THOUGH I participated in the "Putting on the Ritz" show--as artist, floor-mopper, gofer and trash-bagger--I left its evening opening keenly disappointed. The exhibit--a joint effort of Collaborative Projects of New York and the Washington Project for the Arts, which now fills the derelict Ritz Hotel, 920 F St. NW.--looks as if a bunch of reactionary New York punks had said to one another, "Hey, there's this abandoned Washington building up for grabs: Let's go down and trash it!"
I am an artist who has worked eight years in Washington, and I have seen a number of exciting and effective communal exhibitions mounted in this city--the Laundry Show, the Market shows, Columbia Road exhibits and, last year, the timely Corporate Wars show at the Nourse Gallery. In one way or another, I was involved with all of them. They were well organized, well installed and chosen with discrimination. I can't say the same for the Ritz.
When I heard about the Ritz project--the first large-scale collaboration between the artists of New York and Washington--I was excited by the prospect of contributing some work. But something is missing from the Ritz show, something important, no, critical, to any successful display of art: integrity.
The show is primarily political, and it screams very loudly about many things, virtually none of them comprehensible. On one wall is Michael Platt's sensitive portrait of Atlanta murder victim Lubie Geter. On the opposite wall is what appears to be latrine graffiti. The Ritz show tries to make a hundred political comments--and instead makes white noise.
Its failure, in my opinion, is not because of any lack of enthusiasm on the part of the organizers. Indeed, they all worked hard to accommodate the artists and to make it go. No, the show's overwhelming trashiness is the fault of the artists involved.
When I began my piece, most of the artists working there were local, the primary demolition force having not yet arrived from the Big Apple. Before I chose my wall and did my work, I discussed the placement and subject of my painting with the artists working next to me. I did so to avoid clashes of composition or subject matter. Most others working there that day were similarly cooperative. Then the New Yorkers came.
Their exhibit resembles a vast free-for-all fought out between irritable artists of widely differing styles and abilities. Much of their work is marked by a certain sloppiness, as if the object of the event was to sling around as much paint, plaster and wood as possible. As soon as they arrived, the corridors were filled with ricocheting egos. At one point, one New York artist, deciding to exact retribution for some slight, took a hammer and pounded a hole in the work of the artist next to me. I would have been more impressed had he cut off his ear and stapled it to the wall next to the cigarette-butt-and-beer-can-tab work on the third floor.
One of my colleagues, Washington artist Irving Gordon, who helped the WPA organize the Ritz show, expressed his feelings this way: "If I'd known it would turn out to be a political dump for New York artists, I never would have participated."
You want the public to take your work seriously? Then take it seriously yourself. You want to rant about things you find objectionable in the world? Have a few beers, stand on a street corner and scream to your heart's content. But if you want to create effective art, you must be prepared to contribute time and effort.
Though artists might react to ugliness with sympathy, to brutality with beauty, they do not do so here. Their expressions of outrage or frustration need not require the production of outrageous or frustrating art. Artists, consider these words of Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet:
You could scream
Because mankind is mad,
But you, of all people, should not.
After viewing this mess, the man off the street is likely to say to himself, "So, artists from Washington and New York have collaborated on a show. I hope they have the good taste not to do it again any time soon."