2.27.17 — Uneasy Riders

It is never easy to get to Kennedy Airport—and never easy to deal with security if you are an African American. Next time, you might consider instead traveling by horseback.

Believe it or not, the Federation of Black Cowboys occupies wind-swept stables off Howard Beach. Cattle driving while black? Founded to promote knowledge of “the black West,” the federation could hardly have made its home further east. Ron Tarver's A Ride by North Philly Rows (Studio Museum in Harlem, 1993)Designed to give its members the autonomy and authority they deserve, it may end up leaving them to white eyes as invisible men.

Yet they are visible, in photographs by Brad Trent—and in “Black Cowboy,” at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 5—and I have appended this to an earlier report on Kerry James Marshall for a longer review and my latest upload. The show may sound like a bad joke or a provocation, and its photos and videos share a wry sense of humor and a true grit. They are not, though, just one-liners. Forget Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles or the Marlborough Man for Richard Prince. These artists have little interest in popular culture or appropriation. They may not recover much in the way of history either, but they do tackle the stubborn image problem of the black male.

Wall text refers to the old West and to “buffalo soldiers” in and after the Civil War. All six artists, though, stick to the present. Deanna Lawson comes closest to myth making, with her solitary figure on horseback—but as part of her intimate portraits of what she likes to call her family. And Ron Tarver comes closest to comedy in North Philadelphia, where a rider passes beneath a billboard image of Malcolm X and leaves his horse at a playground to indulge in a slam dunk. The rest, though, document actual troops and events. Like Tarver, they also play a cowboy’s ideal of freedom against the reality of black America.

Upstairs, the Studio Museum celebrates its collection with a modest look at its first full decade. It takes one back as well to a time before Modernism lost its authority, but also before African American art gained its measure of recognition, assuming it ever has. “Circa 1970” has abstractions by Normal Lewis, Jack Whitten, Al Loving, McArthur Binion, Robert Blackburn, and Sam Gilliam. It also has a body print by David Hammons, a sweeping but empty cape in bronze by Barbara Chase-Riboud, a crucifix by Betye Saar, an effigy in nylons by Senga Nengudi, and a painting of “trash” by Benny Andrews. The mezzanine sticks to politics in the present, with “The Window and the Breaking of the Window”—after a descriptor of black people in text art by William Pope.L. It cannot, though, match the anger and despair of simply reading the news.

So what's NEW!The smaller show downstairs, just outside the gallery recently for sculpture by Richard Hunt (and now on the theme of text art), does more to keep one guessing about black and white. Yes, the Federation on Howard Beach is real, as is the nasty swagger of its riders. Trent discovered them thanks to The Village Voice and photographed them with an eye to Richard Avedon and In the American West. Just as real is the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, in South Philly. Mohamed Bourouissa sets his two-channel video in front of posters for the club, which aspires to guide children through urban decay along with horses. He takes nothing away from his subjects, but also nothing away from the incongruity.

The irony only increases in Louisiana, where prisoners from Angola perform their annual rodeo in photos by Chandra McCormick. They can master roping, but not half so much as the system that will return them to maximum security. Most unexpected of all, a black community has its place and its horsemanship in Wildcat, Oklahoma. In a film by Kahlil Joseph, the rodeo descends in slow motion into darkness and specks of artificial light. Bourouissa says that he had thought cowboys were white, like John Wayne. Here they are thoroughly black, but one can barely make out their pride or their color.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

2.24.17 — As If Alive

In “My Last Duchess,” the duke unveils a portrait of the woman that he has had killed, as a fitting testimony to her beauty and his terrifying authority. Yet the poem, by Robert Browning, also boasts of an ideal that anyone will recognize—the power of art to reach beyond the grave. “There she stands as if alive.”

MutualArtThose portraits by Rembrandt, Anthony van Dyck, or John Singer Sargent that seem to capture a sitter in the act? Their subjects died, too, long ago. And the illusion of life may itself pay tribute to the dead, as what the American Folk Art Museum through February 26 calls “Securing the Shadow.”

For America in the first half of the nineteenth century, bridging life and death had a special urgency—and I have wrapped this in with a past report on American stories by George Caleb Bingham as a longer review and my latest upload. Cholera, dysentery, and other diseases were matters of everyday life, and roughly one in four children died in infancy. Art helped parents not just to remember the dead, for they could hardly help it, but to deal with the pain by restoring a kind of life. Specialists in child portraits like William Matthew Prior or John Brewster, Jr., served that need. So did specialists in gravestones, miniatures, and silhouettes as the shadow of a life, only they all had to work with a constraint that Rembrandt never knew. Their sitters were already gone.

This had its advantages. One never had to deal with a sitter as impatient as Benjamin Franklin in Paris. One never had to repeat, like Sally Mann in her memoir as a photographer, “Hold still.” Yet it also meant working from death casts and measurements—and it meant working fast, before the coffin was sealed and its contents began to decay. Michele Felice Cornè's Death of William (photo by Kathy Tarantola, Peabody Essex Museum, c. 1807)It meant, too, giving the dead the color of life and inserting them, upright, in the company of family or a landscape. No wonder the introduction in 1839 of daguerreotypes dealt a blow to the genre in painting, quite apart from making things so much easier. Death could no longer shake its ghostly pallor.

The posthumous portraits have all the marks of folk art. They run to frontal poses, awkward expressions, heavy shadows, and shallow spaces. Except for Prior, the artists have mostly faded from memory themselves. This is not, though, outsider art, for all the chill it inspires akin to madness. People earned a living at this, including women like Michele Felice Cornè. Often they had known loss themselves, and as mainstream an artist as Charles Willson Peale painted his wife holding her child against bed linens as gray and cold as the daughter’s flesh. Joseph Whiting Stock knew the fragility of life in a different way, as a painter confined to a wheelchair.

The curator, Stacy C. Hollander, brings a context in competing media—plus the invitation to write your own epitaph on slate. (Most visitors cannot resist an irony foreign to the paintings.) One learns how painters found stock markers for mortality—in plucked flowers, cut thread, ships at sea (for the passage to the afterlife), a sunset, one sock off, or the blue associated with the Virgin Mary. When Ambrose Andrews paints children at shuttlecock, their very stiffness reeks of death, but their paddles also point to the heavens. One learns, too, how commissions paired children dead and alive, with no easy way to know which is which. People wanted them in their homes, Hollander notes, as “palpable presences.”

They were surely eerie presences, often at life size, then as now. Scenes tend to efface distinctions between sitters, beyond a favorite doll or pet. They efface the circumstances of death as well—hardly what a family cared to remember, even if medicine then had had more of a clue. Yet they still speak to the stories that art tells or refuses to tell. Maybe English speakers no longer refer to still-life as nature morte, but Surrealism’s postmodern heirs today favor a theater of life then called tableau vivant. By messing with the distinction between nature and culture, art is still a matter of life and death.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

2.22.17 — A Throw of the Dice

When Thomas Lendvai flings a die across the gallery, he leaves nothing to chance—nothing, that is, but the experience. Minimalism long invited one to walk on the art, as with Carl Andre, or to look away or within. Lendvai, too, allows one to choose one’s path, but with a few surprises along the way.

What looks like an obstacle becomes an opening, at Odetta through February 26, and what looks like an exit becomes an inner sanctum or a dead end. The six titled planes may join in a V or have a corner cut off by the floor, as if sunk right in. They all but dare one to reassemble them as a cube. Thomas Lendvai's Untitled (Odetta, 2017)

Toute Pensée émet un Coup de Dés. (“Every Thought issues a Throw of Dice.”) The words come at the end of Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard, the book-length poem by Stéphane Mallarmé from 1897. Its wide-open layout and seemingly random capitalization keep one reading, thinking, and guessing. Is this book art, free verse, or a surrender to language itself—or a clue to Lendvai? No matter, for (to translate the title) “a throw of the dice will never abolish chance.”

Minimalism can be exhilarating or threatening. Tony Smith called his mammoth black cube Die, with the obvious pun, and Thomas Lendvai could have dismantled it for the occasion. The work’s precarious balance also recalls Richard Serra. Lendvai, though, is more likely to mention Mallarmé and early Modernism. If a painting by Kazimir Malevich became an installation, would it look like this? Maybe it depends on scale.

Russian Constructivism left plenty of sculpture, and it looks nothing like Minimalism or zombie formalism. It does not often echo the surrounding architecture. It certainly does not sink into the floor. Still, Lendvai has a point. His planes seem to float, like a black or white square by Malevich, for all their firm contact with the ground. Their dance more than mitigates the threat.

Kurt Steger, too, leaves himself open to experience, but he means to include the experience of the outside world. Like Lendvai’s, his sculpture plays with its own weight. It suspended from the ceiling at the same gallery just a few months earlier, through August 21, like an enormous Chinese lantern. It offered a kind of protection, like a paper canopy, but also a puzzle: what accounts for its irregular shape? He found that shape in a city park.

He also inverted what he found, much as Lendvai turns a cube inside-out. It may look like a chunk of granite, the kind that kids climb all over, but instead he molded it from one—as with the smaller models that he exhibits as sculpture. One has to imagine the rock filling the gallery beneath its edges. He calls it Scribing the Void, with an equal emphasis on writing, drawing, and emptiness. It may sound scary to enter the void, even with a scribe and even in the park. But then good kids know when to take chances.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

2.20.17 — Exile on Central Park West

Max Beckmann has finally made it to the Met. It only took him a lifetime.

Beckmann was sixty-six when he set off to cross Central Park exactly that many years ago, only to die of a heart attack along the way. He had lived here all of two years, even counting a summer away in Oakland, where he taught at Mills College. Even then, apparently, he could not support himself entirely through his art. Max Beckmann's Family Picture (Museum of Modern Art, 1920)Yet the museum considers it the end of the German artist’s many years of exile. He had an apartment on the Upper West Side, another job at the Brooklyn Museum’s art school, and a favorite haunt or two in lavish hotel bars. He had found, he wrote, his long lamented prewar Berlin “multiplied a hundredfold.”

It takes chutzpah to imagine him at home anywhere, much less New York. The dozen paintings from those months rarely picture the city, and they have landed pretty much anywhere but here. Yet they and that dark December day in 1950 supply the excuse for “Max Beckmann in New York,” through February 20—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review, in my latest upload. Without them, it would amount to a small survey drawn from local collections, with their share of gaps and no other local connection. They do, though, show an artist always in society and yet always in exile. They show him, too, as a mythmaker and realist, with himself at the center of reality and the myth.

Sure enough, Beckmann was crossing town to see his very own image, in an exhibition of contemporary American art. If that subject and year make you think of other exiles in New York, such as Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, just then breaking through to Abstract Expressionist New York, forget it. He commands the scene in a white tie, reddish orange shirt, and even more startling blue jacket. Its loose fit and the hand slipped casually into his right pants pocket only emphasize his ease and presence. As so often, a slashing black picks out the folds, and the acid colors extend to green, for a foreground table or chair. As so often, too, a more subdued and sparely painted background frames him but cannot trap him. Highlights bring out his roving eyes and high forehead.

The portrait faces the entrance wall, in a room of self-portraits. They surround visitors on every side, almost always with those cool skin tones, restless eyes, and a cigarette. The curator, Sabine Rewald, sees in them a vulnerable, even introspective character. She calls him fragile compared to the bulk of his blue jacket. Do not believe it for a minute, not even when he holds an outsize horn to his ear like a hearing aid for a virtuoso. He is both taking you in and putting on a show.

He is Richard III for a modern-day drawing room. As a child in a 1949 triptych, Beginning, he even wears a paper crown. The crown transfers to a Viking at the center of another triptych and probably his most famous work, Departure from 1933, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The Vikings are at sea, between scenes of unspeakable torture, while a drummer marches past to commemorate their fate. Are they in exile or relentless invaders, tormented or tormentors, in a mythic past or a frightening historical present? The question applies to everyone and everything he sees.

The show runs neither thematically nor chronologically—a far cry from the 2003 Beckmann retrospective at MoMA (the occasion for me of a deeper look at his work), for all its quality. Is everything just a carnival all along? Faced with the grim spectacle, I often wish that Beckmann could get over his exile. Stop exaggerating, I want to scream, and just calm down. Maybe, though, he already has. He can always put on a blue jacket, formal wear, or a sailor suit and invite you to his studio, so long as you do not expect a welcome.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

2.17.17 — Earthworks as Dump Sites

Are earthworks just overblown dump sites? One could head out to Michael Heizer at his ranch in Nevada to ask his neighbors, assuming that he has any. He has been hauling earth for his City for more than forty years. Better yet, one could ask Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Closer to home, she has conceived of Freshkills, the huge landfill on Staten Island, as a public space since 1977. As Better Davis said, “what a dump.”

Ukeles differs from Heizer in at least one regard: her work is collaborative. She has served for all that time as artist in residence for the department of sanitation. Over the course of a year, starting in 1979, she shook hands with every one of its employees. Is New York closing the landfill and converting it into a park? Mierle Laderman Ukeles's Touch Sanitation Performance (photo by Robin Holland, Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, 1979–1980)Fine with her, for that will bring her Inner City Outer Space to completion in 2018.

She stands apart from Heizer in another way as well: she has seen too much of art as the latest development. Ukeles styles herself a maintenance artist, just as “sanmen” are maintenance workers. Her performances began with everyday tasks and everyday things, such as raking leaves and scrubbing a sidewalk. She asked workers in lower Manhattan in 1976 to consider an hour of their work as art as well. When a review in the Village Voice joked that the sanitation department, too, should call its work performance art, she and the department reached out to one another, and she is still in it for the long haul.

Fittingly, her retrospective unfolds in a park, at the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadow through February 19. Fittingly, too, the museum houses a model of the city’s watershed, in collaboration with Rebecca Solnit, the writer and activist. It also maintains and updates its model of the entire city, left over from the 1964 World’s Fair—on which Ukeles traces the course of her Touch Sanitation Performance, or handshakes, in lights. Much of the exhibition traces her residency, including a ceremonial arch of sanitation equipment and gloves, first displayed at the World Financial Center in 1988. Even earlier, she began asking garbage trucks and scows to drive in circles, as Work Ballets, like comic echoes of a movie by Jacques Tati. Every weekend of the show, a mirrored truck drives up, as if eager to join in.

Besides earthworks and performance, Ukeles has more unexpected roots. She thinks of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Marcel Duchamp as family. She connects maintenance art to tikkun olam, the Jewish obligation to “repair the world.” Her partnership also has to do with a tradition of celebrating labor, as with WPA art during the New Deal, and the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, when funds were lacking and workers were in need of respect. The Voice review added that they should ask for money from the National Endowment for the Arts. Most of all, though, she was making a feminist statement, going back to a Manifesto for Maintenance Art in 1969.

“I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc.,” she wrote after becoming a mother. “Also, (up to now separately) I ‘do’ Art.” She did not yet have the sanitation department in mind, but she might well have. Washing, cleaning, supporting? No sweat. Back at the landfill, microbes even do the cooking, breaking down garbage and emitting methane.

Minimalism arose alongside earthworks and feminism, even for a maximalist like Heizer—and Ukeles differs once again in going over the top, not always to her benefit. The ceremonial arch is unashamedly gaudy. She is also unashamedly a cheerleader, from a 1984 performance erasing slurs directed at sanitation workers to a mural representing their work shifts as black areas on the face of a clock. It provides colorful wallpaper for the exterior of the model city. If too much else gets lost in a mass of documentation, a circular Peace Table of blue glass anchors the exhibition beneath the museum’s skylight, with wires rising up and sunlight tumbling from above. Not only a dump site can provide common ground and a moment of quiet beauty.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

2.15.17 — Gilding the Laurel

Pierre Gouthière played a role in the foundation of the Louvre. It was not the role he wanted.

In late 1797, the French Ministry of Finance ordered the sale of two alabaster vases “of mediocre quality” to help fund the museum. That description may not ring true today for gilded mounts that Gouthière had fashioned some twenty years before. The Frick goes so far as to claim that they “capture . . . blossoming laurel . . . as if cast from nature.” Yet the master gilder had seen his patrons dead, his finances in ruins, and his art a thing of the past.

It takes a leap into the past even to describe his art as nature. His subjects included the fantasy or exoticism of nymphs, dromedaries, African heads, and ambiguous gender along with leaves, snakes, door knobs, and ram’s heads. They grow so intricate as to all but dissolve into a weave of gold. Gouthière may have been gilding laurel, but he was surely also gilding the lily. He met standards of realism that Revolutionary France had begun to set side, in favor of Neoclassicism. A show of him as “Virtuoso Gilder at the French Court” brings that style to life through February 19.

It offers a welcome lesson or two, even for someone like me with little love of excess. The Frick has always held furniture and the decorative arts, although one might walk right past them on the way to paintings. A commission here once shared a room with the museum’s holdings of Jean Honoré Fragonard. As its first sampling of a living artist, it has invited Arlene Shechet into its portico gallery, to curate Rococo porcelain and her own. Now, though, it installs the gilding downstairs, in rooms more often dedicated to prints and drawings. It shows the gilder at work and on the make.

That first lesson comes with effective use of new media, from a museum that has often leapt ahead of others with its Web site. A video explains Gouthière’s craft, and a touch screen allows one to flip through the results. They introduce vocabulary like firedogs (or the public face of andirons), thyrsi (or the staff of ivy and pine that Bacchus carried), and dégraissage (or paring back, from an artist with no penchant for restraint). He had a hand every step of the way, from the creation of a wax mold for bronze to gilding and burnishing. For him, chasing meant cutting into metal with tool after tool—not just to shape it, but also for a wealth of detail. That intricacy only increases over the course of his career.

Gouthière did work from designs by architects and classical models, because he played well by the game. Born in 1732, he quickly took over a patron’s workshop and married the man’s widow. He went around the merchant who had secured him work from the future king of Poland, put down the silversmith with whom he had partnered, and became gilder to the king of France in his mid-thirties. Where the court divided between supporters of Marie Antoinette, such as Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, and the king’s mistress, Gouthière succeeded with them both. Yet key patrons died soon after the revolution, stiffing him, and he hardly worked again until his death, bankrupt, in 1817.

He shows no sign of fatigue. The curator, Charlotte Vignon, opts for neither chronology nor theme. Like Gouthière, she pretty much piles it on. One can spot clearer masses early, but in time Greek porphyry, green marble, and Chinese porcelain must compete with fine leaves and chains. A dromedary’s hair rises like flames, as if from Gouthière’s sconces, incense burners, and firedogs. “Form follows function” is a distant dream away.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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