What Does Curator Robert Storr See? A Conversation About ‘Retinal Hysteria’ at Venus Over Manhattan - The World News

What Does Curator Robert Storr See? A Conversation About ‘Retinal Hysteria’ at Venus Over Manhattan

On Great Jones Street, an east side enclave between the hubs of New York City’s art world, Chelsea and Tribeca, a mob of frenetic paintings fill the walls of Adam Lindemann’s gallery Venus Over Manhattan. The show, titled Retinal Hysteria and organized by the artist, critic, curator Robert Storr, serves as a kind of catharsis from the last five years of political and pandemic turbulence, both for Storr and, he hopes, for the art viewing public.

Storr, who formerly served as the senior curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, and dean of the Yale University School of Art, found inspiration for the show in Eye Infection, the Stedelijk Museum’s 2001–2002 exhibition for which he wrote the catalog essay. That show, like Retinal Hysteria, put the unsightly, sticky, scabby parts of life under the microscope with little regard for what was popular or prevailing market orthodoxy.

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A smiling man in a green leather jacket standing in a gallery.

Works by R. Crumb, Jim Nutt, and Peter Saul, three of the five artists from Eye Infection, anchor Retinal Hysteria, plus 40 or so more artists, from blue chip to freshly out of school, who contribute to a pimpled, tattooed, fleshy frenzy of almost 90 works. Storr and Venus Over Manhattan director and partner Anna Furney sat with ARTnews to talk about the origins of the show and why now is the right time to take a good look at less than pretty things.

ARTnews: What was the genesis of the show? From what I understand the two of you have been friendly but have never worked together before and, Rob, commercial gallery shows aren’t really your thing.

Anna Furney: I basically pushed him into doing it. It was a forceful invitation. To make light of the situation, Rob was reticent at first. He was not really enthusiastic about working with a commercial gallery, which he’d only done twice before, both times for solo exhibitions of artists. But for us, there was so much overlap with Rob’s thinking, practice, and theory and the artists that we had always loved and championed who are not always market darlings, but rather artists who were making art about things.

Robert Storr: She was persistent, I’ll say that. But I realized that I recently had been getting a craving for the kind of art that, in the 70s, was called “difficult” either because it was obscure or standoffish or too in your face. I thought, under present circumstances, where everything is so uptight, I said to Anna, okay, then we should let it all out. Let’s make a show not about one particular group, but rather about this energy release that I think we are all craving. After having been cooped up for the pandemic and the world being put under high pressure thanks to politics and a poorly run government, this work looks different and has taken on a new meaning.

Art Spiegelman, “Dawn,” 2023.

Courtesy the artist and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

AN: Was there a framework before Rob agreed, or was it more of a fly by the seat of your pants situation?

AF: You know, I think the way that galleries deal with art and artists and shows can be so hyper-professionalized, which is, of course, the point. We run businesses. But sometimes the business gets in the way of ideas. I think, in a certain way, I was attracted to Rob because I wanted to give him carte blanche. He’s had a really important voice in the art world for decades and I wanted to give him the space to do this kind of a radical, wild, and crazy show. I told him, “Do what you want, and we’ll believe in you.” There are $850 prints on the wall with things that are in the millions. In most contexts, that doesn’t really fly.

RS: All I wanted was to find work that had that buzz, that feel of the zeitgeist. 

AN: What’s the metric for that? How did you decide whose stuff can stand with the blue-chip works?

RS: For years I have been taking exception to Clement Greenberg’s celebration of the eye—some people have it, some people don’t. “The eye is what tells you what’s in good taste,” and so on. I’m completely disenchanted with that idea because it’s very, very conservative. But I do think some people have an eye for bad taste. 

AF: Oh my God [laughs].

RS: I mean bad taste that is actually intelligent, smart, you know, and has all kinds of other attributes, but is not what people think of as what they want to hang above the sofa. 

AF: I also think there’s there are artists in this show that are categorically in bad taste, but are represented by, say, David Zwirner. So I think that that description is not about the quality of the art, it’s just about the perception.

RS: It’s not about the quality of the art at all. What people want is a resolution. That’s what they say they want anyway. They want resolution, they want something that will be like an armchair that you can sink into at the end of a long day. And I understand that. I’m not against that, but I don’t think that’s the only thing art can do. I do think that there’s a lot of art, and has been for centuries, that is in this zone, which is about all the unresolvable contradictions and conflicts. We can’t just take them off the table because they can’t be resolved, we have to look at them as they morph generation to generation.

AF: That is one of the most interesting parts of the show. That intergenerational dialogue and exchange. You have 22-year-olds in here, and people who have been making art “in hysteria” for decades who are no longer living. It’s this kind of family tree or genesis of how people think about image making and about what historically has been allowed. There are artists here that were making things that were completely “not allowed” in their generation because they weren’t commercial enough and now there are people in the early, early parts of their career where their norm is to make difficult images that might not be terribly commercial.

Asher Liftin, “Cannibal,” 2023

Courtesy the artist, Nino Meir Gallery, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

AN: So what is it about these “difficult” images that attract you, or that people should consider when there are so many nicer looking pictures out there?

RS: Long ago, I said to myself, you cannot deny the things that get your attention. You can’t manufacture a good reason not to pay attention to them because it doesn’t work, you’ll end up paying attention to them anyway. And so, if that’s the case, what you have to do is figure out what is it in you that responds to them. What is it that has found this little pocket of receptivity in your imagination that you didn’t know you had and may not even want.

AF: This show really is about art at the margins. It’s about the kinds of things that exist and are able to exist because a lot of these makers are making it for the art’s sake. Often times they’re not making it for an audience, or for the art world. They make it because they had to. Sure, lots of the work is “difficult”, but don’t think the show is done in opposition to the mainstream. It’s made up of artists who are critically important to the dialogue that oftentimes aren’t considered mainstream.

AN: So, how then does someone go about appreciating this kind of work, work that doesn’t seem to notice or care whether you like it or not?

RS: Work like this, is not dissimilar to the conversation about abstract expressionism when that style first broke. It’s jarring, but certainly worth investigation. You have to start by asking simple questions. One, why would anybody get up in the morning and make that? And two, why do I notice it, what is it in me that responds to seeing? And if you can answer those questions, you’re way past all those sort of jargony, clumpy kinds of discourses. When you’re asking yourself those questions: what is it? What’s it made out of? Why was it made that way? That’s when you’re on to something that really matters.

Retinal Hysteria fills both Venus Over Manhattan locations, 39 and 55 Great Jones Street and includes work by Elliott Arkin, Kim Jones, Mark Thomas Gibson, Peter Saul, Dana Schutz, Chibuike Uzoma, and Kara Walker, among others. It closes on January 13.

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