1.16.17 — MoMA’s Thrift Store

Kai Althoff would like to make a statement, if only he had more to say. MoMA gives him every opportunity, turning over one of its largest exhibition spaces to his work, with Althoff himself as curator.

Art lies everywhere, through January 22, seemingly at random, much of it piled together or still under wraps. Partitions have fallen away, in favor of whatever divisions might emerge from the artist’s tables, easels, and pallets. A coarse wood floor, painted white but well scuffed even before public access, covers the usual one, as if to protect him from himself. Consider it a wise idea.

The two hundred objects look as casually assembled as they are arranged. Figurines have the clumsy air of a child’s modeling clay. Paintings approach Paul Gauguin on Quaaludes, German Expressionism without the sharp edges, or simply amateur night. A rug remains half curled up and a balloon heart stuck in an air vent. Antique dolls lie apart from their beds. Discarded furniture, fabrics, and an entire model city in black fill the awkward spaces in between.

Is it a yard sale, a thrift store, a warehouse, or a studio? Is it a retrospective or an installation? For Althoff, they amount to much the same thing. MoMA’s Laura Hoptman turns over the press release to an actual artist’s statement, but its rambling paragraphs boil down to little more than this: “I cannot choose, but I must.” The show’s title, “and then leave me to the common swifts” (repeated in German) seems to catch him in mid-thought, but a thought that never quite makes sense.

You may not find a puzzle worth teasing out. Some themes do emerge, though, just as the show’s scale attests to bold aspirations—and just as its execution attests to futility. Paintings and photographs show friends hanging out for a lifetime or just for the day. The tormented dolls hint at an unhappy childhood, and the show claims to span much of Althoff’s fifty years, although most of it dates from just a few years around the turn of this century. Perhaps he became a celebrity artist only to run out of ideas. Perhaps he had few ideas all along.

So what's NEW!Critics have read a great deal into his work. They have seen inventive installations and a haunting sadness. They have seen memories of Hasidic culture or a bridge between New York and his native Cologne, where he splits his time. Maybe, but one can read practically anything into all this and still lack for meaning. Althoff emerged in the infuriating wave of overblown installations, with some of the biggest. A collaboration with Nick Z., the street artist, only confirmed their macho and their glibness. He later brought his depictions of claustrophobia and high society to the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

Althoff’s collecting may recall the legendary 1978 show of “bad painting” at the New Museum, curated by Marcia Tucker. Yet Tucker was aiming another blow against late Modernism, and those days are past. He may recall the provocation of “thrift store art” from Jim Shaw, but Shaw hung anonymous paintings on gallery and museum walls. Althoff has little interest in breaking the boundaries between insider and outsider art, and he has little space for anyone but himself. It will take others to make a statement beyond the artist as brand name. It will take others, too, to stop trashing the gallery and to start poring over the trash.

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

1.13.17 — Slipping Away

There you are again, your face pressed ever so close, even as your body slips away. There you are, the image more than a little off-kilter, like everything about you. There you are, too, floating in a boundless sky or sea.

You are inviting me in there with you, while laughing at us both for how hard you are to resist. You have a caustic side as well, for all the temptations—with who knows what lurking in the background. MutualArtIs that why they call new media the cutting edge?

For a while, Pipilotti Rist was everywhere—and not just within her seductive videos. She had quite a run of them at that, culminating in “Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters),” which took over MoMA’s atrium in 2008. They seem not to need a beginning or ending, much like her slow-motion stroll in heels along a city street, smashing car windows with an iron rod disguised as a flower along the way. And in truth nothing much has changed since then, with little if anything from recent years, so let me also direct you to my earlier review of half a dozen appearances. The New Museum, through January 15, simply picks up where she left off floating and dancing. The work is much the same as ever, only bigger, from an artist who always thinks big.

A lot bigger. She has the run of all three floors for big exhibitions, plus the lobby, where a machine blows extra large soap bubbles. And her feel-good retrospective approaches a prolonged bubble bath—or a single installation. As “Pixel Forest,” it dares one to locate the work, to put it in chronological order, or to know where any of it begins and ends, apart from which come with soft carpeting and still softer beanbag chairs. Even the earliest videos, restricted to a single channel and a monitor, are immersive. Pipilotti Rist's Pour Your Body Out (Museum of Modern Art, 2008)Acting as curators, Massimiliano Gioni, Margo Norton, and Helga Christoffersen place them in soundproofed shells for viewers to insert their head.

Yet even that picks up where she left off. To the extent that Rist’s career has a trajectory, it is all about getting bigger. She gained recognition in 1986, already up close and askew, reciting “I’m not the girl who misses much”—appropriating the Beatles, from “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” for herself. Things grew slower, like her urban walk from 1997, and larger, like the twin corner projections of Sip My Ocean from 1996 or all those cubic meters. Videos soar across landscapes that recall her native Switzerland. They also add furniture to make yourself at ease along the way.

They add, too, a miniature sound studio on video and an entire model city, in person. A chandelier of underwear defies the debate over boxers or briefs, but then she is inviting you to laugh, too. Curtains of lights switch from bubbles of white in the darkness to oceans of red and green. One must pass through curtains of plastic strips, and so must a projection. The equation of the viewer with the projection adds to its temptations. The Whitney does not include Rist in its concurrent show of “Immersive Cinema,” but it could.

A new work even provides beds. By the time I made it upstairs, people were already stretched out. Had they spent the night there, or were they only mannequins—or dead? Nope, but neon signs in script shout Help Me and Hurt Me from opposite ends of the floor. Is Rist more soothing, more childish, or more threatening than ever? Maybe only a little, on all three counts, but your own body will not so easily slip away.

Read more here—and in that past feature-length article on this site.

1.11.17 — The Saint with a Mustache

Who knew that John the Baptist had a pencil mustache? Still in his early twenties, with rakish brown hair and the chiseled body of a young man ready to play, Valentin de Boulogne was painting himself.

Not even the saint’s traditional red robe altogether covers his earthy brown cloak, not to mention his muscular deltoids and half naked torso. As John, he eyes the viewer while pointing to something beyond the picture frame. Valentin de Boulogne's Samson (Cleveland Museum of Art, 1631)John always does, as the prophet of a messiah to come. Is the artist, too, gambling on the future? Together with a report on Fragonard drawings just down the hall (and sorry for the late start this morning), it is the subject of a longer review and my latest upload.

For the Met, Valentin was himself that future—and the prophet of a greater realism. His later Allegory of Rome was “the most extreme statement of naturalism” before Gustave Courbet more than two hundred years later. Of course, for a young French painter, arriving in Rome by 1610 or so, the messiah had already come and gone. Some twenty years older, Caravaggio had fled south, amid accusations of murder, after pioneering the Baroque. And where Caravaggio had painted directly from models, rather than from preliminary sketches, for Valentin the model was his most memorable subject, just like his mustachioed presence in place of a legend. The curators, Keith Christiansen and Annick Lemoine, call his retrospective “Beyond Caravaggio.”

With forty-five of his sixty surviving paintings, through January 16, it seeks to reclaim him for a major artist. It begins with other followers of Caravaggio in Rome, including Jusepe de Ribera, a Spaniard who added coarser colors and textures. Ribera, though, departed for Naples, leaving opportunities behind. Valentin found ample commissions and patronage in a powerful cardinal, Francesco Barberini. He also found a pageant of contemporary life, including musicians and gamblers. Even when he painted scenes from the Bible, he sought an array of men, women, and children within a single canvas, as a living theater.

Caravaggio still looms large. Subject after subject comes from him, including those concerts and cardsharps, but also Abraham saved from sacrificing Isaac, Judith slaying Holofernes, and Saint Matthew with an angel’s hand in his book. A later version of John approaches Caravaggio all the more closely, with an exposed thigh. Apparently the older man’s lifestyle also had its appeal. Born in 1591 just east of Paris, Valentin died at age forty-one after a hard night’s drinking. He must have taken his images of all the five senses personally.

Caravaggio may well loom too large by half, and so may Artemisia Gentileschi or another Frenchman in Rome, Nicolas Poussin. Their miraculous sunlight and darkness have become an indistinct space of muddy shadows. Their psychological intensity has become a routine theater. When Caravaggio gives a man bearing grapes recognizable features, the invitation takes on a disturbing eroticism. When his cardsharps vie to see who can outsmart the other, they match wits with the viewer as well. Valentin’s figures, however crowded, seem apart from one another, like a catalog of gestures and expressions.

Those gestures include an arm outstretched to the left, which recurs in painting after painting as a token of decisive action. At times Valentin seems to care more about dice in midair or well-worn playing cards than about any of them. He also seems hardly to care where his figures land. They may tumble off the bottom edge or parade above a fictive carved relief as if floating above. The show opens with a photo of Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, with bodies flying everywhere. Its disorder reflects a revolutionary painter’s last struggles with Mannerism—and his successors may have taken that struggle to heart, at the expense of missing the future.

It sounds preposterous anyway to single out an allegory of Italy for its naturalism, quite apart from the Met’s penchant for self-congratulation. What are all those aging nudes and cupids doing, and why has Valentin buried his triumphant figure somehow floating above in so much clothing? At his best, the sheer flurry of hands across a canvas can stand in for a deeper insight. So does the edge of a knife on its way to flaying a man alive. So, too, at times does what may seem like Valentin’s greatest weakness—his actors lost in a dream, even as the angels and allegories descend. In one last self-portrait, as Samson, he has already slain Goliath and can take stock of the consequences, and so at last can you.

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

1.9.17 — Give It Time

One can get to know Agnes Martin from almost the very start of her retrospective, through January 11, but it takes a moment. The High Gallery at the Guggenheim, just off the ramp as one ascends, introduces her not with the breadth of her career, but with a single series. It also introduces her as a producer of light. It is also the subject of a more in-depth review as my latest upload—where I append my recent report on another woman artist with a long history, Carmen Herrera.

That room gives space to all twelve of her Islands, from 1979, and they appear all at once as twelve fields of white. They might have sucked in the light from that literally high gallery or the rotunda—and then thrown it back, but with a still greater intensity. Agnes Martin's Untitled (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1977)Soon enough, though, one can see them all as broad horizontal stripes, separated by far thinner ones. They take on primary colors, each with its own glow. The colors differ from canvas to canvas, although one might be hard pressed to pin them down. It hardly matters, so long as one takes the time to try.

Give it space. Give it time. That urgency and that measured pace underlie all her work (and this is not about calls for “slow art“). Like all her mature work, too, they consist of pencil on oil or acrylic, but the retrospective also starts with a denial of just that, in a quote from the artist. “My paintings have neither object nor space nor line nor anything—no forms. They are about . . . formlessness, breaking down forms.”

No doubt, but then it is up to the viewer to put them back them together. It took Agnes Martin a long time, so why not you or me? The quote also testifies to an uneasy relationship with late Modernism. And the curators, Tiffany Bell and the Guggenheim’s Tracey Bashkoff, see Martin as a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. One could well go further and see her as a bridge from early American Modernism to the rebirth of painting today. She died in 2004, at age ninety-two.

Like Herrera, she started slowly at that—and not only because of the obstacles that she faced a woman and, likely as not, a gay artist. Born in western Canada in 1912, she spent much of her first forty years on the move. Her father died early, her mother took the family to Vancouver, her sister’s pregnancy brought her to the United States in 1931, and she studied at Teachers College of Columbia University as both an undergraduate and a graduate student, but even then ten years apart. She also struggled with schizophrenia. Maybe that explains her need for happiness and stability in her art. Maybe it explains, too, her need for painting to appear as a vision.

In New Mexico, after years in New York, the darkness falls away. Martin experiments with watercolor, on her way to her signature pencil and ground. She alternates between horizontal and vertical stripes, in gray washes, with the illusion of still more colors to come, and (yes) those pale colors. The gaps between broader stripes bring them closer still to solid objects, like stripes for Frank Stella or Sean Scully. Yet Stella had moved on, and Scully had not yet come into his own. One should never forget her age, meaning both her early start and her persistence.

Martin always has that tension between vision and form. Put it down to her abiding interest in eastern religion, which she never practiced, or to her perhaps closeted sexuality, which she did little to claim. “My response to nature is really a response to beauty,” she insists. “It is beauty that really calls.” In turn, the insistent grid of her abstractions is not an end in itself, but “represented innocence.” Maybe, but she may never have had time for innocence herself, except in paint.

Martin uses the extremes of paper and large canvas to push one back and to draw one in. The Guggenheim loses much of the second, with the tilted floors of its bays. One cannot get close, however hard one tries. One has to settle for a place apart to look. Give it space. Give it time.

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

1.6.17 — Not So Hard to See

Carmen Herrera appeared in the Whitney’s inaugural exhibition in the Meatpacking District, “America Is Hard to See.” Do not feel too bad, though, if you failed to recognize her—or missed her entirely. Herrera really has been hard to see.

Carmen Herrera's Wednesday (courtesy of the artist/Lisson, Museum Pfalzgalerie Kaiserslautern, 1978)The museum had only recently acquired the work, from an artist who at age one hundred had not had exhibited here in almost twenty years. Born in Cuba in 1915, she spent her formative years in Paris, and she was, of course, a woman. She stuck with plain geometry even as all eyes turned to Abstract Expressionism and gesture. Now, in turn, she can be deceptively easy to see. Her work looks so familiar, from the spare, nuanced, off-kilter color fields of Ellsworth Kelly—or the clear patterns, rigorous logic, and insistence on canvas as a material object of Frank Stella. The surprise comes in finding her name on the wall label, along with her dates.

Now the Whitney means to change all that, through January 9, with “Lines of Sight.” It focuses on just twenty-five works from just thirty years, from 1948 to 1978. Together with a recent survey in Chelsea, at Lisson through June 11, it makes Herrera both more historical and more contemporary. It begins with her move with her American husband to Paris, after nine years in New York—not so very far, it turns out, from the Whitney’s first home on Eighth Street. And it centers on nine of the fifteen surviving works in Blanco y Verde, spanning twelve years, including the painting in the Whitney. Beginning in 1959, several years after Herrera’s return to New York, the series goes far to define her maturity.

Stella would have understood the title (“White and Green”) as a signal that “what you see is what you get.” He would have admired her narrow triangles, not so far from his stripes and similarly playing off a painting’s edges and center. He would have insisted on looking to the sides of the canvas, where the paint continues. He would, that is, if he had ever seen them before undertaking his own. Meanwhile Kelly would have appreciated the broad areas of color, sometimes filling an entire canvas set against another, much like his. He would have liked the arbitrary choice of green and its varied, intuitive placement.

Herrera is capable of Stella’s drive and Kelly’s serenity, without the latter’s frequent dryness and the former’s frequent fuss or chill. She gets there, though, not by repetition on the one hand or refusal of symmetry on the other—but rather by displacing shapes, so that they form new ones. Sometimes staggered triangles leave a square at the center, and sometimes staggered rectangles seem to eat into one another like forks. In the Whitney’s painting, two panels lie above one another, both white except for a slim green triangle running along the lower edge of the top panel. It could be minding the gap, as they say in London, which one might otherwise overlook. It could also be pointing up from the gap and extending it, as if prying the painting apart.

A room to the left shows her before 1958, with a busier Modernism out of Fernand Léger or Futurism. Circles lie within triangles or vice versa—or rectangles within ovals within rectangles, like a head by Alexej von Jawlensky. As Herrera streamlines her vocabulary, she lands in a diamond of alternating black and white stripes, nearly a decade before Stella’s black paintings. A room to the right shows her settling down after 1970 and brightening her colors. She also tries her hand at estructuras, or stand-alone structures in painted wood, just as Stella’s later work came off the wall. Yet here, two, adjacent parts seem slightly ajar, as if opening under their own power.

The show’s climax comes even before one enters. The curator, Dana Miller, spreads a series of seven paintings, for the days of the week, across two front walls. They shifting arrangements have a new and more persistent energy. They also suggest a stronger connection to the return of painting today. Painters like David Rhodes, Gary Petersen, Don Voisine, and so many more could not have taken Herrera for a model for their tapering geometries either, no more than Kelly and Stella, but they would know where to look. Who said America is hard to see?

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

1.4.17 — Good Fences

You may walk right past a series of photographs on the way to Merrill Wagner and her paintings. You will have other things on your mind, but watch out: you will have crossed a fence.

It makes sense if you think of abstraction as about regular geometries and breaking boundaries. For Wagner, though, art is also a human intervention in the landscape. When she photographs fences from day to day (published as A Calendar), she is taking stock of herself as well. Merrill Wagner's Outerbridge Crossing (photo by Jeffrey Sturges, New York Studio School, 1986)

Inside at the New York Studio School, through January 8, Wagner has more than forty years of work, from pencil sketches to a field of blue the size of a wall. It only gains in intensity from swirls of bright pastel, oil pastel, and graphite across its three panels. More somber tones and more reflective surfaces lean against or spill off other walls. Even from that narrow entryway, one can see a circle of stones on the floor, each touched by a circle in acrylic. A crusty green mass of stone rests nearby, as if it had erupted on the spot. Painting has taken on color, weight, and material presence.

With all that ahead, it is easy to miss the photos across from the guest book. Just be aware that, in entering, you will have crossed that fence. More precisely, you will have crossed sixteen fences, set in four rows like postcards or a scrapbook. The camera captures them more or less head-on, beneath nearly blank skies and behind a small patch of water or earth. Ripples in the water and the rough surface of soil and stone interact with light, much like Wagner’s paintings. You can see why their titles, too, so often refer to landscape.

The photos date from 1982, when she was in the habit of painting squares or rectangles on a fence and returning to watch them fade in the face of time and weather. Yet they also call attention to the fences. Each barrier marks off its surroundings, summons them into view, and subjects itself to their changes. It parallels abstraction as a response to natural light for Agnes Martin—much as the pencil sketches, from 1971, parallel Martin’s early grids. It has a parallel in earthworks from those years as well, without having to move as much as a shovelful of earth. One can see why she called a book Time and Materials.

They also make a good frame for the work inside. They have a striking resemblance to strips of yellow masking tape from 1975. As work sites, they also correspond to Wagner’s turn to scraps of natural and commercial materials. Not that she necessarily distinguishes the two. The large blue painting, Meander from 1980, covers Masonite treated with slate. Red scrawls meet a small slab of marble.

One painting even salvages a screen, the kind for fencing. The bulk, though, since around 1990 consists of rust-resistant paint on steel. These are not shaped canvases, but they do use their materials to shape a painting. They apply close shades of gray and yellow or the contrast of purple, gray, and blue, as studies in light and texture. They recall metal panels in earthshaking white painting by Robert Ryman, Wagner’s husband, and I dare not ask who influenced whom when. Then, too, Cordy Ryman, their son, paints on wood much like fence posts.

Born in 1935, Wagner arrived in New York in 1957 and took to geometry in the 1960s—although the show picks her up only in 1970s, just as she is coming into her own. The curators, Cordy Ryman with Hanne Tierney of Brooklyn’s FiveMyles gallery, do not have the space or resources for a fuller retrospective, but they do a terrific job with two rooms. Critics often spot her connection to landscape, speaking of plein-air painting or the sublime. Still, these are human interventions, like rust-resistant paint, working against time and change without being able to keep them quite at bay. Wagner calls one painting Outerbridge Crossing, which sounds like a creek in a remote wild, but names instead the southernmost bridge from Staten Island to industrial New Jersey. For New Yorkers, that still counts as the wilderness, and maybe it does, too, for art.

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

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