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.” Michele Felice Cornè's Death of William (photo by Kathy Tarantola, Peabody Essex Museum, c. 1807)

Those 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. 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. So what's NEW!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. MutualArtThey all but dare one to reassemble them as a cube.

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. Thomas Lendvai's Untitled (Odetta, 2017)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 it 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.

2.13.17 — Sex in Chicago

Gladys Nilsson takes as her subject the battle of the sexes. It is not going well for the men.

Oh, sure, it is all in fun—maybe especially when the women manhandle them. They may even like it when a woman steals their beach towel. They can always take refuge with the throng of smaller figures between and around the playful warriors, in what I hesitate to call the foreground or background. At least those characters get to keep their clothes on.

Gladys Nilsson's Caught (Garth Greenan gallery, 1986)The sexes may meet as equals, like teams of construction workers at left and right of Léger Faire. A man and women, both naked and both in white, flank a central grouping in a more colorful shallow space. The twin attendants could be drawing apart the doors to reveal them, like angels parting the curtain for a Renaissance Madonna by Piero della Francesca. Then again, the two could be closing the doors on an overcrowded elevator, like subway packers in Japan. (To help you decide, Nilsson titles the scene Caught—with maybe an added gotcha at the viewer.) Still, for all the fun and fair game, no question but women get the better deal.

They get to smile, wave, and strut their stuff, in light or sheer clothing, even if one woman’s rear end faces forward—unless, of course, her breasts have cloned themselves and migrated downward. Meanwhile the men have it more figuratively ass backward. They wear uniformly grim expressions, to go with their stiff, limp, or hairless bodies. They sport oversized penises with nowhere to go but up. Maybe they are just getting what they deserve. Maybe, too, they will learn any minute to take equal pleasure in the raucous play.

The large watercolors date from the mid-1980s, at Garth Greenan through February 18, but they could almost belong to an earlier and less anxious America. They show little of the politics of the AIDS crisis or “Pictures generation,” give or take the sex. The strutting recalls Reginald Marsh, Paul Cadmus on Coney Island, and American Surrealism. The construction sites recall workers taking lunch on a beam of the future Rockefeller Center, in a photograph no longer attributed to Lewis Hine. The stacked and tilted tiers recall Cubism, much as the robust colliding figures recall Fernand Léger—but with pointy noses out of a New Yorker cartoon. Nilsson’s titles run to gentle puns reminiscent of gentler times.

Then, too, they could just stem from a gentler art scene. Nilsson had a solo show at the Whitney in the 1970s, but her life and career belong to the Chicago area. Born in 1940, she attended the School of the University of Chicago and exhibited with the Hairy Who. She married Jim Nutt—who does to Picasso’s women what Nilsson does to Léger. Her skill and lightness contrast with Nutt’s bluntness and the agonized expressions of a third Chicago Imagist, Karl Wirsum. She long exhibited at Phyllis Kind but remains little known in New York.

Those gentler times could also start to look very much like the present, whether I like it or not—and I have added this to a report on drawings by another woman from Chicago, Elizabeth Murray, as a longer review and my latest upload. Caricature, graphic novels, their lack of subtlety, and their horror of the vacuum have entered the mainstream. Robert Crumb and Roz Chast have exhibited in Chelsea galleries. Nillson took up watercolors to avoid paint fumes during pregnancy, but she has made them her own. The large format gains from torn edges and the grain of the paper. Her fantasies may yet come true.

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

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