Service of Art as Communication: Wall Street Journal Reporter Ralph Gardner Translates

October 21st, 2013

Categories: Art, Arts & Crafts, Communications, Writing

Installation artist Taezoo Park's "Digital Being"

Installation artist Taezoo Park’s “Digital Being”

It’s hard to write coherently about art if you’re not sure what you’re looking at. I wonder about some well regarded writers in the field with star quality bylines in prestigious venues because I can’t make out what they–or the art they are writing about–are trying to say.

On the other hand Ralph Gardner did a great job describing installation art in “Composed Chaos” in his Wall Street Journal Urban Gardner column. I was particularly interested as this weekend–October 25-27–my clients, Joanna and Richard Rothbard, have invited installation artists to the Contemporary Art Fair NYC they founded and produce along with the concurrent American Fine Craft Show NYC at Javits Center North.

"Purple Lights" by Vito Bonanno

“Purple Lights” by Vito Bonanno

Like Gardner installation art puzzles me but so did the Impressionists’ now well-loved paintings confound and bewilder their contemporaries.Next weekend you can query two installation artists [Ms.] Noa Leshem-Gradus and Taezoo Park whose 2,500 square foot “Plato’s Cave” and “Digital Being” [photo at top] will be there. Other exhibitors at the art fair such as Vito Bonanno [photo above] also love to do such work.

Gardner focused on installation artist Sarah Sze. Here are excerpts of his clear, unpretentious descriptions of the work of the Columbia University professor, this year’s US representative at the Venice Biennale, MacArthur fellowship winner and subject of a new book:

“Her work is challenging to describe. It typically involves large installations of hundreds of objects; part sculpture, part architecture and all about the artist’s often head-scratching selection process. Think of a little kid who took her junk and put it on the sidewalk for passersby to buy. Now imagine if the junk somehow started to cohere, that you detected relationships among the objects, touches of beauty, even a philosophical framework.

“Nonetheless, chaos—or at least the tension between order and chaos, with chaos gaining the upper hand—seems to be at her art’s center. In other words, if Ms. Sze’s parents got home and found her latest installation all over the sidewalk, or the kitchen floor, I doubt they’d be pleased.”

Gardner continues “And similar to a Pollock, one feels under sneak attack by Ms. Sze’s work. It’s more than anyone can reasonably be expected to wrap one’s mind around. Apparently, that’s the point. In a video on the Biennale’s website, she discusses her desire to re-create nature and the way we’re daily confronted, no matter how adept we are at going through life with blinders on, with ‘information beyond our capacity ever to understand, like the cosmos.'” 

View of some exhibits from the 2012 Contemporary Art Fair NYC

View of some exhibits from the 2012 Contemporary Art Fair NYC

Gardner plays a game when he visits galleries or museums. He asks himself “How would this look over my fireplace?” I play a similar game: Were money no object and/or if these works were for sale, which one would I take home? Describing her Biennale exhibit–an assemblage of lamps, light bulbs, rocks, bones and more–he admits that Sze’s work doesn’t fit that formula and later on in the article concludes: “It’s less about the objects, in this case armies of them, than the intellectual system behind them.” 

"Regal Earrings" by Shana Kroiz

“Regal Earrings” by Shana Kroiz

There’s plenty of more traditional work at the art fair and craft show that would fit over your fireplace, on a wall or look well on you. I could fill ten posts with a sampling.

I make a living introducing clients’ new products to the public via media. Americans thrive on what’s new. Why should the art industry be any different?

Do you feel frustrated when you can’t “get” recognized artworks? Do you think it’s a question of time and getting used to risk-taking work? How is it that today most take in stride sculpture and art of previous eras that drove most period viewers nuts?


4 Stones Dreidel by Javier Nujimovich

4 Stones Dreidel by Javier Nujimovich


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10 Responses to “Service of Art as Communication: Wall Street Journal Reporter Ralph Gardner Translates”

  1. Mich, Merisi Said:

    Your stimulating post on art writing and interpretation led me indirectly to think of that marvelous scene in William Wyler’s “Roman Holiday” in which he captured Audrey Hepburn’s spontaneous shriek of horror when Gregory Peck pulled his handless arm out of the Bocca della Verità. Anybody who has ever seen the film will never forget its charming freshness.

    (There is an ancient Roman myth that anyone who placed his hand through the “Mouth of Truth” and told a lie would have it cut off. The mouth is a hole at the center of a man-like face carved into an ancient marble manhole cover, which has hung on the side wall of in the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome since the 17th century.)

    My most vivid memory of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, however, is not the Bocca, rather what I learned many years ago when I first visited the church with an archeologist friend. After the triumph of Christianity over paganism in the late Roman Empire, Christians converted a Roman temple of Hercules into a Christian church. The current structure mostly dates from the 7th or 8th century, the heart of the dark ages, but incorporated into bases of the columns and walls of its nave are remnants of the columns of the temple.

    My friend pointed out to me that while the original temple columns were distanced one from the other with strict geometric regularity, the church’s are less precisely placed. As a consequence, the walls and columns of its nave are not carefully aligned. The nave even appears to bend a little from one end to the other. He further told me that this was a rare and striking physical example of what happens to art and architecture in declining civilization. Work quality suffers.

    I never forgot the lesson, but your post caused me to rethink it. What if the imperfections in alignment in this early place of worship were intentional? What if an early architect planned them to express the humility of the church and its simple origins? What if the lack of rigidity in design was meant to express universality? Strictly ordered structures are forbidding. One can build a good case that this Christian craftsman knew what he was about.

    Never again will I dismiss the work of any artist out of hand, no matter how new and different it may seem, without giving it fair consideration.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’ve seen “Roman Holiday” often as it’s one of my favorite movies and I vividly recall the scene you describe.

    I am enchanted by your memory and am honored that this post brought it to mind.

    Take your conclusion, remove the words “of any artist” and apply it to a politician and Washington would be a far more civil place. In fact, there are numerous ways to fill in the blank left by those wise words: “Never again will I dismiss the work of ________ out of hand, no matter how new and different it may seem, without giving it fair consideration.”

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    Trouble with talking and/or writing about art is that most of us haven’t the slightest idea of what we are talking about, and that includes me. Who knows how a given work or artifact reaches others, and who has the right to dictate a meaning? At the risk of sounding crabby, I see art critics are little more than name droppers with fancy vocabularies, and that one misses nothing by giving them a wide berth.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The critic you describe makes me think of Woody Allen waiting in line for a movie in one of his early films, rolling his eyes in annoyance when such a name-dropping person was carrying on in loud tones. His topic was film, not art, but the type is the same and thinking of the scene makes me smile. [Wine show-offs are similar.]

    Jerry Salz just wrote a piece in New York Magazine that’s the exception to these folks. Like Ralph Gardner’s article, his, “Trouble with Mega-Galleries,” was clear as a bell. He feels that often the giants ruin their artists.

    I imagine that you can’t pull wool over the eyes of critics like Salz. I bet he sees his role as much to protect artists and their world as anything else. A good critic is like a book reviewer. He/she might introduce readers or viewers to something they shouldn’t miss seeing.

    I’m hoping that after meeting the two installation artists at the Contemporary Art Fair this weekend, along with Gardner’s thoughts on the matter, I’ll have a better grasp of what they have in mind and what I should be looking at. I want to “get it.”

  5. Bob Gula Said:

    I like a lot of the art I saw on the blog.

    Good composition, color and subject matter applies to contemporary as well as classic traditional art.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Coming from an accomplished artist such as yourself, your observation is meaningful. I’ll pass along your compliment to the artists in question.

  7. Martha Takayama, Tepper Takayama Fine Arts Said:

    The Service of Art as Communication is a wonderfully honest and profound examination of a number of complex topics. The confusion generated by contemporary art at the time of its debut reflects the inevitable force needed for new ideas and new guidelines of taste to prevail over that which is comfortable and already validated. This is an ongoing behavior pattern.

    Currently installation art is perhaps the most iconoclastic or free form manifestation of artistic production. The communication that transpires as the result of the viewing of any artwork and certainly that of installation art may range from concrete and specific to general and abstract. The artist may be interested in presenting a clear and readily comprehensible image or images or in generating specific emotions, ideas, and feelings or even simple confusion. All these choices are the makers’ and reflect his or her emotional, and aesthetic preferences.

    Installations can come in all sizes and shapes and generate all kinds of specificity or lack thereof. It is important also to bear in mind that many artists are not concerned about the viewer’s understanding or lack thereof vis-à-vis any given work. “Challenging” can certainly be construed as a euphemism for confusing when speaking of abstract installations like those of Sarah Sze .

    Some museums and other educational venues, as well as galleries attempt to classify or clarify for the viewing public the artist’s intentions in executing and displaying any given artwork via wall text, printed text, video or most recently other digital applications. This is certainly easier if the artist is alive and willing to share such knowledge.

    When viewing contemporary art and specifically installations it is important as either a “lay” person or an art professional not necessarily to understand, on a concrete or abstract level, the intent of any work.

    It is also important to have the courage of one’s own convictions and at times to remember the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” There is a tendency in contemporary art criticism to sometimes assign fanciful or seemingly profound meanings to compilations of color and objects that may not be part of the maker’s intentions nor ever have even occurred to him or her. Some end products may simply appeal to the artist’s eye and ego. It is best when viewing installation work to pay note to any explanatory material furnished by an artist and to think over what thoughts and images the work generates on you, the viewer.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    If I’d been smart, I would have asked you to write the post. You join the firmament of knowledgeable art critics who express themselves clearly–right next to Ralph Gardner, whom I mention in the article and Jerry Salz of New York Magazine, whom I mentioned in a previous comment.

    I will reread your comment before visiting Noa Leshem-Gradus and Taezoo Park’s installations at the Contemporary Art Fair NYC this weekend.

  9. Vito Bonanno Said:

    Thank you for mentioning me! Installation is a passion-my house can attest to that!

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I look forward to seeing your work this weekend and to speaking with you about installation art and what about it intrigues you.

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