New York BRITISH AUTHOR WILL SELF’S 2010 satirical short story, “Very Little,” describes “the inexorable rise of Sherman Oaks, the artist,” who sculpts giant versions of his own body in iron, bronze, steel, stone, wood or clay and gives them such names as Behemoth.1 The artist sites these effigies in increasingly outrageous locations—atop Machu Picchu, in the River Seine or straddling the Athabasca Tar Sands. “That Sherman was also a person of restricted height lent a greater poignancy to his monumental works, which, twice and three times life size from the outset, grew still larger as soon as he got the funding.”2 This fictional characterization of a sculptor (whose dwarfism is an ironic inversion of his inflated ego) is a sharp swipe at 21st-century art, in which the entwined expansions of artistic production and exhibition venue are elevating the status of the individual artist ever higher. As the art world narrows around a pantheon of big names, the presentations of the select few are supersizing and becoming massive events of crowd-pulling spectacle.
For example, unless you have been on the moon or had your head in the sand for the past six months, you will no doubt be aware that Damien Hirst recently colonized all 11 branches of the Gagosian empire for one multipartite, tentacular exhibition: “The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011” (which took place this winter in New York, Beverly Hills, Paris, London, Rome, Geneva, Athens and Hong Kong). Of course, no one is quite sure how many of Hirst’s serial dot pictures are in circulation, although there are certainly many more than the 300 it’s possible to fit into nearly a dozen decently proportioned galleries. Even the 1,000-page catalogue raisonné, which will be published in June, may not be big enough to assemble every work in this indeterminate, ongoing series. While Hirst’s global gathering could be seen as a megalomaniacal move or
the sine qua non of a never-ending succession of paintings, this inclination for artists to install a barrage of works, across numerous sites, all at once, is gaining momentum in the upper echelons of the commercial art world.
Tim Marlow, exhibitions director of White Cube (Hirst’s gallery in the UK), was magnanimous in praise of rival Gagosian’s bravura block-booking of spot paintings: “Damien hasn’t had major museum shows in London. He’d produced substantial bodies of work, so it made sense both culturally and commercially to do it across a number of sites. People would get tired if you took every major artist—Warhol, Koons, Picasso—and did fragmented shows all over the world that no one could ever see, but as a conceptual gesture, I think it worked.”3
Hirst had taken over two White Cube spaces in London for “Beyond Belief” in 2007 and “Nothing Matters” in 2010, and it was initially rumored that his forthcoming Tate Modern retrospective would take over Tate Britain as well, but the phenomenon of concurrent solo displays is not something the greedy Mr. Hirst can copyright. A specialist in art-as-marketing if ever there was one, Barbara Kruger was an early exponent of the double show, unusually occupying the spaces of two different dealers in New York, Mary Boone and Jeffrey Deitch, in 1997. Artists have routinely held commercial exhibitions to coincide with museum surveys, or occasionally, like Hirst, staged near-simultaneous international openings. In 1997, Sebastião Salgado showed his “Terra” body of photographs in 40 countries around the world. More recently, just before Hirst opened his gargantuan “Spot” project, Paul McCarthy had a sweeping presentation, “The King, The Island, The Train, The House, The Ship,” that spanned Hauser & Wirth’s two spaces in London, featured an outdoor installation in the city’s St. James’s Square, and coincided with an exhibition at the gallery’s New York branch.
“We aim to raise the bar with every show we present,” said Hauser & Wirth cofounder Iwan Wirth, “but the works Paul created were so diverse that the only way we could do them justice was to present them across the many different spaces we have.” Both he and Marlow were quick to deny any hint of industry one-upmanship behind these sprawling, transatlantic displays, even though having more than one branch is a key signifier of success and this collective will to expand is clearly set to continue. Hauser & Wirth will open a second major space in New York this year, and White Cube has just added a Hong Kong outlet, after having recently converted a giant warehouse in South London into an art space, which this win- ter hosted an enormous Anselm Kiefer exhibition: “Il Mistero delle Cattedrali.” Of Kiefer, Marlow remarked, “He works on such a vast scale—his studio is 35,000 square meters [approx. 375,000 square feet]—that he could reconstruct the South Galleries at Bermondsey and work out the show he wanted, before then deciding to knock down a wall and include the largest painting [Dat Rosa Miel Apibus, 2010-11, approx. 11 by 56 feet]. I asked Kiefer about scale, and he laughed and said, ‘If my galleries keep making bigger spaces I’ll just fill them.’” [This spring, White Cube presents “Gilbert & George: London Pictures,” which occupies all four of its venues.]
IN 1867 ÉDOUARD MANET remarked that “to exhibit is to find friends and allies for the struggle.”4 Only a few years later, his friend and contemporary Edgar Degas suggested that his fellow Impressionists shouldn’t hang each other’s pictures so close together in “salon” style, but instead in two horizontal rows to avoid overcrowding. This suggests how quickly bonhomie and solidarity can be eclipsed by selfish demands. The very emergence of the mega-monographic exhibition couldn’t have happened without the steady rise in individual artists’ celebrity status (and the concomitant waning of groups, allegiances and movements).
Of course, art stardom was nothing new even in the 19th century, considering the pulling power of such mononymous Renaissance artists as Leonardo, Titian and Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s celestial ceiling for the Sistine Chapel prompted writers from Giorgio Vasari to Goethe to wax lyrical, the former calling it “a beacon of our art,”5 the latter claiming that “without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one cannot form a true picture of what one person is capable of.”6 Today, however, the focus seems to be less on supposed genius than on immediate name-brand recognition and prolific production, with bankable artists deemed “too big to fail”—the Cattelans, Hirsts, Murakamis, Kapoors, Gormleys and Serras—flooding markets with outsize works and solo museum-scale spectaculars.
The artists I spoke to differed wildly in their stances on scale and production. Thomas Schütte believes a reliance on large scale is less hubristic or commercially driven than one might imagine: “It’s fear, not money. I think artist colleagues fear that they will be pushed in the corner and forgotten. It’s competing with Hollywood: Who has got the biggest? Who has the longest? Who is the richest?”
On the other hand, Scandinavian duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset—who created two huge installations for the Danish and Nordic pavilions at the 2009 Venice Biennale—deny that they are under any market- or peer-led pressure to make ever-bigger work. “You always have the option to say no to exhibitions which don’t seem logical in relation to your working method,” they wrote in a joint e-mail, specifying the theme of a show, the physical conditions of a venue and the overall profile of an institution as important factors in deciding whether to participate.
The artists’ recent gargantuan, double-headed project, “Celebrity—The One & The Many” (2010–11), involved their filling first the atrium of the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe and then the atrium of the cavernous Submarine Wharf in Rotterdam (a 50,000-square-foot-plus structure by the city’s docks) with realistically scaled apartment buildings and other structures. Inside the spaces, hired actors played impoverished teen mothers, drug dealers, street hustlers and other roles. “Part of the concept was to populate this artificial ‘bad neighborhood’ that we had created. The scale of a single human being was important in this setting. Large spaces differ in character and while some big-scale venues can trigger great ideas for new projects, others won’t,” the artists said. “You always need to take the spatial features into consideration when preparing for an exhibition, not only in relation to size. If the space gets all the attention there might be something totally wrong with your idea for that space.”