12.5.16 — The Public Face of Buildings

Marc Yankus calls his show “The Secret Lives of Buildings,” but he could just as well say their most public face. If buildings did have inner lives (apart from interior design), one can only imagine them thinking: yes, this is how I want people to see me. They have never looked so self-assured, in all their volume and detail. They have never stood so fully apart from the street. By the same token, they have never looked so strange. Marc Yankus's Flatiron Building (ClampArt, 2016)

The photos stick to the public face of buildings in the trivial sense of their façades. They betray not the least sign of life behind their windows. Yankus does not care much for the International Style of glass and steel anyway, much less the ceiling to floor windows of luxury condos going up today. The Empire State Building does make the cut, but not, say, the Lever House or Seagram Building. Yet this is the public face of the city as well, with its wide avenues and most beloved architecture. New Yorkers will have the pleasure of recognition, one building at a time, and will want to name them all.

And that is where the strangeness kicks in, at ClampArt through November 26 (and apologies that I caught this show too late in its run to alert you in time). One can spot an old favorite in the Dorilton apartments, paired around a central arch. One can assign a native style to the many New York neighborhoods—from the Upper West Side’s Beaux-Arts stone or the Federal charm of Greenwich Village to Soho’s cast-iron intricacy or Bushwick’s bleached brick and vacant lots in Brooklyn. But what about the jagged rhythms of a block with four staggered masses? And what about a slim building plainly from the Ladies Mile historic district, but with a street to either side? Where can one see that?

One cannot, because Yankus quadrupled one structure and isolated the other. One can tell with a little work, if only because the sidewalks to either side of the lone building are mirror images. A similar doubling produces looming towers out of a futuristic city. Photographs may also spin a seemingly normal point of view into a diorama, like a building seen head-on at street level but bending away above. Other manipulations account for the dearth of passer-bys, apart from a man at the base of the Flatiron Building. He becomes a privileged viewer, much like the camera.

The photographs do not break with the known so much as enhance it, with help from Photoshop’s little secrets. New York already has its majestic islands at the intersection of two avenues, like the prow of the Flatiron Building. So what's NEW!It has other buildings with iconic corner views as well, like the Ansonia, the former residential hotel. That classic appears, too, although without competition from Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway. Even the futurism belongs to an early twentieth-century city, while the Empire State Building has the painterly look of an old postcard. Nostalgia gets along just fine with invention and familiarity with strangeness.

In effect, the series looks at what lies right in front of one, but with fresh eyes—not a bad definition, at that, for art. One may picture the Flatiron Building as a dark hulk in a dark corner of the city or a glistening white following restoration in 2005. Yankus bathes it instead in a warm sunlight. Then again, maybe one should think of studio lighting. If buildings can stand apart and at their best, so do people in studio portraits, set apart from their ordinary surroundings and often retouched. They, too, put on their most public face.

12.2.16 — Letting Go

This model just isn’t working. I had never expected to hear those words from one of New York’s finest dealers. I would hear something like them often again.

She had worked at the leading auction houses. She had started her own gallery and pursued it through three neighborhoods, from an elegant West Village brownstone to an airy split-level space on the Lower East Side—and now it, too, was closing. I hurried to its final show to say how sorry I was to see it go. MutualArtBut no, she assured me, she was not giving up on art. She was just taking stock and looking for alternatives to a “brick and mortar” gallery. There has to be a better model.

A panel at Christie’s Education introduced by Véronique Chagnon-Burke, Christie’s academic director, insisted on just that. Meeting on September 21 but more relevant every day as the year nears its end, “Letting Go of Brick and Mortar: The Future of the Gallery” was all about letting go, and it is the subject of a much fuller report, as a longer article and my latest upload. Three of the panelists already have. They have all had influential galleries or alternative spaces—and they have all given these up for a “hybrid model,” of exhibiting from time to time while working behind the scenes with artists, estates, and collectors. Is that model, though, also available to emerging dealers, and what does it bode for art?

Nicole Klagsbrun, Jay Gorney, and Josh Baer all came of age in the 1980s, what Gorney called a “magic time.” Collectively, they have had success in the East Village art scene, Soho, and Chelsea. All have had galleries of their own. Gorney also worked with what later became BravinLee Programs and with Mitchell-Innes & Nash, while Baer made his name with White Columns. Barbara Bloom's The Reign of Narcissism (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1988-1989)The fourth speaker, Richard M. Lehun of New York Stropheus Art Law, has spoken before on the challenges to midlevel galleries from art fairs and art advisors. Together, they all but embody the transition from Modernism and its avant-garde to the chaos and disappointments of today.

The panel came with a further rubric, “Challenges and Opportunities”—but with the emphasis entirely on opportunities. For Klagsbrun, it is the opportunity to use her office as “a place to grow at a pace that I dictate.” For Gorney, it is the opportunity to sustain his long commitment to at least one artist, Sarah Charlesworth, and her estate. For all three, it is the chance to exhibit with established galleries, art fairs, or pop-ups, but without the obligation, as Klagsbrun put it, to feed the machine. Rather than the process of taking artists from studios to sales, she lamented, the art scene has become all about the product. By 2013 it was time to think instead about what is best for artists or, in Baer’s words, “what is best for me.”

Plenty of others will know the feeling. I began by quoting Tracy Williams, who introduced me over the years to such artists as Barbara Bloom (whom Gorney can take credit for exhibiting in 1989). I hate to mention her by name, so as not to intrude on her privacy, but she is hardly alone. A slide at the panel listed galleries that have vanished this year alone, and the shock came not just with their number, but also with their familiarity. Could a hybrid model offer them a better future? Is the crisis even real, much less the opportunities?

The problem of art and money boils down not just to costs and benefits, but to who pays and who benefits. Yes, artist collectives will survive, because their members support one another—even though they may never break through. Yes, the most elite galleries with the most established artists will survive, because people pay attention. And yes, a hybrid can survive, too, although it may find itself representing wealthy collectors as often as artists, with the potential for conflicts of interest along the way. Yet that still leaves plenty of others, including the midlevel galleries that do most to nurture a future for art. If young artists and dealers can no longer hit the city with every hope of changing awareness, that leaves not a more democratic art world, but one more closed than ever before.

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

11.30.16 — Breaking Rhythm

Part of the pleasure of painting is the mark of the artist’s hand. This long after Modernism and Postmodernism, is that enough?

Fortunately, it does not have to be. Part of the pleasure, too, is seeing that personal gesture take shape in a uniquely public space. Suppose I take that as a theme for one last gallery tour of abstract painting this fall, which I also wrap into preceding reports as my latest upload.

Gary Petersen's Far Away (Theodore:Art, 2014)A public space for art could be the space of a big canvas and geometric form—or of found objects and found images. It is necessarily the space of the artist, the viewer, and the gallery. The tension between public and private is also a tension between convention and authenticity. It animates conflicting interpretations of Abstract Expressionism, as formalism or “action painting.” It animates the transition from there to Pop Art, Minimalism, and beyond. It persists through skepticism about such loaded terms as originality and the avant-garde.

It takes on new dimensions with the return of painting, now for big markets, with everyone out to make an impact at all costs. I fell for it once again this fall with Agnes Martin, for whom repeated traces add up to a glow. I fell for it with a single work by Debra Ramsay, which ran at Odetta through October 9, that unfolds over more than twenty feet of color while tumbling from ceiling to floor. Zipora Fried even manages to combine the two strategies, at On Stellar Rays through December 11. Paper up to thirty feet long drapes over something like towel racks overhead, so that its single colors are visible from both sides. Only up close do the apparent washes resolve into colored pencil.

Not every display of excess requires a mural scale, and not every display of detail has to be fussy or compulsive. Reed Danziger mounts paper on panel, for the intimacy of drawing or easel painting, at McKenzie also through December 4. The work becomes more detailed the longer one looks, but with every sign of spontaneity. It also subordinates detail and gesture to imagery that traditionally stands for spontaneity, that of nature. Her swirls may look like eddies, storm clouds, or breaking ice. One could call them oceanic, calligraphic, or crafted.

Titles encourage associations with nature, like Folding and Faulting or Renewal. They also suggest a deliberate or spontaneous symmetry breaking, like Expand/Disperse, Unstable Entanglement, or Break/Down. The image tends to stop short of filling a white or pale blue field, again suggesting both objects in a landscape and works in progress. Brighter colors appear like accidents of reflected light. The swirls, mostly in white, remain dominant for all the action. It cannot be easy.

Danziger builds toward the swirls in layers. First come watercolor and powdered graphite, with contrasting textures and a contrast between color and detail. Then comes oil, in narrow rectangles and arcs. Finer strokes in white look less like grids than skeins or microchips. Compared to her earlier work, they have become less hard-edged and less isolated at the painting’s center. That helps integrate the layers.

The gallery’s previous show relied similarly on broken symmetries and layering, through October 16. Gary Petersen paints progressively off-kilter geometries—quadrilaterals piled high, slipping against one another and crossed by colored disks, lines, or curves. Patterns like these could end up merely arbitrary, but a recent wall painting may have helped push him toward both control and excess. Typically he gets the patterns started, paints over them in translucent white, and then picks up the patterns again. The same signature colors appear twice this way, first muted and then bright. He, too, is reaching for complexity without breaking rhythm.

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

11.28.16 — The Comedian as the Letter V

Carolee Schneemann calls her retrospective “Kinetic Painting,” as still one more act of defiance. Did she smear herself with white feathers—tarred and feathered, but still about to take flight? Did she remove a feminist tract from her vagina, posed naked like Lynda Benglis but without the makeup and penis? She was already defying expectations. Has she entered art’s consciousness with just a handful of performances, over and done fifty years ago? She is first and foremost a painter, the show insists, and she is still in motion. Carolee Schneemann's Body Collage (filmed by Gideon Bachmann, 1967)

Her retrospective has stops only in Europe, but two Chelsea galleries help make the case. They even call their shows “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit B,” as if for a courtroom. This being Schneemann, they are not evidence of innocence. P.P.O.W. already focused on Schneemann as a painter some years back. Now it follows her to the 1990s, through December 3. Galerie Lelong brings her closer to the dizzying pace of art in the present—and I have added this to previous reports on the feminist origins of video art as a longer review and my latest upload.

Sure enough, both include painting. “Exhibit B” has small abstractions in a loose, colorful style familiar enough from any number of artists, from Willem de Kooning to Cecily Brown long since. “Exhibit A” has clotted brushwork over newsprint that often bears its own feminist or ironic message. Text enters as well as a backdrop to photos of her nude body in motion. The same photos also appear etched in glass panes that fan out to fill a circle. Both the words and the angled panes riff on the letter V.

Wallace Stevens wrote of “The Comedian as the Letter C,” because for him poetry had to subordinate itself to comedy and to language. Schneemann plays the comedian as the letter V—as in vertigo, vegetable, and of course vagina. She also picks up speed. The letter series extends on video to Fresh Blood: A Dream Morphology, with close-ups of dried leaves. A second video, Precarious, closes in on a woman’s flesh and blood, with a case of breast cancer.

Video becomes installation in “Exhibit B,” for what Schneemann calls the “ecstatic normal.” I can vouch for the ecstatic, but definitely not the normal. Four floor monitors lead to a wall projection, as images fly from one channel to the next, while other projections shift along their contents, as rotating planes. The lines of monitors and the resulting trapezoids declare a perspective encompassing both nature and the viewer. Images of monkeys in captivity, a bird in flight, a rabbit bobbing its head incessantly, a band on the run, a mob scene, and pixels run amok suggest fragmentation, claustrophobia, and cruelty.

They can also grow heavy handed. For Schneemann, hospitals are abusive, too, with their war on cancer really a war on women. She brings in a Baroque statue of the Virgin to find a parallel in the bubonic plague, seen then as witchery. The entire show reduces all too readily to a tract on animal rights and a know-nothing campaign for alternative medicine. It approaches a mere blur of images as well. In that blur, though, she still stakes out a kinetic painting.

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

11.25.16 — Coming Up for Air

For once, the Prow Art Space lives up to its name. Passing the Flatiron Building after dark, you can see a strange glow from within—along with strange creatures mostly overhead and on the other side of the glass. You can imagine not you but the building in motion, like a ship in the night. You can imagine yourself, too, in the ocean depths as the creatures swim past. You may not mind that you cannot quite put a name on them. You may not even wish to come up for air.

Garret Kane's Mimicri (Prow Art Space/Cheryl McGinnis, 2016)Garret Kane arranges Mimicri in a tight school, through December 1, and I owe its identity as fish to him. While the creatures hang suspended within the space, one can still see the ship cutting through their more organic motion—and, together with previous reports on landscape rising within the gallery, they are the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload. Feel free, though, to imagine them as something else. I first saw them in daylight as a flock of birds, already coming up for air. Up close, they could pass for animal heads or merely antlers, in wood polished with oil. Their forked outlines add to the illusion of motion, as does the variation in wood tone from pale to dark red.

To add to the ambiguity, they are not altogether alive—quite apart from their machine manufacture after a single carving. Not that Kane (also known as Garret Dafferner) is bending over backward to make a postmodern statement against the originality of the avant-garde. He is just going about his craft, but he does have in mind a challenge to the boundaries separating technology, art, and life. The creatures also bear shards of glass screen-printed with what look like circuit boards in white, and he pictures them as a network. Maybe it helps that a Sprint store is the floor’s primary tenant and controls the lease, or maybe not. This network does not require new media.

At what point does a network become alive, from a single circuit to the interlocking systems of the Web? What about an ant colony or the neural connections of the brain? At what point, in turn, do organisms lose their uniqueness and autonomy? As Kane puts it, “we recreate nature in our own image.” To add to the riddle, he shares the space with quite another network, Cheddar TV, which uses it to conduct interviews. Its needs account for the relative darkness even during the day, but it still leaves space for the illusion.

Reading too much into art and science can grow awfully pretentious, even when a show directly targets “Twisted Data.” So does talk about networking here. Still, the display takes on a life of its own. Over the course of the run, it may grow to fill more of the space and evolve, although not by natural selection. The LED lights, too, are part of the show. Enclosed in glass, sometimes as larger spheres, they could stand for a century-old lab.

The work also foregrounds questions about the space, curated by Cheryl McGinnis. Sprint has declared it dead to art before and may yet again. Even now, Kane has access to only about half of it—unlike Serena Gidwani Buschi, Gwyneth Leech, Christina Lihan, and Xin Song before him. Still, he is not an obsessive collector, like something out of “The Keeper” at the New Museum, and the work gains from immersion in a greater darkness. For now, the various tenants are getting along—and their co-existence may even spur further ideas for installations and interviews. Cross your fingers, and take a deep breath.

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

11.23.16 — An Audience for Revolution

When Benjamin Franklin arrived in France, he had turned seventy, but his nation was newly born. As a commissioner of the Continental Congress, he reached Paris in late December 1776, as America’s first diplomat abroad, in search of recognition and support. Joseph Siffred Duplessis's Benjamin Franklin (New York Public Library, 1777)

It came swiftly, too, with a treaty of alliance in early 1778, but not altogether smoothly. The French scuttled plans to send officers and further aid to the revolutionary cause when the English threatened war. Franklin, though, was determined to stick it out, and he remained until 1785, by which time the United States had attained not just independence, but a constitution. And he found a tool for his diplomacy in art. With just three works positively drowning in wall text, an installation at the Met looks less focused than unfinished. Yet it suggests why the aristocracy and an emerging republic found common ground in art.

In today’s heady mix of art and money, someone more cynical than Franklin might suggest that a museum simply display the money. Sure enough, the Met does, through November 28, but it also has the art to back it up. If a portrait from the permanent collection looks familiar, it graced the hundred dollar bill for much of the last century. And if a pastel on loan from the New York Public Library looks familiar as well, at least to those who can afford to carry a c-note, its image replaced the other on the bill in 1996. Franklin owed both to Joseph Siffred Duplessis, the official portraitist to the French king, and they are the center of a “focus exhibition” that could almost make a case for a sedate but skilled artist. Befitting both portraiture and money, the show is also about popularity, circulation, and reproduction—in the cause of revolution.

Franklin had no trouble finding support. The French already embraced the Revolutionary War, in hopes of regaining influence in North America, and the Marquis de Lafayette had signed on as general just two weeks before his arrival, thanks to the diplomacy of Silas Deane. Nor do their motives reduce so easily to vanity and self-interest. Lafayette, who later supported the French revolution, saw Americans as “people fighting for liberty.” Just as much, too, France found a role model in Franklin himself. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, painter to the French court, saw in him “the temper and conduct of America.”

He and his country, on the borders of what Europe counted as civilization, embodied at once dignity and simplicity. He had earned that reputation at home as an elder statesman capable of leadership, serious experiments in the sciences, equally serious journalism, and yet also the appealing sayings of Poor Richard’s Almanack. If it seems hypocritical for royalty to care, remember the fashion for peasant manners and dress even on the part of Marie Antoinette. And if it seems hypocritical for America to be playing up to Louis XVI, it had a war to win. There may be a moral in there somewhere for American revolutionaries today. Franklin settled in Passy, between Paris and Versailles, for greater access to both people and king.

He also sat for portraits, from a good half dozen painters, to get his image out there. He saw it as an ordeal, the Met comments, which explains why he preferred not to sit for any painter more than once. That explains, too, his appearance in the pastel in 1777, quite as much as his fabled simplicity. He sits with quite literally his hair down, without a wig and in a plain gray coat without a collar. His shirt protrudes from a half-buttoned waistcoat, and his eyes dart casually and alertly to the right. This being the roots of Neoclassicism in art, his dress blends into the shallow but indefinite background, itself much grayer than in reproduction, and the touches of gray on his face could represent either shadow or the need for a shave.

Already, though, Duplessis is idealizing, by rubbing with a blunt instrument or his fingers to smooth out his only known pastel, by minimizing the gray in Franklin’s hair, and by dwelling on the marks of intelligence in his sitter’s high forehead, tall eye sockets, steady jaw, cleft chin, and pursed lips. When he turns to the Met’s portrait the next year, he layers that idealization on. Franklin’s pupils rise to the center of his eyes, and his entire head rises from a bulkier warm red coat—all topped by a fur collar with its cords flung aside. A gilded oak frame layers it on that much more, with a wreath and a rattlesnake, as twin emblems of an American hero. The Latin inscription, VIR, means merely man, but with much the same overtones as for Barnett Newman in Abstract Expressionist New York with Vir Heroicus Sublimus (or “man the sublime hero”). The Met uses radiography to confirm that the pastel served Duplessis as a model for the painting, with the fur collar a final added touch.

The portrait in fur took off, inspiring dozens of copies—and not just in France. Thomas Jefferson commissioned a replica by another artist, and the Met displays one of its own, attributed to the workshop of Duplessis himself. It had to come from the workshop because the composition and features line up almost exactly with the original, and it could not come from Duplessis because of its flat execution, muddled lips, and mechanical clarity. A drawing on translucent paper over glass would have traced the pastel, and incisions could then transfer the drawing to canvas. A more or less tolerable Salon artist may seem an implausible source for America’s self-image. Yet when Franklin died in 1790, he knew that the image was in circulation.

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

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