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Saturday, November 15th, 2014

Ken Johnson and Mindless Young Zombies


“Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art: A Documentary History,” edited by Jack Flam, copyright 2003.

Disputes and dialogues in the arts can last for a very long time. A friend and I, discussing the concept of primitivism recently, turned our attention to Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art: A Documentary History. This compendium looks back to MoMA’s contentious 1984 blockbuster of similar title, which had led to a conflagration among critics, artists, and scholars about the power of representation and cultural privilege. The book was careful also to gather up materials dating right back to the turn of that century, showing how the terms and conflicts of the debate had developed over decades, if not centuries.

In a similar spirit, this month saw the re-emergence into topicality of artcritical’s December 2012 debate among contributors and guests, the Ken Johnson Affair. The New York Times critic (and, incidentally, veteran member of The Review Panel) Ken Johnson finds himself in hot water again with a review, this time, of an exhibition of new work by Michelle Grabner at James Cohan Gallery. (Grabner curated a floor of this year’s Whitney Biennial, the sole topic of The Review Panel this past April.) Johnson responded on Facebook to a letter to the editor by painter Amy Sillman, which had in the meantime circulated on Facebook. We have added their exchange as a document to our Ken Johnson Affair series.

Debate, however, is of the essence at artcritical. I reported two weeks ago on the recent conversation at the Jewish Museum, moderated by Bob Nickas with guests Joanne Greenbaum, Philip Taaffe, and Stanley Whitney, about the mindless young zombies supposedly taking over contemporary abstraction — a chic topic among many critics now, if not indeed since the middle of the last century! And this week saw the publication at artcritical of three contrasting but equally in-depth responses to Robert Gober‘s MoMA retrospective from Lee Ann Norman, Steve Locke, and Dennis Kardon, which is bound to stir up further argument.

Amelia Rina tackles the discourse around Christopher Williams in her review of his retrospective at the same institution. Stephen Maine and Peter Malone both address the way art is displayed in their recent reviews — Maine with a write up of simultaneous solo shows by Judy Pfaff at Pavel Zoubok and Loretta Howard galleries, Malone with an essay on cluster exhibitions featuring several concurrent solo shows packed into single spaces.

These are brief snippets of larger and longer discussions within the world of art, but each one contributes something important to the dialogue with which it engages. As always, we encourage readers to reach out to us in the comments sections of all our posts, and to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We love talking with you and value what you tell us: your voice is part of these ongoing debates, discussions, and dialogues.


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