Night Owl

Despite how it may have seemed, Simon is most definitely not a morning person.

This is the second time so far this season that my task as mentor was to wake up the contestants at some unbelievably early hour. You can imagine how early I had to get up that morning to be ready for shooting at 5:30am sharp. When watching the episode, it gave the impression that I was chirpy and full of eagerness and energy to start the new day. I can assure you that it was an optical illusion, since by temperament I am a night bird and I sometimes find it agonizingly hard to get up at the crack of dawn. I always felt people in the auction world were working incredibly hard, but when I see the hours that people in the world of television are clocking my full respect goes out to them. Getting all packed into a small van with the remaining nine contestants and driving out to the impressive plant of the New York Times was actually a most fun experience. It is the longest time I have had the chance to hang around with them, since my contact otherwise is strictly limited to my studio visits and to the gallery openings. Despite the competitive nature of this show, I felt a very positive spirit of camaraderie between the artists and that all of them regarded it as a great opportunity and as a rewarding experience. The printing plant itself was truly impressive, the filmed segments give a sampling of its magnitude. It must be the largest newspaper printing facility of its kind in the world. In the context of the speed of light changes that are due to the advent of the digital world, it also already feels like a symbol of the past. The choice of Adam McEwen as a guest judge for this episode was an inspired one. Some of his earlier work is directly newspaper related. The wind is blowing heavily into his sails these days. An exhibition with his new work is currently being shown at the Marianne Boesky Gallery and two days before the airing of this episode I had the privilege of selling one of his recent works for a new record price of $150,000 at Phillips de Pury. Adam McEwen generously had donated a work for an auction to benefit the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. As someone who is frequently asked to conduct charity auctions, I have huge admiration and respect for successful artists who give something back. It is always the same artists that are solicited over and over again. By far the most generous artists in that respect are Damian Hirst and Chuck Close. Over the years each of them has donated works worth millions of dollars. Besides their artistic merits this is something that needs to be honored.

Now to the works of the contestants: Young's work in support of Ai Weiwei was very simple and its impact was all the stronger as a result of it. Dusty did an equally powerful work. Of all the contestants he has the best feeling for scale and proportions. Walking into the gallery his work's wall power was instantly evident. For once on my studio visits Lola knew already pretty well what she wanted to do and I am happy to see that she made it into the top bunch. Bayete's work looked initially promising with his golden doors and I am sad to see that the final execution and his defense of the piece during the crits did not prevent his elimination. Had I known that the comments I made to the Sucklord would trigger him to do a work that was potentially worse, I might possibly have held back. Every episode reveals different aspects of his personality that are endearing and highly entertaining.

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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.”

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