2.12.16 — The Infrastructure of Abstract Art

Infrastructure. It could mean a city’s crumbling into ruin or the nation’s future. Sometimes, too, it could mean a work of art.

Infrastructure represents a city’s layered history, and so of course can art. Infrastructure may serve site and subject, from Paris for Nadar to rubbings of manhole covers for Sarie Dienes. And then there is art’s investment in urban growth or a city’s investment in art, from the Whitney downtown to the future of Detroit. Ben Boothby's Bialys, Lox & Grapefruit (courtesy of the artist, 2014)Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have restaged existing infrastructure with their pretend subway station and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer with his Voice Tunnel. Matthew Jensen uses utility poles to punctuate his crossing the United States. It could mark the triumph or disappearance of rural America.

Infrastructure can drive abstract art as well. Piet Mondrian had his Broadway Boogie-Woogie, and one does speak of Abstract Expressionism as the New York School. More recently, artists have conceived their work as what a curator called a “tone poem” to the city. The density of the urban grid appears in drawings by Simon Fowler, paintings by Vivien Abrams Collens and Ben Boothby, and photo collage by Diana Cooper. Vera Lutter has long approached abstraction, as in a ghostly photo of Lower Manhattan’s ferry landings on view at the Emily Fisher Landau Center. Now Colin Keefe and Tony Ingrisano dare one to follow the connections. One could even call it a trend.

Keefe calls his drawings “Methods for Breeding Urban Systems,” at Robert Henry Contemporary through February 21. And Ingrisano mines everything from power grids to river beds, at Lesley Heller through February 14. Apparently nature can breed urban systems, too. They have in common a fondness for detail, complexity, and the multiple layers underpinning a city—as in Keefe’s use of the plural, for methods and systems. They also take the grid and let it grow to the point of chaos. In the process, they make hidden systems visible.

Keefe’s drawings look as much organic as industrial. They could pass for spreading foliage or micrographs of disease. Buildings appear as bare outlines surrounded by a darker intricacy, as if left behind. Ingrisano, though, earns his complexity quite another way, through an interest in structure. He is also learning to use contrasting colors and layers to lead the eye. The results look unfamiliar, because they are normally invisible, but entirely real.

So what's NEW!The layers progress from tiny cells to larger single units, often in blue or purple, to near tapestries. Then come the connecting tissue of lines running every which way and finally sparer clusters of diagonals on top, often as the brightest colors and the firmest guide. Every so often lines project into a cube edge-on. Just once, patterns extend across a further grid of nine smaller panels. They may represent perspective studies or city squares—in one case, as Omaha. New York no longer has the last word when it comes to running out of control.

Layering runs, too, to the craft of their making. Ingrisano applies graphite, ink, and acrylic to a tight weave of cut paper on canvas. Sometimes he rearranges the cut elements along the way. Both artists approach infrastructure with an eye to the past, where networks today are more likely to have digital overtones. Still, art has a way of privileging the visual and the physical, and who knows? If one looks hard enough for something else, it may yet be there.

2.10.16 — Like a Ton of Bricks

New York hit Martin Wong like a ton of bricks, at the Bronx Museum through February 14, and he loved it, but he never forgot its dangers. He hardly could, arriving in his early thirties in 1978, in the city’s darkest years.

He was staying in an SRO on the lower Manhattan waterfront when he painted a pretend headline about fiery mass deaths in a Roach Motel. The words cross a brick wall, much like a painted bullet from those same years ricocheting off a heart. A later work does real damage to a heart, this time with a chain saw. Apparently New Yorkers were not so hard of heart after all. Martin Wong's My Secret World, 1978-1981 (Melva Bucksbaum and Raymond Learsy collection, 1984)

Brick walls are a means of exclusion, and Wong painted many of them aligned with the canvas. Later he turned to steel gates and closed churches, one with an unwelcoming title ending Inc. He had every reason to know exclusions. An openly gay male, he moved after a few years in New York to the Lower East Side—and I mean its far east side, where even now galleries fear to tread. There he lived as a Chinese American and a Loisida in an almost uniformly Latino neighborhood, and he thrived on his own terms. He exhibited at ABC No Rio on the fringe of East Village art.

He also entered a relationship with Miguel Piñero, the Nuyorican playwright, who came with tales of other impenetrable walls, in prison. Wong made those his own, too. His prison paintings look downright idyllic in their broad spaces and nubile men, give or take UFOs in the sky. Brick had already been for him a means of inclusion as well, leading the eye to interiors and to himself. MutualArtHe paints it lovingly, in warm colors, lingering over shadows and serious damage—even when it covers ovals like vanity mirrors, as yet another effacement. Often additional brick acts as a picture frame, set apart from the central subject in convincing illusion.

Brick and solidity give way later in the 1980s to deep blue skies and fantasy, with text art as a variant on Beat poetry, in a concurrent show in Chelsea at P.P.O.W., through February 6. He turns to New York’s Chinatown just a few blocks south and to memories of home in San Francisco, in still another search for himself. Chinese women display themselves in rows of windows, above cheap jewelry stores and angled streets. Constellations mark the skies with their names and outlines, although (this being the inner city) little in the way of stars. Still, however feverish, Wong never quite lets go of the somber hues, the barricades, and a grim sense of humor.

He had identities and interests to spare. He produced theater design in California, which must have helped him understand Piñero, and he studied ceramics at Humboldt State University. The Whitney included him in “Blues for Smoke,” its show about art and jazz, and a repeated motif of sign language may hint at still other gestures and other messages never expressed. Early self-portraits adopt a sketchy Bay Area realism, his palette of red and black looks back to Marsden Hartley, and the bullets and text-ridden walls show an interest in cartoons and street art. Still, Wong prefers texture and realism to the slashing improvisation of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Even the lettering looks neat and clean for graffiti, sometimes in Spanish and sometimes marching around the painted frame.

He has become something of a gay icon, as for Julie Ault in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and he died of AIDS in 1999. He veers on camp and sentiment, from firemen kissing to himself in a hat embellished with a dead Christ. His very few last works, while ill and living with his parents back in California, manage little more than the fantasy, in what might represent plants, space aliens, or nothing at all.

The curators, Sergio Bessa and Yasmin Ramírez, include archival photos (although not ceramics), in a show of ninety objects that passes all too quickly. They testify to abandoned and demolished buildings, but the paintings do not. Still, Wong will always have those walls—with all their care, the illusion, the exclusions and inclusions, and the warmth.

2.8.16 — Dark Passage

To pick up from last week at the Jewish Museum, when did revolution become an oppressive institution? When Lenin said that a camera is a weapon in class struggle quite as much as a gun, did he mean to encourage experiment or propaganda? Alfred Stieglitz's The Steerage (Jewish Museum, 1907)

The question resonates because it is not solely about early Soviet photography. It echoes in the entire course of the Soviet Union, and as early as 1927 a stack of papers from Alexander Rodchenko proclaims Down with Bureaucracy. The question of power and institutions has dogged Modernism elsewhere as well. Several photos in fact have their counterparts not in Russia but in America—the telegraph globe in the Atlas of Rockefeller Center, Georgy Zelma’s workers high above a blast furnace in construction workers at lunch for Lewis Hines, Rodchenko’s portrait of Vladimir Mayakovsky in rural subjects for Walker Evans, or Olga Ignatovich’s athletes on today’s sports pages.

As it happens, the museum has a second exhibition about modern photography and class politics, through February 14—only this one from western Europe and the United States. Or rather, it is caught between the two. With The Steerage, Alfred Stieglitz left a lasting memory of crossing the Atlantic, and it has come to mean the fears of a surging humanity and America’s promise to the world.

What has been lost in time is full recognition that Stieglitz was documenting a broken promise. He was on a voyage from Hoboken, his hometown in New Jersey, to Europe in 1907, and his country had turned most of these people away. He and they alike are in transit, and neither can say what their future holds.

The display is part of “Masterpieces & Curiosities,” a series focused on single works from the museum. And the curiosities lie not just in half-forgotten narratives, but also in supporting objects from the collection illuminating them. A scale model of the ocean liner, the Kaiser Wilhelm II, looks like an antique and expensive toy, and postcards publicize the ship’s services. It began life as a German achievement, longer than the world’s tallest cathedra—before the U.S. Navy seized it during World War I and renamed it the Agamemnon. A photo shows soldiers cheering on their return home after the Armistice, when America used it as a transport ship. Luckily, they did not face the fate of Agamemnon after the Trojan War, but the nine hundred passengers in steerage are another matter.

The moment came early for Stieglitz, when he was finding his own way between photojournalism and Modernism. He was also finding his way between religions, races, and classes. He agreed to the luxury cruise but hated every minute among the “nouveaux riches,” he recalled. “I had to get away from that company.” Instead, he found two levels, separated by a ladder, a gangplank, a steampipe, and a yawning gap between first and third class. Sunlight on the gangplank and a boater hat makes the distance all the greater.

Much of the show concerns how the meaning of the image has changed. The museum documents the photo’s publication and its 1924 reprint in Vanity Fair. There it accompanied articles on “How to Be Frightfully Foreign” and on the quota system that had denied entry. Its meaning shifted in 1951, when Alfred Kazin, in A Walker in the City, used it to illustrate the dreams of his own family on arriving in New York. As the son of Jewish immigrants, Stieglitz would have understood but with a bitter edge. His feelings are not irrelevant to refugee crises today.

Any invitation to spend time with a single work is special, although the exhibition risks reducing the photograph and its subject alike to historical curiosities and artifacts. Care to see a version of The Steerage in chocolate syrup from Vic Muniz? Care to know how much a prayer shawl in an encyclopedia resembles the ones hanging above or shrouding the defeated masses? When Stieglitz, by now an accomplished photographer and dealer, stands next to Georgia O’Keeffe seated in somber profile, could she look defeated herself? Yet the invitation to linger and to look remains, along with two classes and two continents anxiously greeting change. Even now, the crossed diagonals barely contain the contradictions and the surge.

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

2.5.16 — A Dialog with Himself

Wrapping up a busy week with a wrap-up of New York’s hottest and most important show.

Every so often, one of the most prolific painters ever had to take a deep breath and step back. The result was sculpture, and the twentieth century does not get any better than this. It is also the subject of a longer review, since there is so much more going on than I can describe here, in my latest upload. Pablo Picasso's Bull (courtesy estate of the artist/ARS, Museum of Modern Art, c. 1958)

Seriously, sculpture? The titan of modern painting is sure to call up another image entirely, but surveys of Picasso sculpture keep discovering it again for a new generation. The latest, at the Museum of Modern Art through February 7, argues for its central place in modern consciousness—and in his art. With one hundred forty works, starting at age twenty, it shows Pablo Picasso collaborating with and influencing others. It shows him building a studio for sculpture and taking recourse to the medium when life interrupted everything else. It also shows him in a dialog at crucial points in time with painting and himself.

Seriously, too, taking a breather? When they were pretty much inventing Modernism, Picasso and Georges Braque visited one another practically every day to see what was new, and there was plenty. Later, he worked at times so uncritically that it has allowed others to dismiss anything he did but Cubism. Especially late in life, he marked a canvas with the precise day long before On Kawara had his date painting. One remarkable sculpture, Glass of Absinthe, comes in six versions, each by the artist’s hand. Cast or metal sculpture may also allow reproduction in series by others—and MoMA’s curators, Ann Temkin and Anne Umland with Virginie Perdrisot of the Picasso Museum in Paris, even speculate that he may have preferred the copies.

Perhaps, and it would only testify to his radicalism. There was more to the century’s most overexposed artist than ego-tripping. Another critic and historian, Rosalind E. Krauss, has argued for multiples of sculpture by Auguste Rodin as undermining the whole idea of originality, and Picasso took that notion as his subject before Marcel Duchamp repurposed a bicycle wheel. He tops each absinthe glass with an actual bar spoon, holding a sculpted sugar cube. Each is different—and not because of Picasso. Appropriation, including Robert Rauschenberg, begins here.

So perhaps, but that is just one side of what makes Picasso sculpture so innovative. The flip side of appropriation is improvisation. Anything can happen on the spur of the moment, just as Cubism might incorporate the day’s news in an actual clipping—and at least one still-life in sculpture has newsprint as well. Another has upholstery tassels. A medium once meant for worldly elegance and monuments gets to look precarious, like installation art today. More often than not, it thrives on the artist’s hand.

As one last part of its radicalism, sculpture also shows an interchange between it and painting—but then Picasso’s painting had its elements of appropriation, improvisation, and sculpture, too. The first ends on the brink of Cubism. Then the second picks up just when Synthetic Cubism had all but run its course. One medium picks up from and spurs another. And the interchange extends to two and three dimensions. In the words of his dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Picasso was drawing in space.

Notice yet another aspect of Picasso’s dialog with himself. He starts casually, grows more monumental, and then starts over. A plea for importance risks remembering only the big and familiar. MoMA has a room for photos by Brassaï from the 1930s and 1940s of much the same work. They allow sculpture to cast shadows that the museum’s institutional lighting washes away. Unlike in painting, Picasso had the chance never altogether to settle in.

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

2.4.16 — Silk and Cyberspace

Yes, one last extra post this week, before we resume our regularly scheduled programming already in progress tomorrow. Admirably busy times out there.

Lauren Silva embraces paint and collage, and then some, but the work first takes physical shape as digital prints on silk. At Zieher Smith & Horton through February 6, materials count.

Take the fineness of silk, a texture that flows against one’s skin, only pixilated. Take the sheerness of silk and the sheer mass of a printer, the luster of silk and the brightness of a monitor, the slow weaving of a silkworm and the blinding speed of changes in cyberspace, the product of nature and the product of an obsessively digital culture. And do not forget that pixilated means both coarse-grained and just plain mad. Either way, this is a wrap.

In fact, it wraps around a stretcher, so that the image continues along the sides. That makes sense for abstract art, which to a formalist has to call attention to itself and its materials. It is also inevitable, when Silva has to print out the image before stretching it or applying paint. It might even update formalism for the digital age. Yet there, too, she is limited by neither one. This is anything but “pure painting,” but also as painterly as they come.

It belongs to its time, when abstraction is back, but with big helpings of other media, other imagery, and the glibness of twitter and video games. It even looks a bit like painting by Amy Sillman, with bright colors that teeter on the edge of something familiar. A sense of motion or stained canvas competes with more cartoon-like outlines, like Wassily Kandinsky crossed with Donald Baechler. One might pretend to recognize close-ups of grass, reeds, or shower curtains. One might look for a pocket history of abstraction, most notably color field painting. I think that would be asking both too much and too little, from an artist with a personal style and little academicism, but it does point to her exuberance and eclecticism.

A previous show had larger paintings, like billboards for products that no one could identify. These are not exactly small, although a few are easel size. They still feel immersive, thanks to both scale and color. Silva calls them “Chrysalis,” yet another helpful contradiction. A chrysalis is firm and hard, but also something cast off to give birth to a butterfly. Maybe she is unusually good with paint programs, but these had to become silk to come to life.

Color field painting has its echoes, too, with Carolanna Parlato. She has the natural colors, underlying grids, and ample white space of Joan Mitchell, but with a greater emphasis on layering and opacity. She even shares the exhibition, at Elizabeth Harris through February 13, with a realist. Sandy Walker’s oil crayons depict the pines and rocks not of Paul Cézanne, but the Pacific Northwest. They, too, come surrounded with white space, in part to express the isolation of a dense and mountainous landscape. Yet they also at their best then appear to materialize out of nothing at the center of the composition, like something present and immediate.

Parlato represents nothing, with no hint of the eclecticism of these other artists. She is working within Modernism. She can, though, invite one in to see her use of the palette knife for scraping, smearing, and shaping near rectangles, along with poured paint and irregular brushwork. Up close, too, one can see the deliberately muted tones, from mixing acrylic paste into pigment. Still, the compositions can take on the look of a garden or expressionism. Once again, painting seems to have survived by accepting its imperfections.

2.3.16 — Experimenting with Socialism

I promised a busy week of reviews. How about a truly undersung show?

The Power of Pictures” leaves two unforgettable images of early Soviet photography. It can hardly help it—and it is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload.

In one image, art was the scene of dizzying, constant experiment, trusting no one and nothing—neither authority nor even itself. In the other, art served as relentless propaganda on behalf of socialism and the state. Both were in service of revolution, and yet they were also on a collision course, with artists among the first fatalities. So when did one give way to the other, and when did Modernism become a power play? Alexander Rodchenko's Stairs (Sepherot Foundation, 1929-1930)

The question has no easy answer, not when both experiment and social realism are still signature styles of modern art. The Jewish Museum begins with the first, through February 7, in photograms and unsettling shadow—before Stalin came to power, insisted on realism, and suppressed dissent. It ends with the other, with athletes and soldiers, reducing individuals to collective discipline and to the cult of the male body. A postscript has film posters, in those familiar bold letters and stark colors, and films themselves run continuously in a back room. They include Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein and Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov, in their entirety. Museum hours permitting, one could camp out there for the duration.

Anyone will recognize the power of experiment and propaganda. It shines in photography, posters, and film, but experiment floated briefly in the space of painting as well, in Suprematism. Retrospectives have traced Kazimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko, with his Proun, or “Project for the Affirmation of the New.” Rodchenko is here, too, along with El Lissitzky. Both insisted on experiment, as in the journal LEF (“The Left Front of the Arts”)—Rodchenko designing a cover and Lissitzky placing its logo over one eyeglass lens in a chilling portrait of its leading critic, Osip Brik. And yet both also contributed covers to USSR in Construction.

There is no easy answer because their commitments to both versions of Modernism were so real. There is no easy answer, too, because the tensions between those two versions began early. They emerge right off between the photojournalists of the Russian Association of Proletarian Photographers (ROPF) and the greater daring of another group, October. In photograms from the 1920s, those of Georgy Zimin shimmer, while wire for Lissitzky multiplies beyond the reach of realism or reason, and pliers have a threatening grip. For Arkady Shaikehet, the globe topping Moscow’s central telegraph station stands for a brave new world. For Lissitzky, a photomontage of the same image becomes The Socialist Breakup.

Lissitzky had been to Switzerland to recover from tuberculosis, where he had surely seen the experiments of Dada and, in photograms, Man Ray. And a damaged subject of his dangerous experiments is himself. In self-portraits with his head bandaged, a compass approaches from below like pincers. Photos from Rodchenko combine formal beauty and proletarian labor. Pine trees look like a railroad yard spewing dust and smoke. A diver descends from overhead like a human cannonball.

If one cannot altogether tease the two versions of Soviet art apart, both have a frightening component in the all-seeing eye. It is the eye left over when a critic’s right eye is reduced to a magazine logo. It is Cinema Eye, a film by Vertov with a maquette by Lissitzky. It is the eye of the hand-held camera—and indeed the Leica, invented in Germany in 1925, found its Soviet counterpart in the FED. In Rodchenko’s Girl with a Leica, the dappling of light and shadow looks like a skyscraper seen from below. It is either eye in Georgy Petrusov’s caricature of Rodchenko, layered over his bald head like a surgical scar.

The curators, Susan Tumarkin Goodman and Jens Hoffman, help locate the tensions with an arrangement by theme, while hoping to preserve the shifts in power over time. After photograms come a triumphant rush of dams, towers, gears, and factories, seen at dizzying angles. Try not to object that they involved a contract with Ford Motors. Next come “Soviets,” and finally come sports, the military, and “Staging Happiness,” with scenes of everyday employment, education, and health care—and here, too, there is no getting around the underside of the official picture. Petrusov captures sunbathers at the Black Sea as manufactured leisure. Shaikehet’s soldier at the frontier, rifle at the ready, looks all the more alone for the tree beside him against a black sky.

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

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