Thursday, March 13th, 2014

The Art of the Chart: Loren Munk at Freight + Volume

Loren Munk: You Are Here at Freight + Volume

February 13 to March 15, 2014
530 West 24th Street, between 10th and 11th avenue,
New York City, 212 691 7700

Loren Munk, Members of the Artists' Club, 2009-2011, Oil on linen, 72 x 60 inches.  Courtesy of Freight + Volume
Loren Munk, Members of the Artists’ Club, 2009-2011, Oil on linen, 72 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Freight + Volume


Loren Munk makes paintings that look like diagrams. Thus Members of the Artists’ Club (2009-2011) maps the studio addresses of the members of the artists’ club, which in 1952 was located at 39 East 8th Street; Clement Greenberg (large) (2005-2006) charts the artists and institutions associated with that critic, set against a portrait of Greenberg and a timeline of his life; and American Painting: The Eighties  (2004-2005) presents the figures associated with Barbara Rose’s ill-fated 1979 exhibition with that title.  There is a lot to see here at Freight + Volume. You can look for names of artist-friends you haven’t met recently; look to his charting of art movements; or recall half-forgotten art world disputes. As brightly colored as Frank Stella’s 1980s constructions, Munk’s paintings present as much historical information as Irving Sandler’s written histories or Ad Reinhard’s cartoons. The richly contentious life of our art world is laid out here in lavish loving detail.

A little over a decade before Arthur Danto achieved fame within the art world for his aesthetic theorizing, the Harvard philosopher Nelson Goodman developed a systematic analysis of the symbol systems employed in art. His book Languages of Art (1968), much discussed by philosophers, never attracted attention amongst visual artists. Danto’s account was very well motivated with reference to contemporary art; Goodman’s was not—his discussion of perspective and forgery dealt with issues primarily of concern to older visual art.  That neglect of Goodman by artists was unfortunate, for his semiotic analysis had real affinities with the contemporary French structuralist theorizing, which did attract considerable attention. Like Danto, Goodman was interested in the difference between a work of art and a seemingly-identical artifact which may not be art at all. A work of art is autographic, so he argued, “if and only if the distinction between original and forgery of it is significant. . . if and only even even the most exact duplication of it does not thereby count as genuine” (I quote from the second edition, 1976.) Here, then, we find the crucial distinction between a work of art and a mere chart. A chart revealing the studio addresses of the members of the artists’ club should present that information legibly. The choice of color, typeface and composition, however, is arbitrary. But because Munk’s Members of the Artists’ Club is a work of art all of its properties are aesthetically significant. Change the colors, typeface or composition however slightly and it would be a different work of art – though of course it would still present the same information.

Writing as a philosopher, I admire the subtly of Munk’s thinking. His exhibition very nicely models a Goodman distinction between charts and works of art.  But that judgment in itself says nothing, of course about the value of his works as art—for  not all works of art are good works of art. Writing, then, as an art critic, I supplement that claim by praising Munk’s ability to translate dry historical materials into aesthetically satisfying works of art. Just as Marcel Proust adapted the genealogical obsessions of the Duc de Saint-Simon (1675 –1755), creating his marvelous fictional In Search of Lost Time from information not unlike that presented in the latter’s somewhat exhausting memoirs, so Munk has demonstrated that the artful charting of the recent history of our art world can, in his paintings, itself become a considerable work of art.

Loren Munk, The Irascibles, 2008, Oil on canvas, 26 x 36 inches.  Courtesy of Freight + Volume
Loren Munk, The Irascibles, 2008, Oil on canvas, 26 x 36 inches. Courtesy of Freight + Volume