Stalking Mr. Danto 

An American philosopher in Boise

On Wednesday, Feb. 16, Arthur C. Danto, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and art critic for The Nation, arrived in Boise. Danto came to complete his duties as juror/curator of the 2004 Idaho Triennial, and lecture to general and academic audiences. Like any good paparazzo, I rarely let him out of my sight, thanks to the acquiescence of his official host and chaperone, Boise Art Museum Associate Curator Heather Ferrell.

Top of the to-do list during Danto's visit was to walk through the Triennial with him as he saw the work for the first time in the flesh and awarded the prizes. He was immediately impressed by the show, not only by how it was hung and lighted, but by the art itself. Danto felt he had succeeded in selecting works that met his "Chelsea gallery" standard of quality and relevance to the moment. As he reiterated to the audience that night in his gallery talk, he saw no examples of work created in an off-hand or slipshod manner that managed to sneak in on slides. Together we revisited the entries he and I thought stood out, and those we agreed to disagree on.

For Danto, Charles Gill's painting Jason was "breathtaking" and "perfect for our time" as it captured the uncertainty men feel about their place in society today. Danto awarded Gill the $500 cash prize and recognized Geoffrey Krueger as well, complimenting Krueger's "marvelous" canvases as having plenty of pathos. His works are also timely-communicating a certain hopelessness in contemporary life. A third cash prize went to Jennifer Williams' dried sea-kelp sculptures that captivated Danto from the start. He praised the subtlety and "non-hostile" ambience of Ted Apel's sound sculpture, an ingenious project worthy of the top prize.

Danto changed my mind about Sarah Swett's tapestry, The River Wyrd, noting the sophisticated craftsmanship and Swett's clever way of updating the age-old subject of the Three Fates. As for other differences of opinion, he stuck by his original, positive assessment of Rachel Reese's historical "portraits," and was impressed by the intellectual sources of David Frankel's female nudes, venturing that their blend of eroticism, violence and history would appeal to Peter Paul Rubens. Hey, what do I know?

Ferrell, Danto and I toured the rest of the museum, which currently is rich in variety, and Danto offered anecdotes at the Keys to the Koop exhibit about Red Grooms, a longtime friend he recently published a monograph on, and spoke of Tony Fitzgerald's recent critically acclaimed sold out show in New York. We spent a good deal of time in front of Robert Motherwell's striking Lament for Lorca, which BAM recently acquired. Motherwell, a critic and philosopher in his own right, and Danto were close friends, and he reminisced about their relationship.

On Friday, Boise State's Philosophy Department, Philosophy Club and Visual Arts Center sponsored a luncheon on campus at which Danto spoke about his career as a philosopher whose launch was aided by opportune timing. He came to New York in the early '50s as a young artist-a time and place that was momentous for both art and philosophy with Abstract Expressionism reigning and analytical philosophy coming to the fore. Ironically, when Danto began studying philosophy at Columbia, he was not really interested in aesthetics or the philosophy of art as they did not seem relevant to what he was doing as an artist. (Danto stated he "could never have written on the philosophy of art in the 1950s.") His first book, Neitzsche as Philosopher, sought to establish this thinker's credentials as an analytical philosopher. Andy Warhol's exhibit of Brillo Boxes at New York's Stable Gallery in April 1964 changed all that for Danto, and he discussed how fortuitous it was for him as a philosopher to be there at such a revolutionary moment in art. Thanks to Danto, Warhol was discussed in philosophical journals before he was in Vogue.

Danto's public lecture Friday, entitled The Gap Between Art and Life, put that revolutionary moment in historical perspective. Danto views the history of art as a series of boundaries and new frontiers during which art and life remained distinct. Beginning in the 1960s, art morphed into an "all frontier." The great art movements of the '60s were Pop, Fluxus, Minimalism and Conceptualism-all of which overcame the boundary between art and life. The various movements in modernism were often accompanied by manifestoes that expressed some utopian vision for society. With the arrival of postmodern pluralism, manifestos and movements disappeared, and the concept of an aesthetic "purity" as espoused by critics like Clement Greenberg is no longer of much concern to artists. Danto talked about the resulting "Balkanization" of art and its impact on art education at the university level, the art market and art careers. He left us with much to think about.

Saturday morning, we took Danto to see the Salon de Refuse since he wanted to see if he had left something out of the Triennial undeservedly. After going through the exhibit, he turned to me and said, "This is a revelation. There is not one work here I would change my mind about." Reassured, we headed off to meet with dealer Jacqueline Crist and see the work of James Castle that BAM is preparing to exhibit in March. It was a treat for us all.

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