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Martin Johnson's Inure Self (1984)

The Art Habit

"An Economy of Means" at UMMA

by Kristen Letts Kovak

From the April, 2010 issue

A current exhibit at the U-M Museum of Art questions the importance of technical skill in art. Aptly titled An Economy of Means, it features seemingly naive art works acquired by modest collectors, Dorothy and Herbert Vogel. Most of the exhibition chronicles a movement known as "post-painting" in which artists questioned the relevance of representational skills as photographic and computer-generated images became more prevalent. Choosing to focus on theoretical concerns instead, they deliberately de-skilled their work in order to negate the history of realism in art.

Standing in sharp contrast to the museum's collection of masterful artwork that most people could neither create nor afford, this exhibition is dominated by artist Richard Tuttle's series of provisional five-minute watercolor stains on lined notebook paper. While dressed up in sleek Modernist frames, these untailored gestures remain visually simplistic. In Martin Johnson's mixed-media piece "Do Yu Get It?," the viewer encounters a befuddling mix of a toy car, sloppily hot-glued beads, and a red-lipped Cheshire grin dangling from a spider web. While these works border on self-indulgent, they are playful and genuinely unassuming, trading clarity for intuition. They embody a refreshing transformation of the humble to the grand, which I believe is what caught the eye of their collectors.

The Vogels are not the multimillionaires that one might expect. A former New York City librarian and postal clerk, respectively, they lived on Dorothy's salary and sacrificed Herbert's income to their art habit. Circumventing the high-culture dealers, they bought whatever art they could afford and that was small enough to fit in their one--bedroom apartment. As legend has it, the couple once "bought" a work from well-known environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude in exchange for babysitting their cat. They bought art because they loved it, not because it was a wise investment. They eventually gave away most of their collection, donating fifty pieces to each of fifty museums--one in every state. UMMA was the Michigan recipient.

Pieces in the Vogels' collection often reflect

...continued below...

the artists' thoughts and imagination more than they demonstrate technical skill. They celebrate the sheer joy of creating and the infinite possibilities that an artist has if unrestrained by historical expectations or the need to justify their product. While museums traditionally have trained us to stand awed in the presence of technical mastery, An Economy of Means democratically suggests that everyone can make and buy art. If you believe that the most playful art can be the most poetic, you will find this exhibition to be an interesting exploration of the childlike joys of making and collecting art, even when both seem irrational.

The exhibit runs through May 2.     (end of article)

[Originally published in April, 2010.]


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