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Is there an ongoing American Renaissance in contemporary art?

Spotlight shifts from German artists to their US counterparts as Saatchi, Rubells and others mount exhibitions of their work

Look around the art world this year and it’s hard to miss the surging interest in American artists. This spring, for example, there was the Centre Pompidou’s retrospective celebrating the contemporary art of Los Angeles and the Kunsthalle Zurich’s exhibition on the work of young New Yorkers Wade Guyton, Seth Price, Josh Smith and Kelley Walker. But the blockbuster arrives this fall: “USA Today” at the Royal Academy’s Museum of Mankind in London (7 October-4 November), a show of American artists drawn from the collection of Charles Saatchi. “When Charles showed me the images for this show, I got very excited,” recalls Royal Academy exhibitions secretary Norman Rosenthal. “He got it right and I expect the exhibition to be epoch-making.”

Manchester collector Frank Cohen, often described as the “Saatchi of the North”, beat the original UK super-collector to it, however, with “Dirty Boyz Get Clean”, an exhibition of hard-core paintings from five young Los Angeles artists at London’s the Hospital gallery (until 5 August). Opening just after Art Basel and timed to coincide with the contemporary auctions, the show draws on both Cohen’s collection and that of contemporary dealer Nicolai Frahm. “This show reflects what’s going on in Los Angeles right now,” says Mr Frahm, whose buying trips to California started three years ago. “They’re about this dream-like state, with fantasies of sex and drugs and surreal landscapes, but also about Americana—J. Lo’s big ass and truckers. US art is totally unlike what’s happening in Germany. It’s much more liberated and somehow childish, not so super serious.”

Furthermore, after featuring German and Eastern European artists in recent years, the Rubell Family Collection’s exhibition during Art Basel Miami Beach this December—often a market bellwether given the way less-experienced collectors copy the Rubell acquisitions—will display many newly acquired works from young Los Angeles artists. Titled “Red Eye” (in reference to the many overnight flights the family and their curator Mark Coetzee logged in amassing the works selected), the show mixes established artists such as John Baldessari, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy with the city’s young guns, including Nathan Mabry, Ry Rocklen and Matthew Monahan (see facing page). “Los Angeles continues to influence a young group of talented artists,” says Jason Rubell. “We are excited about the possibility of connecting the older influential artists from the late 80s and early 90s with those starting to work today.”

Phillip Martin of the Los Angeles gallery Cherry and Martin, which represents Mabry, notes that the current art world attention is truly transatlantic.

“I think more than Europe discovering Los Angeles—because I think it was Europe that put Los Angeles on the map in the first place in many ways—New Yorkers are finally discovering Los Angeles,” he explains. “They are moving out here, visiting us, collecting the work of the city’s artists. [Los Angeles dealer] Rosamund Felsen always said that New York basically ignored the Los Angeles artists of the late 80s and early 90s—like Chris Burden and Jim Shaw—until European interest was so strong that they couldn’t ignore them any more.”

Of course, such attention tends to reshape the marketplace. While Mr Frahm recalls easily buying up many paintings when he started scouring the Los Angeles scene a few years ago, such purchases have become more difficult to pull off since the collectors he advises started arriving on the scene.

For all the focus on California, if one speaks of an American Renaissance, then it’s a renaissance with two distinctly different epicentres: Los Angeles and New York. Because while both cities produce artists too diverse to shoebox into a simple East Coast/West Coast dichotomy, it would also be a mistake to conflate the two into one “American” scene. And while Los Angeles may be more in the spotlight, other young American artists have also found favour on foreign ground.

When Berlin and Zurich dealer Matthias Arndt showed work by Jules de Balincourt for the first time in Berlin recently, for example, most of the show sold to Germans and other Europeans. Still, Mr Arndt cautions that not all American art travels well. “There’s still a lot of mediocre work produced there, and only the excellent artists can compete in Europe, which has always been a bit of a survival test for American artists,” says Arndt, who alongside de Balincourt this year also added Americans Josephine Meckseper and Douglas Kolk to his gallery’s roster. “But we’re happy to see the spotlight shift toward Americans, rather than collectors just seeking out the fourth wave of painters from Dresden and Leipzig.”

As with any art world trend, assigning causality is tricky. Manhattan dealer Zach Feuer, who represents six out of the 25 artists in “USA Today”, including Jules de Balincourt, suggests an attitudinal shift. “There was a perception that American art is quick and dumb, and that’s changing,” he explains. “People are realising that’s not true—though I’m not sure if the art changed, or if it’s just the shifting zone of art world attention that goes from Germany to China to Poland and now to the US” Also, Mr Feuer suggests, the rest of the world has perhaps caught on to American art as a result of international curators and dealers interacting with the many jet-setting collectors from the United States, who often promote their own local favourites while abroad.

That said, Rosenthal suggests something fundamental has shifted in terms of the art itself. “America had some bad innings for the last ten or 15 years,” he said. “Whenever I went to New York, I never sensed a lot going on in terms of anything new developing. But with this new generation you have something monumental and refined. Terence Koh is like the other side of Bruce Nauman and Banks Violette is like the other side of Matthew Barney.”

Currently preparing a massive Koh show for opening on 25 August, Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf also cites the influence of previous generations on today’s young Americans, saying the strength of the current scenes lies in artists working in a void created by 11 September, looking toward local histories for inspiration. “The four New Yorkers we showed together know a lot about art history, and though they say they’re not political, they’re very precise in their attitudes toward the market and toward working collectively,” she explains.

“That historical awareness creates local scenes, and in Los Angeles you can see how people like Catherine Sullivan and Daria Martin are influenced by Baldessari, McCarthy and Kelley.” Longtime London dealer Maureen Paley, who recently added Violette to her roster, suggests the work coming out of the States has evolved in a new direction. “The generation of artists that figured in the last two Whitney Museum biennials are darker—more melancholy and contemplative,” she explains. “It’s a very different stance.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘American Renaissance'