BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 02 SEP 06
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Issue 101

Haste Makes Waste

Who is really served by the mad rush of dealers to show work by recent graduates?

BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 02 SEP 06

I once lectured at the University of California, Davis – a sprawling campus in the state’s central valley. The university’s primary function is as an agricultural college, but it also boasts a lively art department and a small but active museum that has a collection that includes works by people who have taught at or attended Davis. Among the luminaries represented are painter Wayne Thiebaud – in his 80s but still giving courses for the pleasure of contact with the young – and Robert Arneson – late Funk master of Davis’ ceramics programme.

During a tour of the museum storage I came upon a glass case with samples by Arneson and other clay comics. However, the weirdest were two unfired objects titled Cup and Saucer Falling Over and Cup Merging with its Saucer (both 1965) – the handiwork of the young Bruce Nauman, who was a teaching assistant in Thiebaud’s drawing classes. As unprepossessing as they may seem, Nauman’s cups are remarkable not just for what they refer back to – most obviously Umberto Boccioni’s Bottle in Space (1912) – but also for what they presage in his own work, from the photos and films of spilt coffee cups to his large-format plaster and fibreglass rings and tunnels of the 1980s onward.

But all that came after Nauman had left Davis and removed himself to a small, barren studio where for the first years of his post-graduate school life he sat alone and tried to figure out what it meant to be an artist. This self-interrogation in relative isolation produced his first abstract but manifestly corporeal sculptures, his first performance videos and his first neons, the most important of them perhaps being the 1967 question-as-declaration that reads, ‘The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths’.

It’s a pity that there are so few collections of this kind around. At Yale, where I will soon start as Dean of the School of Art, none seems to exist. Yet generations of artists have been turned out there, and over the years several shows of signature work by alumni have been mounted to celebrate them. A show of student work would in most cases provide a sharply contrasting perspective. How do I know? Only from faint memories of things seen plus my own recollections of art school and after. Among the glimpses are a Braque-like painting by the polymath Nancy Graves, Al Held-influenced canvases by landscapist Rackstraw Downes and abstractionist Robert Mangold, and Chuck Close’s gestural Pop phase.

All of this makes me wonder what would have happened if a dealer had shown up at Nauman’s senior show and offered him an exhibition of work based on the two cups. The question both is and is not academic, since this is exactly what is happening in art schools everywhere. Students anxious about breaking into the market and dealers scouting for new talent are now finding each other at what amounts to ‘mixers’. The dealers’ motives are perfectly straightforward, and one cannot blame them for trawling. The artists are driven by many factors besides dreams of fame and fortune, not the least being the fear that in a generation-oriented culture you will miss your moment if you don’t stand out quickly. And then there is the debt artists currently rack up, for which they increasingly seek relief, like other expensively educated professionals, by joining ‘the firm’ (read ‘gallery’).

Ironically, the careers of currently popular role models tell a very different story. John Baldessari, now 75 and one of the artists and teachers most admired by the young, started out by ritually destroying all his early paintings in order to clear the deck for his transformation into a Conceptualist, and then made things that were until recently only marginally saleable. Consummate shit-stirrers as young men, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy were likewise late bloomers in the art world’s clover fields. And then there is Nauman. Although he had comparatively prompt attention from critics and curators after his initial withdrawal, he was lucky to have the abiding support of Leo Castelli and Konrad Fischer precisely because his disparate and demanding creations found so few buyers even in those dealers’ able hands.

So who is really served by the mad rush to market – and what may be lost in the stampede? After all, art schools are not like those in other disciplines, where one acquires a set of skills during a three- to seven-year training period and then proceeds directly to apply them to practical or agreed-upon ends. Most graduate programmes in the visual arts last two years. Most of the acquisition of skills takes place at an accelerated pace simultaneously with the invention of a project. That, of course, entails numerous false starts, intense challenge by teachers and the exchange of ideas among students. Those exchanges and the competitive environment form the anvil on which true ambition is forged. The process is skewed if an outside arbiter steps in, trailing long odds on stardom. Far too many of those who accept those odds will realize too late that not only have they been betting against the house; they have been betting against their long-term future as well.

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.