Welcome To Babel

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Want to know what kind of current art sells best? Roll the dice. Want to know what art curators like? Roll them again. In today's art world, there are as many directions as artists, and no one wants to pick among them. The market has always liked a one-of-each approach. Now everyone's bought into it.

At least that's how things look at this rare moment of stock-taking in contemporary art. For the next few months, the 52nd Venice Biennale, the world's oldest roundup of current creativity, is coinciding with the giant Documenta festival, a prestigious digest of the field that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. They're joined by the once-a-decade Sculpture Projects, a survey of public art that fills the streets and squares and oddest corners of Muenster, a medieval town a few hours north of Kassel. In this special package on the state of contemporary art, Post critic Blake Gopnik looks at where we are and how we've gotten there, and teases out some of the ways that art is responding to its fractured situation.

In an art market that is by far the hottest ever, here's the wild range of recent work that's selling well:

· $11.3 million spent on a stylish oil painting of a white canoe on a lake, by Scottish artist Peter Doig, who has been called a "quietly influential" figure. Jasper Johns is the only living artist who has ever sold for more.

· $3.4 million for a giant photo of a dollar store by German artist Andreas Gursky. It is the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction.

· $2.7 million for an installation of big spheres made of stuffed toys alongside wall-size versions of a stick-on room deodorizer, by California conceptualist Mike Kelley.

Notice the artistic principle that's governing what sells: The principle is that there's no longer any principle. The market plunks as happily for one kind of work as for its opposite.

Now look at the world's most important surveys of contemporary art this summer in Europe. Same non-principle applies.

In both buying and curating, diversification is preferred to investing deeply in one notion of what matters most in art right now. Trying to take stock of this moment in contemporary art is like doing inventory at Amazon.com: There's something for everyone, times 10 -- even quite a bit that's very good -- but little sense that some things matter more than others.

The art world's dominant direction is a random scattering.

At the Venice Biennale, veteran curator Robert Storr has put the latest abstractions from German master Gerhard Richter near the folk-art figuration of Cheri Samba, a Congolese street artist. Both are around the corner from a huge, Japanimated video of a doll's house being flooded, which is not far from a sober installation of ephemera and photographs that document the life of Wael Zuaiter, a Palestinian activist and intellectual assassinated by Israeli agents in Rome in 1972.

At Documenta, curators Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack are giving big play to a slew of highly polished minimal sculptures by John McCracken, a 72-year-old American whose career is in revival. But the curators are equally committed, apparently, to a bevy of extra-sloppy, ugly-is-beautiful sex-themed allegories by Australian painter Juan Davila, born in Chile in 1946. You're likely to run into works by either artist sitting near a political video, a solemn black-and-white photo or even an antique Oriental rug.

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