Back to School

Simon felt like he was coming back from summer vacation for the filming of Season 2.

It was a wonderful and at the same time also slightly odd feeling to get back to filming for Season 2 of Work of Art. I was very happy to see my colleagues again from Season 1. China Chow was as radiant as ever and is an outstanding host. She oozes charm and is an artist magnet in real life. She is totally implicated in the show and takes the elimination of every artist very much to heart. Jerry Saltz is at the top of his form for this new season. His sharp judgment is both feared and respected by the contestants. Bill Powers conveys his passion for contemporary art and has a killer sound bite for every situation. I do very much miss Jeanne Greenberg this season, but I do look forward seeing her as a guest judge in future episodes. It also is a pleasure to work again with the highly professional teams of Magical Elves and Pretty Matches. As I do have a fairly busy life in between, I feel it is like centuries ago that we were filming Season 1. So I felt a little bit like coming back to school after a very long summer break.

Most of all I was very curious to meet the fourteen contestants. A little while had passed since I had seen them amongst nearly 1,200 artists for a very brief moment at the time of the initial castings in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. First I saw the self-portraits they had prepared for the occasion, and then I saw them appear all at once while I was waiting to welcome them with China at the "world famous" Brooklyn Museum of Art. A good overall energy was instantly palpable.

I was happy to see that the Sucklord had made it into the final fourteen. I suffer acutely from the collecting disease, and one of the many areas I am interested in is toy art. I had come across his work some time back and had acquired some of his pieces. I also have had some of his pieces under my gavel. I am particularly fond of his Darth Vader acting as a DJ at the turntables with a pile of miniature vinyls at his feet. I admire him for getting out of his comfort zone and participating in this competition where he clearly will have to demonstrate some versatility if he wants to succeed. He was in the bottom three of this first challenge, but I actually do like the work he had done for it, even though it is a fairly literal transformation of a very "schlocky" two dimensional work to an equally "schlocky" three dimensional work.

Already at the casting stage I asked Ugo if his work was not too close in style to Keith Haring. With his immense charm and a healthy dose of self-confidence, he brushed aside that concern. When he produced for the challenge a work, admittedly well executed, which looked like a pastiche of Keith Haring, I had to ask him that same question again. I was not surprised to see that it was a concern for the judges as well. Ugo has a great way about him, and I am certain his charm will serve him well in whatever he will do going forward.

I loved the video that Bayete had done for the casting of the two Bayetes debating with each other whether they should participate in the competition. He picked possibly the "schlockiest'" object amongst all the "schlock" the contestants had to choose from. When I visited him during my first studio visit, I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the additional head while also worried he might just add too much and make it too busy. That worry sadly came true when I saw his final work in the exhibition. It demonstrates every artist's dilemma , whether fine or merely mediocre, to know when to stop a work.

Kymia took a very anodyne looking object and transformed it into a fairly spooky but most intriguing looking object. With each challenge I try to ask myself which of all the works I would possibly wish to own if I was offered the chance. I did this little game when my children were small and I was taking them to museums. Having to pick one work really forced them to think which was their favorite and taught them how to look. With this challenge Kymia's "reworked" sculpture would be the one I would choose. It is a little bit like a bad song that was remixed and or reinterpreted into a much better one.

Sarah's watercolor was very consistent with the type of work she had shown during the initial casting. She used the sculpture that she picked as inspiration for a good work in her own very personal signature style. The combination between the gruesome subject matter and the somewhat naïve and child like drawing and coloring makes it quite powerful.

Lola is a fascinating character. While all thirteen candidates nearly fell over each other to grab the work they had chosen, Lola seemed totally lost and unable to choose between two equally poor pieces of bad art. When I visited her during my studio visit I was even more worried for her. Her desk was surrounded by a number of attempts that looked weak at best. When I went to see the exhibition I was very pleasantly surprised how she transformed a pretty awful object into something very poetic, mysterious, and appealing. Her making it into the top three of this challenge demonstrates that in this competition it is the finishing line that counts. You maybe way back in the field early on and still make it to the top if you get your act together in time for the exhibition.

While watching this episode I learned of Michelle's horrendous accident and her brush with death. It makes her work for this challenge all the more meaningful and powerful. She managed to imbue the fairly ordinary looking totem with some beauty and very ably combine it with rest of her work that she did in her impressive signature style paper sculpture technique. She clearly deserved to win this first challenge.

The nine other artists who were not singled out in this episode all produced interesting work, so it is extremely difficult at this stage to say who the front runners are going to be in this exciting and wide open competition.

Very best,


The Drama's Done

Jerry gives his thoughts on the final three exhibits.

“Then all collapsed,” goes the last passage of Moby-Dick, “and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Work of Art ended last night, although without sublime terror. Its end brought three good shows by three good artists, any one of whom could have won, all three of whom could have real careers (ditto the recent losers Lola and Michelle; Sucklord, get thee to Mordor). The three finalists, plus with my overall feelings about the program this season, tell me that a sea change took place on our show this season, in public and private. Last year, waves of hatred predicted the collapse of the art world and the destruction of art by television; this year unfurled in its own spreading shroud. A bit like art itself: sometimes capturing attention, mostly gliding slowly by.

This year’s Work of Art was less sideshow, more grad school. I suspect that it made for less entertaining TV, though the artists were better and, unlike last year’s, had a sense of how it would go. Each found ways of making personal work in the midst of one of the most impersonal situations any will ever face. As for me: I tried to be clearer in my criticism, weighed fifteen pounds more than last season, marveled as Bill Powers blossomed into an excellent judge, crushed on China Chow, gasped at Simon de Pury’s charisma. I stood in front of a dozen cute stylists. I saw my bald head powdered with makeup. I wore white Spanx that broke my dark heart. It’s a hard … it’s a hard … Wait. Sorry.

About the finalists: Just as last year’s winner, Abdi, should have been given a grant to a good grad school (with the win going instead to the true artist, Peregrine Honig), the excellent artists Lola and Michelle didn’t make it. Sara, who did make the final three, surprised me. After starting off making nice watercolors, she lapsed into cliché and confusion. Although her personality feels oddly absent (both in the flesh and in her work), she got in touch with her inner performance artist, the sculptor within, and excelled with materials. I’m told that Sara is in grad school now, and it should give her a chance to develop her talents. She didn’t win on this night, when much of her show dealt with secret lives and mutant creatures. Once she escapes generic symbolism (like the hypodermic needles she stuck in an old mattress) and ersatz surrealism (origami birds flying from a cage), her work, I imagine, will stand up in the real art world. Congratulations, Sara.

Young’s work rattles with repressed emotion and cerebral acuity. Sharp as a tack about art, the most articulate contestant ever on this show, he became adept at merging the social, the personal, and the material. His show dealt with life, loss, longing, the death of his father, and the cancer of his mother — a lot to take on at once. Thus, it lost emotional momentum. I fancy that Young’s losing a TV game show about art might make his eventual art career easier (though the $100,000 might’ve helped, too). He should move to New York, find a dive in Bushwick, have his New York nervous breakdown, and join a promising next wave of talented people.

Kymia took the prize based on her drawing skills. The surfaces of her drawings didn’t come across on TV, but they were covered in pebble-like flecks, pooled paint, sedimentary minerals, and other original marking techniques. Replete with circumspect touch and fine line and nicely scaled, they had physical presence and psychic gravitas. I was most taken with her rendition of a ship, a sort of psychic raft from the underworld drifting on Melville’s rolling ocean. The shadow of two legs on the sails was hokey, but I wasn’t bothered by this lapse into bathos. Her outing showed an artist following her vision to wherever it led her.

Which is what this show was for me. It already feels far away. My wife has still never watched a minute of Work of Art, though she loves that I did it. So do I. I’m not sure why this is, and would love artists to tell me if there’s an equivalent in their process, but for me Work of Art was all about the before and the after. The show itself was never the thing. It was about getting out of my office; learning how TV is made; being around artists trying as hard as they could; being a part of a mass of people, cameras, lights, and sound equipment functioning as an organism; confronting my fear of celebrities when the show’s executive producer, Sarah Jessica Parker, was a guest judge; being ogled by stylist girls while standing in my underpants. I loved making the show, trying to bring art to a wide audience, writing about it, and the tens of thousands of conversations it generated via my recaps, Facebook posts, tweets, and random street-corner conversations. I dug the shock of someone saying to me in my building’s elevator, “Hey! You’re that mean art-critic judge on TV.” All this experience enriched me, my life, my work, and my stomach.

But the televised show itself? I missed watching four episodes this year — twice I forgot it was on, and twice I had the wrong time. That’s how curious all this has been for me. Right now I feel at peace with my TV god; I’ve gotten everything I wanted. Now it is done. As I am a confessed inner hysteric, allow me a final act of exaggeration, as I end this strange, strange voyage into art criticism on television with the epilogue of Moby-Dick: “The drama's done ... one did survive the wreck ... I was he whom the Fates ordained ... I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks ... glided by ... I was picked up at last ... another orphan ... I alone am escaped to tell thee.”