Earlier this month the art world was shaken by news that a banana duct-taped to a wall sold for $150,000 at Art Basel Miami. Maurizio Cattelan’s installation called Comedian, that included, yes!, a real banana taped to a wall, has become some kind of a sensation with some calling it conceptual art and others calling it a prank (read the background story here). The fact that someone would pay $150,000 for a banana taped to a wall calls into question the value of art and complicates an appraisal’s work even further.
Cattelan’s created three editions of his installation, two of whom sold for $120,000 to collectors identified by Artsy as Billy and Beatrice Cox of Miami, and Sarah Andelman, founder of Colette concept store in Paris, and part-time Catskills resident. Andelman’s vacation home in the Catskills was subject to a feature in Architectural Digest in the summer of 2018.
But is it art? The perishability of a mere banana contrasts significantly with what artists have traditionally sought in art – immortality. And how about artistic skills? Is it really any artistry involved in taping a banana to a wall?
Brands have capitalized on this commotion by creating their own duct-taped “art,” anything from a sandwich to a bottle of water, and more. All there is needed is a random object and duct tape, plus of course access to a wall. Read full story in Ad Age magazine.
Artnet has covered the topic and made it easy for readers to access the coverage all in one place: “To document for posterity how this humble piece of produce became a global phenomenon, we have pulled together all of our coverage in one place.”
Defining art has always been both challenging and disputed. In the 18th century, philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, grandfather of composer Felix Mendelssohn, argued that art is the carrying forward of the beautiful, obscurely recognized by feeling, until it becomes true and good; the aim of art is moral perfection, he claimed.
In What is Art? published in 1896, Leo Tolstoy argued that art is the transmission of an emotion felt by the artist (joy, exaltation, anger, sadness, etc.) – not all beauty, but all infectious emotion that the common man can experience. Tolstoy’s argument was an attack on formalism and the doctrine of art for art’s sake, an attack on unintelligibility and exclusiveness. He did not believe in professional artists, who, he thought, perverted art; instead he argued that all men can and should make art, thus proclaiming the universality of art.
In the 20th century, Roy Lichtenstein defiantly declared that organized perception is what art is all about. For Wassily Kandinsky, making art was an internal necessity that impelled the artist to create as a spiritual impulse and the audience to admire art as a spiritual hunger. It was that simple.
Tolstoy didn’t think that taste was the final arbiter of what was good and bad art; he defined taste as the capacity of an individual to be aesthetically pleased by certain works and displeased by others. He conceded however that taste can be educated, and artistic activities can be made accessible to all.
The University at Albany’s Art Museum celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The Museum opened in October 1967 with an exhibition titled Painting and Sculpture from the Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection, which featured over fifty works by some of the most prominent artists of the 20th century: Picasso, Miro, Braque, Klee, de Kooning, and Calder, among others.
In 2015 the Museum hosted a retrospective show titled Bordering Utopia: Sculptures by Brian Tolle, dedicated to alumnus Brian Tolle, an internationally acclaimed sculptor known for The Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City (2002), and more recently for Miss Brooklyn and Miss Manhattan, two replicas of Daniel Chester French originals that sit on the façade of the Brooklyn Museum – Tolle’s replicas were installed on Flatbush Avenue by the Manhattan Bridge in December last year. He is one of the artists featured in our book How Art Is Made: In the Catskills.
To learn more about the University at Albany’s Art Museum, visit www.albany.edu.
Jen Dragon is the director of Cross Contemporary Art in Saugerties, a gallery dedicated to showing mid-career artists with a connection to New York City, the Catskills and Hudson Valley regions. Dragon has background in online marketing, but she’s also had an extensive career in the arts – over the years she has curated numerous exhibits for non-profit spaces, and organized various community-wide art projects. Dragon holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Purchase College.
Simona David: Please, talk a little bit about your background, your education, and interest in art.
Jen Dragon: I studied at Purchase College in the early 1980s. And there I was trained as a printmaker and painter. I also had a scholarship to study fine arts in Italy for a year. I was trained there as a restaurateur of antique maps and prints. Afterwards, like many artists, I was drawn to the Catskills. Together with my ex-husband I bought a tavern to use as a studio – we fixed it ourselves; this was near the Phoenicia area. I lived there until about a year and a half ago.
SD: Talk about your curatorial experience, and your vision when it comes to putting together a new art show.
JD: I got into curating with non-profit spaces like the Kleinert / James Center for the Arts in Woodstock, and under-utilized spaces like this place at the Emerson Resort that at the time was not being used. It was a challenge, because I was interested in showing large abstract art, and in the country, like where we live, it’s very difficult to find houses that have really big high-ceilings. I was always on the look-out for a loft, a good space to show big paintings. A year ago I had the opportunity to take over a lease on a gallery in Saugerties. It’s tiny – it’s only 650 sq ft, but it has high ceilings, and it has a lot of wall space. And I am now able to show the kind of art that I have always been passionate about. I much prefer to be in the gallery and act as a docent introducing people to art rather than trying to rally everybody behind a large community arts project.
SD: Talk about the curatorial process: where do you start, what is your vision, and how do you get where you want to be with a project?
JD: It’s interesting, because I get to live with an art show for about a month – each show is four week long. And I really get immersed in the artist’s work. At the end of each show I can probably write a dissertation on it. A lot of my choices are governed by the location of my gallery. Given the fact that I’m in Saugerties, which has extraordinary landscapes, I don’t feel like it’s appropriate to show urban art. The artists I tend to choose have an obsession with nature, and I also look for human drama. In sum, the criteria for choosing art have to do with where I am, but I also consider myself as some sort of an educator. It’s more about creating a beautiful show than being a salesman. I encourage the artists to really own the space, and create an installation.
SD: How do you look for artists, or is it the artists who approach you?
JD: I’m always looking at art. It’s important for artists to have their art seen. Because of my limitations, I can only show as many artists. But I keep a file, and I also refer artists to other places. A lot of time artists that I show are referred to me by other artists. The artists that I have been generally showing are in museum collections, or have shown in museums, and to show with me is a certain investment on their part. And they take very seriously who they want to be seen with. And they also refer people to me that they think that I would like. Sometimes I come up with something that I discover on my own. I have shown over eighteen artists so far. I’ve only done one group show.
SD: I like what you said before, that artists like to be seen in the company of other artists, and that’s why art communities are so important. We often judge people by their associations or affiliations, or by the company they keep. Are there any commonalities of themes or styles amongst the artists that you’ve shown? You did mention before that you looked at art centered on nature or human drama.
JD: Yes. I also have a sweet spot for printmaking. I was trained as a printmaker when I was in college in the 1980s, and what was trending back then were these Neo-Impressionist like prints. There were these intense, dynamic painters like Julien Schnabel, Gregory Amenoff, Richard Bosman – these guys were powerhouses. In retaliation to the abstract art, they were going back to figurative painting. And just like the German expressionists, they were also into printmaking. What I learned from artists like these is that the power of the wood cut supports the power of the painting. I knew I was doing something right with my gallery when I approached Gregory Amenoff and Richard Bosman, who were like my rock stars when I was a student, and they agreed to show their work with me.
SD: And I should add that when people think nature, they shouldn’t necessarily think representational art or landscape painting. It could be non-objective art as well. Take for instance Heather Hutchison, who you’ve shown in your gallery.
JD: Yes. What’s fascinating about Heather Hutchison is that her subject matter is light, so she is probably more of a landscape painter than anyone else that I’ve shown. Even though it doesn’t look like landscape, and it looks like a box that is constantly changing colors because of the way the light is coming through it, Heather’s literal subject matter is the changing light itself.
SD: Her work has been shown in many prestigious locations like The Smithsonian in Washington D.C., and she’s also received numerous awards including The Pollock-Krasner Foundation Award.
JD: Yes. She’s also very active locally. She’s in the James / Kleinert Center for the Arts in Woodstock. Her husband Mark Kanter teaches at Columbia University. All the artists that I show are actually very active in the community. In addition to being educators and making art in their studios, these artists are also great art communicators.
SD: What kind of experience do you want your visitors to have when they visit your gallery?
JD: What’s really interesting about showing all these artists is that they work so well together – I can easily have a group show with any of them. Even though they have different styles, they all seem to have the same sort of fascination, the same sort of obsession with art. The common denominator is that they all create amazing spatial environments that the viewer can occupy. That’s my criterion for what I consider art. The mark making is also terribly important. A gestural mark is a brush work with intention, and a certain kind of velocity to it, and these kinds of creations need to form a space that you can inhabit. If art doesn’t have gesture, and it doesn’t have space, it becomes illustration, which is a fine thing, but it’s not deep enough for me. What I look for in art is the space, the intent, and the passion. What I find beautiful is the thing that changes me by looking at it, and changes my relationship to where I am.
SD: You hosted recently a show by Iain Machell. Let’s talk about that.
JD: Iain Machell is the head of the Visual Arts Department at SUNY Ulster. Last summer he got a grant to study at Platte Clove arts residency near Saugerties. And created all these drawings, and paintings, and even some photographs enameled in metal, that were inspired by Platte Clove – he did it in a very short period of time as well. The show at Cross Contemporary Art Gallery included close to thirty pieces of art that Iain created at Platte Clove this past summer. It was an installation – some sort of meditation of ground and water and rocks and crevasses.
SD: I do want to mention that Platte Clove played such an important role in the formation of the Hudson River School of Painting in the 1820s. What is your next show?
JD: My December show is Shira Toren, an Israeli-American artist, who works in New York City, but also has a place in Great Barrington, MA. She does abstract paintings, and also makes prints. Her show is called “Eternal Return.” It opened December 5, and will remain on view through December 27.
SD: What are your plans for the holiday season?
JD: I have been invited to participate in The Decorator’s Holiday Show at the Senate House in Kingston. The Senate House Museum owns a large Victorian house that is being made available to interior designers to decorate it for the holidays. I am the only gallery that was invited to participate. The grand opening was December 4 as part of The Snowflake Festival. I am featuring artists that I have shown over the past year.
SD: What are the gallery’s hours?
JD: The gallery is open from Thursday to Monday from 12 noon to 5 pm. And also by appointment.
For more information about Cross Contemporary Art Gallery, visit
The American Ballet Theatre performs at Bard College;
Dia:Beacon is hosting an art talk with curator Jenny Jaskey focusing on the works of Robert Irwin;
Fenimore Art Museum is hosting its annual Americana Symposium focusing this year on the history of photography, particularly the invention of daguerreotypes and their impact on mid-19th century portrait painters.