Exhibit of the week: Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception

Why is MoMA so impressed with this Mexico-based artist?

Museum of Modern Art, New York

Through Aug. 1

What a con artist Francis Alÿs is, said Charlie Finch in Artnet.com. With this tribute to the “derivative and vain” 52-year-old Belgian conceptual artist, MoMA must be counting on the masses to be stupid, amnesiac, or both. Alÿs’s many admirers insist that his art tackles lofty political ideas, but it is, in fact, “only about himself.” And that’s when he’s not pilfering ideas from fellow artists, like some “cuckoo robbing another bird’s nest.” The video of this “good-looking moron” pushing a block of ice down a sunny Mexican street until it melts away to nothing? Straight out of William Pope.L’s playbook—from a year or two earlier. “The one piece I liked in this tedious show” depicts Alÿs walking around the base of a large flagpole with some sheep. Not bad. Except that Luis Buñuel’s 1951 version was better.

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The work wouldn’t be nearly as irritating if Alÿs displayed an ounce of humility, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. There’s a serious disconnect between the slightness of the work and the grandiosity of the accompanying descriptions. The recently completed video Tornado, which shows the artist chasing dust devils across the Mexican highlands and sometimes managing to step inside them, is a “fierce, frightening, beautiful” work. But is it really “a reflection of the present chaotic state” of his adopted home, as the label claims? MoMA’s curators seem so dazzled by this Mexico-based artist that “there is practically a bubble of preciousness and awe around this show.” His stunts are “not without charm,” but the royal treatment he gets makes you wonder why the museum is so taken with “the wan, cerebral machinations of late-late-late conceptualism.”

MoMA almost seems determined to make us lower our standards of what art can be, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. We’re being asked to replace our love of art with a vicarious appreciation of “someone else’s pranks and caprices.” Even so, Alÿs is more enjoyable when he’s chasing a whim than when he’s tipping toward didacticism. His paintings, for instance, “beguile with surreal imagery.” Not that they’re stunning, mind you. Most of them “suggest children’s-book illustrations by a not particularly talented Hieronymus Bosch. They are fey to the max.” But somehow, it’s hard to dislike the more vapid objects here. “You would be ashamed of disparaging them, as you would be of kicking a kitten.”

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