Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sell it all; sell it now

(photo: John Blanding, Boston Globe)

Glasstire reports that the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University is selling off its permanent collection. The school is strapped for cash. The museum will close sometime in the coming summer. I've not seen any timeline for the deaccession of the museum's collection of more than 6,000 works. It's a rich stash of modern and contemporary art that could bring millions into the school's coffers if the sale is orderly, and if the market for its prizes doesn't further collapse. A Washington Post story says that the museum's holdings were appraised at $350 million in 2007.

Artists represented in the collection include Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Morris Louis, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Matthew Barney, Helen Frankenthaler, Nan Goldin, Alfredo Jaar, Donald Judd, Annette Lemieux, Robert Mangold, Judy Pfaff, Anri Sala, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, and Jackie Windsor.

A steaming pile of blame for the university's financial distress lies on the head of alleged financial crook Bernard Madoff. From the Post story:

The private school, based in Waltham, Mass., has suffered investment losses and spent other funds on a construction boom. Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz also said in a Jan. 7 letter that some "staunch and generous" donors were hurt by Bernard Madoff's alleged fraud.

"It's like a one-two-three punch: The economy tanks, they overbuilt at the peak of the market, and their largest donor was hit dramatically by the Madoff scandal," said Mark Williams, a Boston University senior lecturer who specializes in risk management and has studied Brandeis's finances.

Among Brandeis's largest donors are philanthropists Carl and Ruth Shapiro. Carl Shapiro and his family foundation had losses of $545 million in Madoff's alleged Ponzi scheme, according to the Boston Globe.

My wife just said she wants Madoff to hurt and hurt bad, but it's not possible for him to hurt enough.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Google art

Last May when the Google "Street View" camera passed down Sampsonia Way on Pittsburgh's North Side, an ad hoc collective of artists and neighborhood people (organized by Robin Hewlett and Ben Kinsley) put on a show. A small band marched by. Runners appeared to finish a marathon. A garage band practiced. In a garage, naturally. The project is titled Street with a View, and its effects can be seen if you do a Google map search for addresses on Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh and click on the street view option to get a panoramic picture of that address. Not every frame represents an intervention, which just makes the whole idea more appealing to me. Like an Easter egg hunt.

The Mattress Factory, which is located at 500 Sampsonia Way, was one of the participating sponsors, but so was Doug's Market, a neighborhood corner store. As was Google.

I ran across an image from the Google art intervention this morning over on Gizmodo, but others, including the marching band picture, have shown up elsewhere on the Web since the images went live back in November. Here are a few screen captures I made of the Easter eggs I found before visiting the Street with a View site.

That's the picture at Gizmodo that got me interested.

Creepy chicken sculpture by Nicholas Lampert.

I pasted the two above together to show the Love Laser and its evident effects. The artist's name is Ian Charnas.

The Langly High School Band marches past the Mattress Factory.

Another paste job, this time to get some perspective on the bed sheet rope she's holding.

Names of participants, background information and a couple of videos can be found at the Street with a View Web site.

link (via Gizmodo)

Monday, January 26, 2009


I found this sign in a strip mall in Mesquite, TX a few days ago. Somebody's hiring, at least.

The end of an era

Word has spread that Gerald Peters Gallery in Dallas is shutting up shop. A part of a Santa Fe-based gallery empire, the Dallas location has been in business for 22 years, according to their Web site. In the past year they've shown works by Jun Kaneko, Dan Rizzie, and a number of artists with Texas reputations such as Terrel James and Bill Komodore.

When Talley Dunn (now of Dunn and Brown Contemporary) was gallery director back in the 90's, they offered a very young Trenton Doyle Hancock his first one-person show. He was still an undergraduate student at the time. At the opening reception, Hancock dozed atop a big, galumphing platform designed to represent an early iteration of his mythical "Mound" characters. At set times during the evening, an alarm clock sounded and Dunn climbed up the mound to feed the artist a bite or two of brightly colored Jell-O. Then, as Hancock drifted back to sleep, colorful balloons tumbled out below him. The artist: sleeping, eating, shitting. It was great fun and more than a little edgy.

But lately, that sort of adventurous spirit has not been in evidence at Gerald Peters, as the gallery increasingly turned to safe bets with big price points. Dale Chihuly, for example. It couldn't have helped that a number of nationally recognized artists left to join Dunn in her new venture.

What the closing means for the art market in Dallas and nationally, one can only speculate. It sure can't be good, though.

Friday, January 23, 2009


A debate is underway about the idea of bank nationalization in the face of the continuing credit crisis. In some quarters, what the Swedes did in the 1990s looks like a good bet for the American economy now. According to the New York Times:

Sweden placed its banks with troubled assets into a so-called bad bank, where they could be held and then sold over time when market and economic conditions improved. In the meantime, it used taxpayer money to provide enough capital to allow banks to resume normal lending.

In the process, Sweden wiped out existing shareholders.
That wiping out shareholder value part is a huge sticking point, of course. If you have a retirement account with exposure to the stock market, you stand to lose money if troubled US banks are nationalized. James Surowiecki sees deeper problems involving "political mischief."
But the F.D.I.C., for the most part, does not take over banks and run them with an eye toward turning a profit for the government. Instead, it tries to clean up the banks’ balance sheets and re-sell them, or their assets, as quickly as possible. But if the government were to nationalize the banks, the incentives would be different. As Steve Waldman put it, “We take the bank into public ownership because taxpayers who have been conscripted to accept extraordinary losses are entitled to whatever gains follow the reorganization they finance.” Once a program of nationalizing banks was started, then, one important goal would be to maximize the potential “gains” to be reaped. And one way to do that would be to declare banks that are solvent, and that have undervalued assets on their books, insolvent, which would allow the government to take them over and ensure that their profits would flow into the government’s coffers.
This "mischief" would be possible because of certain details about the definition of "solvency" when it comes to banks. If its liabilities are greater than its assets, it is insolvent. And yet, Surowiecki argues, under such conditions, a bank can continue to function because it typically can earn from its assets about three times what it pays towards its liabilities. His take is that declaring a bank insolvent is a judgment call, not a mathematical certainty.

Barry Ritholtz disagrees:

As previously noted, the dilly dallying around with these horrific banks and their grossly incompetant management must come to an end.

Sometimes the market gets it just right: The selloff in the financial sector might very well be the cumulative conclusion reached by traders that this sector cannot be rescued by nere recapitalization alone. The market, looking to open down 200 points, may also be sensing the inevitable nationalization.

The Brits, soon to nationalize Barclays, have the right idea: Go Swedish. Wipe out shareholders, bond holders, and all the bad debt and junk paper these firms hold. Zero it out, spin out the assets with clean balance sheets.

If the behavior of these corporate executives is nothing short than egregious: Their embarassing attitudes, foolish excesses, sense of entitled greed is annoying but tolerable when its on their ownshareholders dime; when the taxpayer is footing the bill, it is utterly unacceptable.

To paraphrase a Mellon, its time to liquidate the banks, liquidate capital, liquidate shareholders, liquidate bond holders . . .

He really is pissed about the abject failure of the top managers of financial giants like Citigroup and Lehman et al. They screwed things up so badly we're all hurting, and he's so mad, he can't quite type right.

I have no idea who's right, or even if it's possible to be right about all this. But I get the feeling we may be turning Swedish in a short while.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Illustrating the collapse of the GOP

The troubled pachyderms above are from a book titled Deconstructing Dumbo by artists Thomas Fuchs and Felix Sockwell. Copies of the self-published book can be purchased at Fuchs' site.

Image from (via Boing Boing)

Crowds from space

The image above is a satellite photo of the Mall during yesterday's inauguration ceremony. The clumps of dark grains are crowds of people clustered around Jumbotrons to see the proceedings.

Image from Popular Science via Andrew Sullivan.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

We live in rapidly changing times

The senators and guests are still eating their lunch following the presidential oath, but the official White House Web site has already changed.

Obama's speech was lovely:

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

And the part about giving up childish things -- that's worth looking into a bit closer. As Obama said, it comes from Scripture, from First Corinthians, Chapter 13. It's often called the love chapter because it proclaims the singular importance of love (in the sense of the Greek agape [αγάπη], love which cherishes and nurtures, but does not want to possess). Here is the verse Obama cited:
11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
To my mind it was a nearly perfect sentiment, expressing an admonition to partisan extremists that they have behaved childishly and the time has come to grow up. Basically he told Washington and America to just GROW UP, but he did so in the words of St. Paul, words which come from the same chapter as these words:
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
What Obama did with that brief reference to Scripture has to rank as the gentlest and kindest smackdown ever. Ideological purity and partisan bullshit got us into a helluva mess because we were all behaving like children. It is time to start behaving like grownups.

Right now being a grownup requires that we engage creatively with the world, that we not rely on child-like habits of thought, that we put aside reflexive responses, that we stow away hobby horse ideologies. Now is a time for mature thought and adult action.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Art interventions

A number of feminist and socially conscious blogs have reported that some delightful wag of an artist/vandal/interventionist in Berlin slapped stickers onto ads in Berlin's subway to make the images of smooth skinned celebrities (Britney Spears, Leona Lewis, Christina Aguilera) resemble an open Photoshop window.

It is an act of poetic compression which squeezes issues of desire, its manipulation, oppressive standards of feminine attractiveness, consumerism, alienation from the public sphere, mass media and conformity into a simple trope. That makes it very good art, I'd say -- not because of its estimable content, but because of the way the content is delivered.

Things like this have been done before, of course. As long ago as the 1950s, artists in Europe associated with the Lettrist International and its offspring, the Situationist International, defaced posters in public places. Their process was called "decollage" since it involved not adding an image to a given image (collage), but removing parts of an image to discover what lay beneath.

The image above is an example of decollage by Mimmo Rotella. The quasi-Ab Ex composition is no doubt attributable to the international spread of that style in the post-war period. Artists like Rotella can be seen as practicing a kind of archaeology of public spaces, digging up hidden images beneath the surface and allowing a Surrealist swarm of associations to result.

The Photoshop-like alterations in Berlin, on the other hand, are both additive (literally sticking stuff on posters) and subtractive (uncovering hints of the images' history).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Coosje van Bruggen

Coosje van Bruggen is dead at 66. According to the New York times, she was responsible for the color choices in many of the sculptures she worked on with her collaborator and husband, Claes Oldenburg, beginning with Trowel I, 1976 (pictured above)

The Times obit is here.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Giving it away

The Dallas Center for Contemporary Art is holding an auction this month to raise funds for their new digs. As I do each year, I've donated a painting to their effort. That's my painting above. The title is Bit. It's oil on a digital print on canvas. The auction is online here. Or if you prefer, my piece is here. I can't say I'm charmed by the green background for my little pink beauty (who displays art on a green ground?), but they didn't ask me about it.

Bid early and bid often.


My review of the Olafur Eliasson survey at the Dallas Museum of Art is online here. There's an error: the captions for two images are switched tonight, but I've asked them to fix that.

The image above is Room for One Colour (2002).

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

TBD=there be dragons

I saw an interview on TV once with evolutionary biologist and noted baseball fan Steven Jay Gould in which he explained his enthusiasm for Joe DiMaggio's legendary 1941 56-game hitting streak. Gould's argument -- informed by his deep understanding of statistics -- turned on the enormous difference between DiMaggio's accomplishement and the mean (average) hitting streaks of all other players in the major leagues. In a later piece in the New York Review of Books, Gould described the statistical research of a scientific colleague into the probabilities of other stand-out baseball accomplishments that showed they constituted no significant violation of what was to be expected in terms of their probabilities. But then he wrote:
But "treasure your exceptions," as the old motto goes. There is one major exception, and absolutely only one—one sequence so many standard deviations above the expected distribution that it should not have occurred at all. Joe DiMaggio's fifty-six–game hitting streak in 1941.

Here's a simple example of a bell curve marked to indicate standard deviations:

(Image from here)

Investopedia defines standard deviation thus:
A measure of the dispersion of a set of data from its mean. The more spread apart the data, the higher the deviation. Standard deviation is calculated as the square root of variance.
It's a measure of difference in numeric value of some sort within a class of like events and it's a measurement of the general likelihood of any member of the class holding that value. What made DiMaggio's streak so fantastic, Gould insisted, was that in terms of probability it never should have happened. Nothing lies that far off the curve. Except Joe DiMaggio.

This came to mind today when I got around to reading a long piece published last weekend in the NY Times Magazine about a risk model called Value at Risk, which is commonly used by financial professionals in their dealings. The author, Joe Nocera, describes VaR as a set of mathematical models which (it was believed) could assess the likelihood an investment would lose money in a given period of time.
Built around statistical ideas and probability theories that have been around for centuries, VaR was developed and popularized in the early 1990s by a handful of scientists and mathematicians — “quants,” they’re called in the business — who went to work for JPMorgan. VaR’s great appeal, and its great selling point to people who do not happen to be quants, is that it expresses risk as a single number, a dollar figure, no less.

VaR isn’t one model but rather a group of related models that share a mathematical framework. In its most common form, it measures the boundaries of risk in a portfolio over short durations, assuming a “normal” market. For instance, if you have $50 million of weekly VaR, that means that over the course of the next week, there is a 99 percent chance that your portfolio won’t lose more than $50 million. That portfolio could consist of equities, bonds, derivatives or all of the above; one reason VaR became so popular is that it is the only commonly used risk measure that can be applied to just about any asset class. And it takes into account a head-spinning variety of variables, including diversification, leverage and volatility, that make up the kind of market risk that traders and firms face every day.
Systems theorist and Black Swan author Nassim Taleb shows up quickly in the article to argue against such a model-based strategy. It's "a fraud," he says. As I understand it, his "Black Swan" concept is a lot like somebody hitting safely in 56 successive major league baseball games. It can't happen until it does.
“Any system susceptible to a black swan will eventually blow up,” Taleb says. The modern system of world finance, complex and interrelated and opaque, where what happened yesterday can and does affect what happens tomorrow, and where one wrong tug of the thread can cause it all to unravel, is just such a system.
Or to put in the words of a risk consultant also quoted in the article:
[Marc]Groz has his own way of illustrating the problem: he showed me a slide he made of a curve with the letters “T.B.D.” at the extreme ends of the curve. I thought the letters stood for “To Be Determined,” but that wasn’t what Groz meant. “T.B.D. stands for ‘There Be Dragons,’ ” he told me.
I have no idea whether Taleb is right in his crusade against models like VaR. But we all know that the bell curve had monsters at its extreme ends, monsters the smart guys didn't even imagine. They shouldn't even exist, according to the financial experts' thinking over the past few years.

Joe, Joe DiMaggio, we want you on our side.