Friday, November 17, 2006

A Conversation with Alice

The following entry, a conversation with Alice Denney, is taken from the first issue of Gestalt, published shortly before the first of November. Copies can be found at the Glenview Mansion Art Gallery and DCCAH.

Discussing ideas on how to bolster the arts scene in Washington, DC through collaboration and the exhibition of multi-media seemed an appropriate subject with Alice Denney. She has seen it all, and her influence would only require a glimpse through her CV. In 1958 she opened The Jefferson Place Gallery. In 1962 she was instrumental with the opening of the Museum of Modern Art in DC. She took a leave of absence from the museum to work as the United States Vice Commissioner for the Venice Biennale under Alan Solomon in 1964. There were the happenings she organized in the mid 1960s with Rauschenberg and Cage and Oldenberg. Finally there was her stint with the WPA between 1975, when she helped found the organization, until her “retirement” in 1980.

The conversation, however, focused less on collaboration and multi-media, and more on the challenges of the greater Washington arts scene as she has experienced and observed. Five recurrent themes were expressed.

1. More venues for experimental arts.
“Galleries are important. But they need to take chances!” Alice Denney understood that from the moment she opened The Jefferson Place Gallery. In 1958 she opened the gallery with the express interest of providing artists in Washington a venue to exhibit the work they wanted to exhibit. She exhibited artists from American University - Ben Summerford and Robert Gates - as well as the DC colorists like Kenneth Noland. The differences in styles were evident as were their differences in where painting should go next. In order to advance the ideas of art and how art functions, a gallery must be willing to take chances for the sake of the artists. Ironically in order for a gallery to stay in business it must sell those chances to a buyer. She observed the many exhibitions of her good friend Annie Gawlik at G-Fine Art and recognized Annie's exhibitions as some of the gutsiest. Alice then pointed across her living room to a Luis Silva toadstool, “that show got no attention. A lot of Annie's shows don't get any attention. Luis's exhibition was genius! It was exactly the sort of thing DC needs more of. But, who wrote about it? Working in galleries is tough business.”

Observing the model of the 14th street, where in a given hour a person can observe the work in Transformer, Irvine, G, Adamson, and Hemphill. “At the very least there needs to be some sort of core for experimental and emerging arts. If The WPA, and Transformer and The Warehouse Gallery and a couple of other galleries were to get together you would have a center. One space. So that you know when you are going there you have something new and exciting (to see). And it can be a learning process, so that when people are curious it doesn't have to take so much time (driving from place to place).”

2. Nurture an audience interested not just in collecting, but also learning about the work.

It was this idea, learning about the art, that Alice continually emphasized about her experiences. “There was an audience who wanted to learn. That was the interesting thing. It wasn't Bohemian. In my day there were crowds of people who went around to the gallery openings. Oldenburg had his group. Andy (Warhol) had his group. And it was the groups that would flow between the scenes. Now it's just a mob,” This kind of mob is sometimes observed at most openings where the audience is mixed between the willing acolytes, the mad collectors, and the people who are simply there to be seen in rhinestone studded designer Yankees t-shirts sipping white wine.

“You have to understand, I've never been a collector.” She said. “I mean, sure, I bought a couple of pieces.” She pointed to her paintings and sculpture. “But I think of this like my scrap board. I mean, I wasn't a saint about it, but it helped those artists out. They were young and no one knew who they were. But, I was also interested in their work!” Collectors she defined as the people who would harass Leo Castelli and insistent that they would do anything to buy the next Jasper Johns, to pay any price above the other collectors situated on the list, also demanding the same attention.

3. Criticism.
“There is nobody who is reviewing the work (in print), just a little bit. Artists need critical feedback to know that, 'well, maybe this isn't working.'” This has been the biggest criticism on the blogosphere, of late, and judging by Alice's comments, perhaps the largest criticism before the internet. DC possesses no constant printed criticism, as was pointed out in a December 20, 2005 posting on Lenny Campello's He pointed out that, in a given month, the Washington Post might have four articles critiquing the art around DC, and that The Arts section of The Post is inappropriately named. For example, sometime after the interview with Alice, pop celebrity Ashton Kutcher's transformation, from little-screen bozo to big-screen action star, recently graced the front of the Arts section. Being neither from Washington, nor an artist, this observation epitomizes the commentaries by Campello and Ms. Denney. “DC has never had an arts writer. Gopnik is trying to report on world-class art in London. Who really cares about art in London? Who here is going to go see it? Richards was pulled from the sports section. Jessica Dawson is taking art classes to learn more about it. So at least she is trying!”

It was that effort she appreciated most. In the hey-day of Alice Denney, when she was bringing experimental theatre to Washington, DC there was one critic who got it. A critic for DC must have the flexibility to understand and critique not only the popular but the experimental theatre, dance, the plastic arts, and multi media as well as the courage to say what is or is not working and why.

4. Politicians need to stay in politics.
When a politician, politician's spouse, or potential judicial nominee to the higher courts gets on the boards of arts organizations, more often will they make decisions that do less damage to their careers. “Politicians aren't real,” she said. “They have to appeal to a constituency back home so they can get re-elected.” Art has taken much the same route. She described an incident from the early days of the Museum of Modern Art in DC, wherein a Tom Wesselman All-American Nude was rejected from an exhibition, at the insistence of a member of the museum board - the wife of a senator from Pennsylvania - because the likeness of Jack Kennedy was also in the painting. “Almost all of the Pop Artists were willing to pull their work out in support of Tom,” she finished.

Alice cited the Mapplethorpe Show as another example. “The Corcoran never would have had a problem with the Mapplethorpe exhibition.” The irony of the Mapplethorpe exhibition is in the many years that have followed, the show has had a near legendary infamy more for the fact that the Corcoran chose not to exhibit the work rather than the content of the work. After the Corcoran dropped the show, the WPA picked it up after Alice prodded the board. “It turned out to be one of the best shows at the WPA! Granted, everyone was nervous with the reputation that was built up over the thing, and they decided to place the most sensitive work in one room. But, that room was packed! That's where everyone wanted to go!”

5. Koons = Bad Porn.
“I hate to sound terrible. I feel like I've seen it all. Even multi-media. That doesn't move me. It seems so mechanical. It seems easy. I watched those artists (in the 1960s) struggle using such rudimentary materials. And the beauty that came out was just spectacular. When we were doing happenings we were doing them on tennis courts and skating rinks. Our equipment was not that sophisticated.” She gestured approximating the volume of a reel-to-reel projector with her hands. “We'd show this (equipment) to the audience and they'd laugh! But then we would show this beautiful performance. When I see some of the video things (today), it just goes back to old Andy Warhol. (It was interesting) then because he was in the groove; it was the first time.”

Amid the rinse and repeat of some forms of art since the beginning of the 1970s, Denney mentioned the work of Hirst and Koons who were polluting the environment. “(Koons) was selling stocks before he got into art. All he did was know how to market and publicize himself. Even his version of pornography was bad porn.”

Sadly, Koons's and Hirst's versions of art are not reflections of art or culture, but of a market that caters to collectors and the idea that art is more about shock and awe and less about an intelligent and sometimes emotional perceptual cognition. But if there is safety in numbers, then it is groups of artists who can collaborate and spearhead these five initiatives.

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