THE NEW CRITERION
by James Panero
On the VIP Art Fair, the Art Project powered by Google & "Angel Otero: Memento" at Lehmann Maupin, New York.
The “VIP” of the recent VIP Art Fair stood for Viewing in Private. Or maybe it was Viewing in Pajamas. The first international contemporary art fair designed to take place entirely online, VIP promised 138 galleries showing 2,200 artists, all delivered by the miracle of the internet to us in the comfort of home. At its morning launch on Saturday, January 22, I doubt I was the only one throwing slippers at the computer screen. This adventure of art on the World Wide Web somehow went terribly wrong.
VIP had a glitzy, Chelsea feel. The co-founder of the fair was the mega-gallery owner James Cohan. VIP was his transliteration of a blue-chip fair to the web. There were booths to click and browse, galleries paying thousands of dollars to participate, and a business model that was lifted from Art Basel and Armory. Even the name VIP recalled the pecking-order hype that has
fueled fair culture over the past decade. The advanced publicity tried to add to that sense of urgency. In order to build up buyer pressure, VIP limited its run to a week. While browsing the fair was free, a “VIP Pass” was needed to gain “additional privileges, such as access to price ranges, chat, and the VIP Lounge”—“VIP,” here, meant in its original art-world sense. That Very Important ticket, by the way, cost $100 the first two days, and $20 for the stragglers starting on day three.
The problem with VIP was its decision to deliver art fair 2.0 with no worthwhile updates to version 1.0. In the real world, the sales gimmicks might have worked. In the decentralized culture of the internet, the engineered ostentation of VIP felt unwelcome, if not unseemly. Then there were the technical difficulties. Cohan & Co. may know art, but apparently they flunked computer science. As VIP’s servers became overloaded with traffic, the fair began kicking back error messages almost immediately upon launch. Due to repeated malfunctions, VIP had to discontinue its online chat facility for much of the run. On its homepage, the fair tried to spin the shortcomings as a product of its success. Really it was evidence of VIP’s failure to understand the medium.
Privacy proved to be another concern, an issue that quickly had Twitter a-tweeting with criticism. Somewhere buried in VIP’s user agreement was the disclaimer that “we share your name, email address, and your country of residence with the Exhibitors exhibiting artwork that you click on, unless you have opted out of this type of sharing.” In other words, for the privilege of paying up to $100 a ticket, a user’s personal information would be sent to participating galleries with each click-through. “Viewing in Private”? More like a data-mining scam.
Yet it was the experience of seeing art at VIP that proved to be the greatest disappointment. An engagement with art may be personal, but even when viewed in private, the interaction is never airless. VIP somehow managed to deliver an art fair that might as well have been in the vacuum of outer space. The fair failed to mimic, or even recognize, the attractions of its real-life counterparts. Art fairs succeed not by displaying a succession of merchandise. Fairs work because they simulate the landscape of the street, right down to the grid of display booths. Fairs are nomadic, condensed art-world cities where each building houses a gallery. How we experience these fairs depends on the ways we navigate them, the art we get to see, and the society of people we encounter. Watching and talking to people viewing an abundance of art work—the relationship of art and people—makes a fair worthwhile. Cohan and his VIP Art Fair attempted to do away with these interactions in order to deliver his collectors most efficiently to a point of sale. The approach missed the point entirely.
Of course, there was also the inherent limitation of displaying art in electronic reproduction. The problem with VIP was not with the computer images themselves, but with the fact that these pictures had no connections to real things. Considering that this fair was populated by brick-and-mortar galleries, the disconnection was inexplicable. Traditional art fairs concentrate the art represented by far-flung galleries in one place. In doing so they bring disparate people together as well. VIP had its galleries and art work stay put. The art existed somewhere in the real world, yet the fair made no effort, by way of maps or gallery hours, to send viewers out to see it in person.
Fortunately, just two days after VIP closed, art on the internet got an unexpected reprieve. On February 1, with little advanced fanfare—or at least fanfare directed towards me—Google launched its “art project.” First developed by a Google engineer named Amit Sood as his “20% project,” what the company calls its percentage for experimental work, the Art Project brought two Google technologies to bear on the world of art: Street View and gigapixel photography. The company began by partnering with an initial round of seventeen museums in eleven cities and nine countries, including the Metropolitan Museum, MOMA, Tate Britain, the State Hermitage Museum, and the Uffizi. Leaving the curatorial decisions to the institutions, Google wheeled a modified version of its 360-degree Street View camera around whichever rooms the museums opened for imaging. Then at each institution, Google took a digital photograph of one work with a super high-definition camera. This device recorded the art in approximately seven gigapixels of information—that is, with 1,000 times more definition than a standard digital camera.
All of this visual data has now been incorporated into a new user interface. Google’s special website, www.googleartproject.com, is free to use, providing floor plans and visitor information about each museum paired to the newly recorded information. It ties the 360-degree indoor panoramas directly into the existing architecture of Google Maps and Street View—to the point where, if you take one extra step past a back wall at MOMA, you end up on 54th Street. It also tabs the gigapixel scans into the gallery views, along with 1,000 or so other existing images of museum holdings in various lower resolutions (the giga-pictures have a “plus” sign in the frame icons, the others do not). When clicked through, all of these images launch in their own window.
Did Google succeed where VIP failed? The answer is yes, because the Art Project attempts to supplement, rather than substitute, the viewing of art in person. Like Street View and Google Maps, the Art Project offers an invaluable digital record, here of art and museology, to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. I found the specter of Google’s cameras reflected in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles a fitting image for the project’s singular mash-up of the beauty of innovation, old and new.
Like the zoom feature of Maps’s Satellite View, Gigapixel also offers a chance to see and appreciate the landscape of an art work’s surface in ways that were before unavailable outside of the conservation lab. Seen up close, the precision of Holbein can be as astonishing as the virtuoso brush marks of van Gogh. Google even allows users to clip and share zoomed images—potentially leading to new conversations and discoveries about key works. It says something about the genius of Google that everyone, from expert to amateur, can find something new in the Art Project. That’s because the project does not try to be a replacement for art, but instead offers a revolutionary new road map for exploring art in person. The exciting part is what happens as millions of people log in to see what they can discover for themselves.
My next discovery was made not behind a computer screen but through the low-tech conversation of a dinner party. Angel Otero is a young artist whose inaugural New York show opens at Lehmann Maupin gallery a day after this issue goes to press. In January, we met sitting across from each other following the opening of a show of Joe Zucker’s latest work at Mary Boone (beat that, VIP Art Fair). A painter’s painter, Zucker can attract a heady following, so perhaps it was not surprising that I became interested in the artistic practice of one of his guests. The day after the dinner, Otero invited me up to his studio in Ridgewood/Bushwick for a visit and an advance look at his forthcoming show.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1981, at age twenty-four Otero left a job as an insurance agent, along with his studies at the University of Puerto Rico, to earn an mfa at the Art Institute of Chicago. Here, while studying on a scholarship, he became something of a stand-out, attracting the attention of established painters and critics alike, including Zucker—who saw a kinship in the way Otero popped the hood on the process of painting.
Certainly it also helped that Otero has an unusual background. In a recent interview, he recounted how soon after arriving in Chicago, a professor asked the class which contemporary artists they liked to follow. Otero said Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, because those were the painters he knew and liked. The answer drew laughs from his more sophisticated peers. Yet this innocence has now left Otero with his unburdened relationship to paint, a willingness to experiment with his medium—and a healthy dose of wide-eyed charm.
At the Art Institute, and now in his large studio overlooking the skyline of Manhattan, Otero developed a technique that turns oil paint into a “skin,” which he then peels and applies to canvas and other armatures. Otero may not be the first to manipulate paint in this way, but his gift for handling materials turns process into an art form. For his inaugural New York show, he painted images and stenciled words onto large sheets of plexiglass. Once the top layer of oil dried into a gummy mass, he used a large scraper to separate the more liquid paint beneath from the glass. He then attached these large sheets, of what one might call oil on oil, to canvas in reverse, with the wet underside now on top. The results might have been all thumbs, but instead the work became elegiac, with the shadows of painted imagery folding and melting off the picture planes.
With his first show at a top-shelf gallery, Otero now finds himself in the barrel of art’s spring-loaded career cannon. The position may be enviable for the great majority of artists who never experience their day on the launch pad. It also comes with the unenviable pressure of ceding some control over development to the people investing in your future. Otero now faces a burden of where to take his talent and opportunity—especially in his choice of imagery, which moves among literary allusion, personal mythology, and pure abstraction. He may develop into the Puerto Rican Anselm Kiefer, forever confronting island stories. I would prefer he continue his experiments in process to create a body of work that evokes the memory of paint itself. In either case, his feel for paint must remain personal—something we can only sense when viewing his work in person.
 “Angel Otero: Memento” opened at Lehmann Maupin gallery on February 17 and remains on view through April 17, 2011.