In 2000, Michel Majerus completed a painting that spells out its title across a series of brightly colored circles: WHAT LOOKS GOOD TODAY MAY NOT LOOK GOOD TOMORROW.¹ It’s the worry of art critics across time! It’s their icy warning to those they disagree with too. And it’s a painful reality that they share with curators, collectors, advisers, and everyone else who has a stake (in reputation, capital, or social life) in the fickle shifts of taste and the volatile process of canonization. Fifteen years after Majerus completed that canvas, the eagle-eyed New York consultant Thea Westreich echoed its message in even starker terms. “Sooner or later, the art world comes to its senses,” Westreich told Bloomberg while discussing the cautionary case of the onetime German phenom Anselm Reyle. “Some artists look interesting for a period, maybe it’s a month or maybe it’s a year, but what happens is that things sort themselves out.” Reyle had announced his retirement the year before, in 2014, at the age of 43. He was an Icarus of the 2000s market boom, the auction prices for his shiny foil paintings, exhibited at some of the world’s highest-profile galleries, soaring and then collapsing. The powers that be decided he was overrated. He decided to get out.
Twenty years removed from Majerus’s painting, what else needs sorting out from the 2000s? What looked good then and now does not? The gap between those assessments can reveal how collective opinion changes and how careers are made and broken. It might even highlight blind spots in the present. Let’s take a look back.
On July 7, 2007, seventy-four musicians sat at drum sets in Brooklyn’s Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, arrayed around four members of the fabled Japanese noise-punk band Boredoms, to perform a piece called 77BoaDrum. Over the course of almost two hours, as the sun set over the East River, that army of percussionists—which included Dave Nuss, Andrew W.K., and other local luminaries—delivered cascading, utterly hypnotic waves of sound. It was a high point in the tendency for psychedelic and otherwise high-energy art that permeated the decade, as artists proffered tripped-out patterns, vision-tricking devices, and high-pitched colors as if they were competing in a hallucinogenic arms race. Assume Vivid Astro Focus conjured orgies of color and light in installations that could be tailored to seemingly any space. Reyle, too, was in this zone, with his expensive-looking constructions—caricatures, ultimately, of one of the era’s defining clichés: wall power.² At the painterly end of the field, Kristin Baker minted acrylic-on-PVC pieces, often gargantuan ones, that were almost comically attractive and that suggested someone had hit pause on an abstract digital animation. Erik Parker made gloriously action-packed cartoon paintings whose intricate details begged viewers to sit, stoned out, staring. Robert Lazzarini fabricated sculptures of guns, skulls, and knives whose dimensions were warped and twisted: menacing objects transformed into ingratiating eye candy. Some of this work looks dated to viewers today (pungent material naturally has a shelf life, offending later sensibilities). But it’s intriguing that all of this visually pleasing (and admittedly very disparate) work emerged before it could properly be exploited by social media, served up for likes, and put up for sale online. Contemporary Art Daily didn’t get going until 2008, Artsy arrived in 2009, and Instagram launched in 2010, all seeds of some of the next decade’s trends. Where was this manic, frenetic art coming from? It was a sign of the irrational exuberance of the times, for one thing. Money was flowing before 2008, and there was a giddy mood in art’s hothouse capital cities. The US was also at war, and there was an element of escapism in the rush by the media and market to highlight this work. Psychedelic aesthetics were due for a comeback too, about four decades removed from their initial creation. And even as the digital occupied a greater share of people’s attention, this high-intensity art required that you be there to see it, live and in person. The screen—as it existed in low-res form at the time—couldn’t capture its intensity.
Meanwhile, museums were getting bigger—MASS MoCA opened in 1999, Tate Modern in the Turbine Hall in 2000—and the market was expanding. Art Basel Miami Beach began in 2002, after being scuttled the year before by 9/11. It was one of many new international art bazaars (and biennials) to arrive in rapid succession. You don’t get attention at such crowded events with art that is subdued. Writing of the 1999 Venice Biennale, Peter Schjeldahl coined the term Festival Art to denote “environmental stuff that, existing only in exhibition, exalts curators over dealers and a hazily evoked public over dedicated art mavens.” It was about to proliferate.
Under these conditions, some artists opted to embrace pure spectacle, packaging corporate excess, Hollywood effects, and sex as easily identifiable markers of transgression. Take the Brits Tim Noble and Sue Webster, who around the turn of the millennium began producing huge sculptures bedazzled with hundreds of lights, like YE$ (2001), which is that word standing nearly 6 feet tall, made with “335 ice white turbo reflector caps.” Their 35-foot-tall Electric Fountain (3,390 LEDs, for those keeping score at home) graced Rockefeller Plaza in 2008 in a project from the Art Production Fund.³ The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver installed a permanent Noble-Webster as a landmark when its David Adjaye–designed home opened in 2007. Perched 32 feet high atop a pole, Toxic Schizophrenia (Hyper Version)—comprising reflectors, LED lights, and glass fiber—is a red heart stabbed through with a sword and dripping blood, like a 3D Ed Hardy tattoo. This is art made for people who have never been to (or who just dislike) Las Vegas or Times Square: ads without crass products. It can be transfixing, though.
Meanwhile, acting like big-budget set designers, artists turned white-walled galleries and raw warehouses into immersive, psychologically fraught worlds. In 2001, Christoph Büchel transformed Michele Maccarone’s new Manhattan gallery into a series of claustrophobic spaces: a tiny classroom, a grimy bathroom, etc. (“Please leave your Gucci & Prada at home,” the dealer cautioned in a press release.) Mike Nelson’s 2007 A Psychic Vacuum secreted an abandoned bar, various gritty rooms, and an ocean of sand in the disused Essex Street Market (just blocks from Maccarone). The next year, Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe made their debut (in collaboration with Alexandre Singh) at Ballroom Marfa. Hello Meth Lab in the Sun included a mock drug-manufacturing facility, an attic space with porn wallpaper, and other dilapidated environs.
For the urban gallerygoer, these immersive pieces offered a chance to tour the decay gripping so much of the once-industrialized West. The works delivered the thrill of discovery (faux-speakeasy bars came into fashion at the same time), even as they lent new credence to Walter Benjamin’s old line about how humankind’s “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” The reputedly noncommercial nature of these elaborate worlds was integral to their appeal. In the next decade, though, canny marketers at the Museum of Ice Cream and the Color Factory (and artist Yayoi Kusama) would eschew their creepy content and sell tickets for ready-to-photograph environments defined by mind-numbing consumption and forced joy. Between the avowedly high-art experiences of Nelson and company and the pricy pleasures to come, Carsten Höller’s slides (installed at Tate Modern in London in 2006) are the essential link—the literal slippery slope.
What else dominated column inches and fashion spreads during the decade? One highly visible strain of work foregrounded gender in a direct, deadpan manner, as in Vanessa Beecroft’s endless gangs of nude women standing about,4 and Aaron Young’s motorcyclists spinning their bikes and burning rubber on black plywood panels spread across the floor of the Park Avenue Armory in New York in 2007, creating swirling patterns of exposed bright underpainting—a heavy-handed homage to Jackson Pollock that went to farcical proportions to one-up his brand of hyper machismo. Roberta Smith proposed that the plan to divvy up the 288 panels into paintings of various sizes might “buy Mr. Young enough time to figure out a more profound way to make paintings or other kinds of art.” Has anyone seen those paintings recently?
In its recycling of metal and punk tropes and allusions to avant-gardists past (lots of American flags, smoke, mirrors), Young’s work can be pretty one note, but it has a certain (maybe too on-the-nose) relevance today. In a 2009 solo show at Almine Rech in Brussels, thick tire tracks covered the floor, and he presented sheets of glass bearing phrases like GO HOME! The spray-painted message on a contemporaneous bronze resembling a rough-hewn stone reads, LOCALS ONLY! Here—from an ambiguous degree of ironic distance5—is the ascendant nativism, performative masculinity, and NIMBYism that would define American politics in the coming years. If only we—or Democratic operatives—had realized what Young was laying bare.
In rare cases, high-gloss artifacts from the aughts have taken on a lovable patina, their skewering of celebrity culture rendered quaint and innocent. That is how Francesco Vezzoli’s short video Trailer for the Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula feels. Screening to much fanfare at the 2005 Venice Biennale before alighting at the 2006 Whitney Biennale, it has stars like Benicio Del Toro, Helen Mirren, and Courtney Love (“How lonely it is to be a god,” she declaims as Caligula) having a good time in togas. A voiceover breathlessly describes “a place thick with lust, overflowing with passion, dominated by corrupt power and sadistic pleasures.”
“For me, the art world has become a place that has turned itself, willingly or not, into some sort of entertainment industry,” Vezzoli told the New York Times in 2006. The whole trailer phenomenon is charmingly naive, and the sensation of watching these big names revel good-naturedly in faux Roman imperial decadence can be oddly comforting. Social media was about to destabilize notions of celebrity, algorithms would dismantle and balkanize cultural authority, and the art world’s zest for entertainment was about to rocket into the stratosphere.
“What is the point of telling the story of someone who was somewhat insane at a very dark point in human history?” asks Gore Vidal at the start of the video, nattily attired and sitting between a white bust and a harp. Vidal pauses for dramatic effect, before continuing. “I think the answer to that is: Every point in human history is dark.” Truer words . . .
Three skate ramps can illustrate a key story of the 2000s. The first came from the aforementioned Majerus, who in 2000 plastered a generously scaled half-pipe he conceived at the Kölnischer Kunstverein in Germany with corporate logos and bits of digitally inflected graphic design. Next up, in 2002, is a kidney-shaped bowl that the art/architecture collective Simparch installed at Deitch Projects in SoHo, accompanying a show called “Session the Bowl” with skate-adjacent artists like Ryan McGinness, Phil Frost, and, naturally, KAWS. Finally, in “Poetry,” his 2010 Gagosian blowout on West 24th Street in Chelsea, Dan Colen, the mascot and whipping boy for so much of what happened in the decade in New York, presented an immaculate half-pipe turned upside down.
In that trio of works one sees a tidy summation of ways in which the art world has approached subcultures. Majerus used the pipe as a canvas, ornamenting it with playful reverence. Deitch went a great deal further, earnestly capturing a scene and providing a skate spot while also aestheticizing the affair. In a press release, curator Hamza Walker proposed that “skateboarding is to pavement what Greenberg argued paint is to canvas.” Colen, for his part, rendered the half-pipe as a nonfunctional object—another Minimalist sculpture, delivering a death knell for the art industry’s fleeting fixation.6
All three examples can look goofy in different ways from the perch of 2020, but the Deitch showcase stands out as a reminder of what’s possible when the art world decides to engage meaningfully with methods of cultural production a bit beyond its borders. It brought together a bunch of artists involved in a distinct scene (skaters recommended many of the participants) and let them go for it. As much as the gallery has been dinged in some quarters for its heat-seeking program, it was one of the most committed, exhilarating venues in town during the decade, as Deitch’s catholic taste and ready capital got a lot of strange, singular art made and shown.7
The art industry could benefit from more, and longer-lasting, bowl sessions, and fewer repetitive showings by the same predictable people. “Session the Bowl” featured names the American museum world largely ignores, from graffiti figures like Dash and Futura to street-minded people like Ed Templeton and Barry McGee, whose Mission School cohort has been almost entirely sidelined by major-league curators, absurdly, over the past decade. KAWS evidently had the insight that he’d need to build a career beyond the confines of the art realm, doing deals in clothing, toys, and so much more. It’s worked out for him.
The definitive end-marker for the aughts, for my money, has always been that Colen show at Gagosian, and not just because of the upside-down half-pipe. A long row of motorcycles—Young’s tool of choice—were toppled onto one another, rendered impotent. And the walls bore vibrant gestural abstractions made from chewing gum: the decade’s psych/wall-power art rendered instead via cheap, disposable, wan means. The artist’s longtime friend, Dash Snow, another exemplar of the downtown New York scene, had died the year before. The year before that, the first gallery to give Colen a show, Rivington Arms, had closed. In 2006, he had placed work in Gagosian’s bathrooms. Four years later, he was now on the grand stage.
Colen was positioned to make it safely into the next decade—through the 2008 economic wreckage— in high style. Most artists were not. They never are, because galleries close, and curators and collectors move on to the next thing. The list of the anointed keeps churning.
Reyle, for his part, emerged from retirement after only about two years—a break reminiscent of Jay-Z’s—at a 2016 show in Berlin. He’s still active, but one hears less about him these days. And yet, who knows what might happen? The process that Westreich described keeps going, after all. Snap judgments recede, trends come and go, and critical criteria change. It’s certainly conceivable that some aspect of Reyle’s effervescent art might generate excitement for a new generation.
This past summer, Anton Kern showed an unwieldy Assume Vivid Astro Focus sculpture—all sharp edges and flashing lights—in a window gallery he operates in Tribeca. What once looked overwrought and overdetermined suddenly looked pleasantly weird to me, like the work of someone who had run amok in the shops on nearby Canal Street that hawk plastics and lights. Parker’s work has also been looking fresh in recent shows, like a jolt of energy and a vital forebear to the wily canvases of artists like Henry Gunderson and Jamian Juliano-Villani, the latter, his former assistant.
Fame, we know, is fleeting. The artists who end up in the history books tend to be the ones who keep doing what they want to do, even after the applause disappears, because taste is always in flux and sometimes it circles back on itself.
In 2011, Young nailed the tenuous nature of acclaim in an interview with the critic Julie Boukobza in advance of “Always Forever Now,” his one-person exhibition at Rech in Paris. “Timing is essential,” he says at one point. “Timing in performance. Timing in telling a joke. Timing for a successful robbery. Timing is extremely important for an artwork.”
1 The Museum of Modern Art in New York has owned the work since 2014.
2 A loosely defined term, it pops up in market reports throughout the early 2000s to denote work whose aesthetic punch is bound to its price tag. Journalist Souren Melikian, in 2004, notes that a high-selling seventeenth-century Jacob Biltius “hung in Sotheby’s spacious rooms, impressed with its ‘wall power’ as the phrase goes here”; Carol Vogel writes in 2010 that a 1932 Picasso “drips with ‘wall power,’ meaning it screams expensive”; by 2014, Scott Reyburn is describing the demand for flashy contemporary abstractions (examples of Flip Art, in his parlance) that are “often big, and have significant wall power.”
3 APF, which was founded in 2000, showed an uncanny ability to channel the decade’s zeitgeist in their choice of projects (for better and for worse), staging Rudolf Stingel’s Plan B (2004) in Grand Central Terminal in New York and Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada Marfa (2005), among other pieces.
4 Vanessa Beecroft, of course, came to notice in the 1990s, but her most—how to put it—dramatic work appears in the 2000s, as exemplified by her 2007 Venice Biennale performance, Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?, which featured some thirty Sudanese women painted black, lying atop white canvas, as red paint was splattered around them—a means of calling attention to the genocide in their country. She would begin working with Kanye West the next year.
5 Young’s works evince an admixture of irony and indulgence in their approach to stereotypical masculinity. An analogue can be found in Richard Prince’s contemporaneous “Nurse” paintings, which were highly coveted at the time. “Are these paintings ironic appropriations meant to deconstruct a regressive stereotype?” Mia Fineman wrote in Slate in 2003. “Or has an element of sheer pleasure snuck into the irony?”
6 Jerry Saltz also made the connection between Colen’s sculpture and “Session the Bowl” in his review of the Gagosian show in “The Great Regression,” Artnet Magazine, Sept. 27, 2010, artnet.com.
7 In the current iteration of his New York gallery, Deitch has been sifting through 1980s art history, championing underrecognized figures like Walter Robinson and Peter Nagy.
This article appears in the November/December 2020 issue, pp. 30–37.