The Artist and the Archive: Neil Jenney at Gagosian
Works of the Jenney Archive
March 7 to April 27, 2013
980 Madison Avenue
New York City, 212-744-2313
This exhibition, which occupies three floors of Gagosian’s sprawling Upper East Side gallery, has four parts. On the sixth, top floor are eleven of Neil Jenney’s paintings; and immediately outside, some of his recent Statement Series are displayed. The paintings include American Aquatica (2006–07), which shows a pristine landscape set inside a massive black frame; North America Acidified (1982–13), which adopts a long horizontal format; and The Modern Era (1971–72). Had the Pre-Raphaelities painted close up countryside views, they would have made something like these photorealist scenes, which Jenney calls “good paintings.” By contrast, his banal silkscreened statements, “Idealism is Unavoidable,” “Art is Nature Adjusted” (both 2000), and so on lack the political punch of Jenny Holtzer’s truisms or the bizarreness of Richard Prince’s jokes.
These two parts of the show constitute a straightforward revival exhibition, making the case for Jenney, who some decades ago dropped out of the art world. We see his minor classics, the works that in the 1970s made his reputation, and his recent development. But what makes Works of the Jenney Archive elusive are the two other parts of this exhibition: A two hour video of his 1985 interview of Robert Scull, which presents the collector’s life in exhaustingly close detail; and, on the fourth and fifth floors a selection of works, a few by Jenney himself, but most from his collection. In 1998, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exhibition of the private collection of Edgar Degas which revealed his taste and, also, some of his visual inspirations. Jenney, too, has created an archive. His own sculptures from the 1960s, like his humorous drawings such as Rejected Mets Uniform by Neil Jenney (1984-85) and his early painting-and-sculpture What You Got a Problem With Wood? (1971) show a sly sense of humor. But then as admirable as are the sculptures of John Duff; the abstract paintings of Gary Stephan and Thornton Willis; the caricatures of Peter Bramley, and the painting of Kay Millison, their inclusion alongside Jenney’s work begged the question: Why on earth are they on display here?
The everyday working assumption of an art writer is that everything in a show is somehow related, and so can be interpreted. Accustomed to difficult exhibitions, we believe that we can interpret anything. When recently, for example, with no advance notice I encountered Tilda Swinton sleeping in the glass case at MoMA, it took me only a few seconds to realize that I was seeing a performance. Works of the Jenney Archive is more difficult to interpret. What, exactly, is the relationship of all of this extraneous visual material to Jenney’s own art? Could it be that the artist or his dealer—and perhaps they are in cahoots—are pulling our leg? When I left the gallery, I was amused to realize that two lengthy visits barely left me time to focus on Jenney’s own “good paintings.”