diving curators, who meticulously recreated the piece. Hirst was reported to have been tickled by the mishap, as his work strives to inhabit a sort of grey area between art and the everyday. He felt that the work had been improved and made richer by this additional chapter in its history. It went to become the first runner-up for Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize later that year, losing narrowly to Martin Creed’s piece “The Lights Going On and Off.” Throughout the 20th century, the abstract nature of modern art has created many controversies. Just as in Art, one man’s trash is truly another man’s treasure.