11.27.15 — Questioning Money


As I write, on Black Friday, has every day in art become an overhyped sale? Or, as a student wrote me, do you believe that the increasingly money driven art world—which led to the rise of investors, administrators, and art dealers—deteriorates the true substance of art? Short answer: yes, absolutely.

Long answer: yes, but it sure is complicated, and you have to find your own answer. If you are an aspiring artist, dealer, or critic, you can even help create the answers in a messy, disturbing, but still pretty exciting art scene. My opening question came to me this month from someone still excited, and I wanted to encourage her and others to do just that, so let me tell you more about how I wrote back.

So what's NEW!First, though, she had a second question: does this ever make you question the validity of art critiques? It can, and we all know how even decent arts writers get caught up in the game. If you think that you have seen a constant flow of puff pieces in respectable magazines and newspapers, you have. I am a big supporter of “theory” as a way of asking questions and opening people’s eyes, mine included. I have encouraged people to complain not about artspeak, especially long after so many formidable critics and theorists from Jacques Derrida to Arthur C. Danto have passed away, but rather martspeak.

And yet the answer to the second question should be a firm no. I could even say that the upside of complaining about money is that it gives me something to write about. It could actually make talking about it and writing about it more important. I have returned often to the horrendous financial pressures from art fairs, art advisors, fall openings, real estate, private collectors, museum expansions, museum destruction, and more. I have singled out artists trying to navigate these pressures. I have engaged often with critics like Jerry Saltz, Peter Schjeldahl, Edward Winkleman, and Ben Davis out to do the same.

In other words, the real long answer is “don’t get me started,” and it really is complicated. Can one even speak of a “true substance” to art, so long after great modern and postmodern artists worked to dismantle just that? Besides, rather than offering my own pat answers, I wanted to pose my own questions, as a teacher. With luck, the student and others to come will be putting me out of business. Ready? Here is what else I wrote:

  • Many worry, as I have elsewhere, that astronomical auction prices, celebrity artists, the emphasis on blockbuster museum shows, and the like are ruining art. Is that valid, or is that mistaking the 1 percent for everyone else?
  • Many sincere artists who are not succeeding feel that all this attention stacks the deck against them. How many are just making excuses for tepid, derivative art? Mel Bochner's Going Out of Business (private collection, 2012)
  • There is a whole other side of money—not just big bucks for the few, but the amazing growth in numbers of artists, exhibitions, and dealers, plus a much greater audience for them all. People crowd museums and gallery openings, as would have been unthinkable not so very long ago. Is that good for art and a genuine democratization, or does it commercialize everything, too?
  • If it makes art too much like the movies, does that mean that there can never be great movies? Does it mean that there is something special about art? Just what? Would many excellent artists from Dada and Pop Art to the “Pictures generation” and today disagree?
  • Can even big money dealers contribute something, with exhibitions that no one else can afford to stage?
  • Is there an altogether more important downside, in the costs to ordinary art dealers—in rents, attendance at art fairs, competition for buyers, difficulty getting the publicity they deserve, you name it? Or when is competition a good thing?
  • Does all this mean that there is a new and stifling norm, or rather is the problem that now anything goes, so there never can be a truly innovative new direction?

I wonder, every day.

11.25.15 — Watermelon Men

Heading home to family for Thanksgiving? Rashid Johnson does, to his father, and it is quite a story. He calls his installation Anxious Men, but why worry? It exudes confidence at every step, and that can easily rub off onto you.

The air of confidence starts with its sheer existence, filling the back room of the Drawing Center from wall to wall, through December 20. It could be his most ambitious work ever, sharing the floor with Richard Pousette-Dart, for an artist with no shortage of opportunities and ambition. Rashid Johnson's The Ritual (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2015)Johnson has claimed the entirety of African American history and culture as his own, while remaking it as an act of his imagination, with what a past work called the “New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club.” Welcome to the club.

Here confidence extends to the very comforts of home—and I have added this to previous reports on the confidence and anxiety of African American identity, including Lorraine O’Grady and Cy Gavin, as a longer review and my latest upload. Johnson’s wallpaper gives the illusion of a wood-lined interior in white and a warm, dark red. A potted cactus in the corner adds to the signs of creature comforts, especially since the artist made his mark not in the southwest but in Chicago. The wallpaper serves as backdrop for half a dozen large faces, scrawled or rather incised into his characteristic mix of wax and black soap. They have a loopy presence, the white of pristine wall tile shining through the spattering and smears of black. Johnson knows how to get his hands dirty, but also how and when to clean up.

Step closer, and that wallpaper comes down to a repeated photo of a single man. Young and confident himself, he holds his own in a white robe meant for martial arts in an interior as personal as the one at the museum. The bookshelves behind him hold his favorites, including a volume on Malcolm X and a stereo receiver that might be supplying the actual room’s soundtrack—Melvin Van Peebles’s “Love, That’s America,” from Watermelon Man. The music could boost your confidence, too. MutualArtShelves have been a motif for Johnson as well in his mix of photography, family and cultural history, and painterly blackness. He used them for The Ritual in the Guggenheim’s summer show of recent acquisitions, “Storylines.”

Where, then, is the anxiety, and where the men, in the plural? One might locate both in the incisions. The faces have something of Jean-Michel Basquiat, but without the air of street art and self-expression, and something of Nicole Eisenman, but without the preening. Stare long enough at the repeated circles of those black eyes, and anxiety may set in after all. Could the man in the photograph also be staring you down, and could the music, too, insist on a confrontation, at least with white audiences? Or could they be reaching out to a political community across races, just as some at Occupy Wall Street adopted the same song.

Zanele Muholi reaches for community and diversity, too, in the LGBT population of South Africa. Yet the portrait photos in her “Isibonelo/Evidence” recently at the Brooklyn Museum, through November 8, and at Yancey Richardson, through December 5, would not look out of place on Instagram, even in black and white. A second installation, of gay wedding photos, is even blander. Were there gay pet photos, she might have included them, too, as well as on Facebook. Her video of a gay wedding adds little as well. Johnson’s wallpaper may look by comparison a polite fiction, but it cuts teasingly close to the truth.

Johnson stood out in “Freestyle,” the first of several shows of emerging artists at the Studio Museum. Now he gets personal, and his multiplicity of faces extends to multiple points in time. The man in is his father, right around the time of his birth. The work exists then, now, and in the act of creation in-between. If Johnson’s father looks at home, the work leaves his future unwritten, and the books behind him could just as well signal what another past work called The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Art’s displacements and multiplicity can create confidence or anxiety, maybe even both at once.

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

11.23.15 — Monkeying with Minimalism

Remember the chimp who could do a plausible imitation of Abstract Expressionism? Me neither, but how about the primates who dabbled in Minimalism? If that sounds unlikely, they get plenty of help from Karl Haendel, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash through December 5. Karl Haendel's Durand (DY7) (Mitchell-Innes and Nash, 2015)

Not that they look at home in their new studio. They pose atop geometric forms with shining fur and territorial stares, the kind that leave one uncertain whether they are confident or afraid. Viewers may feel the same.

Haendel is monkeying around with Minimalism from the get-go. The term evokes regularity and spareness, but the gallery runs disconcertingly riot. Remember (for real this time) the optical illusion of stacked cubes that might, at any given moment, face up or down? A checkerboard papers the floor at an angle to the entrance, as if tumbling into depth. More fields of black and white pick up from there, breaking up the walls in unpredictable ways. Some cubes come to life within the gallery, taking shape as sculpture on the floor.

The visual and physical obstacle course serves as a backdrop for Haendel’s drawings. Some show humanity’s closest relatives perched on something very much like the sculpture at hand. They might almost tempt one to climb up to face them down, but the sculpture, too, comes papered with images. They show objects that might use the cubes as pedestals, much like the monkeys. They veer between the familiar stuff of still-life and more high-tech apparatus of uncertain purpose. Whatever the one nearest the entrance is measuring, someone’s life may be at stake.

While the floor creates the illusion of depth, the objects look flattened under forcible pressure. A third set of images compresses space in a different way, up on the wall. Squeezed into gaps between the primates, they show couples pressing against one another, with the cool eroticism and agility of modern dance. Frames crop them tightly, adding their own felt pressure. Without them, they seem to say, the dancers could not hold those poses for long. And here, too, in their angled geometries, Haendel has caught depth coming and going.

In truth, a monkey as Jackson Pollock never made much sense, although plenty of derivative art these days could convince one otherwise. It takes discipline to make a drip painting, not to mention constant awareness of the painting’s edge and of oneself. Minimalism may sound less demanding on our furry friends, but it demands just as much attention to constraints and to the room. Conceptual art may not ask much of the art object, but it does require a concept. Performance is often as self-indulgent as a child with a paintbrush, but Haendel’s dancers know what monkeying around with art leaves out.

His installation touches on all these genres, in pursuit of the human. Titled “Organic Bedfellow, Feral Othello,” it probably alludes to the board game more than to Shakespeare. Here Iago’s “jealousy the green-eyed monster” must surrender to black and white. Still, Haendel suggests that one person’s organic and natural is another person’s feral and out of control. He also suggests that one person’s art is another person’s inhuman flailings. The monkeys never will understand, but then (to quote Shakespeare again) “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”

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

11.20.15 — All the Right Places

Jack Tworkov was in all the right places, except maybe the textbooks. He came to New York from the Russian Empire (Poland, to you) in 1913, when Jackson Pollock was a newborn out west and Tworkov himself was thirteen. He studied at the National Academy of Design and, like Adolph Gottlieb, at the Art Student’s League, and he helped organize the 1951 9th Street exhibition that put the New York School front and center.

He worked the next year alongside John Cage and Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College, where his students included Robert Rauschenberg and Dorothea Rockburne. Jack Tworkov's P73 #5 (courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, estate of the artist/VAGA, 1975)He chaired the department at Yale in the 1960s, when it meant something—and where he taught Jennifer Bartlett, Chuck Close, Nancy Graves, Brice Marden, and Robert Mangold. Never mind what you think of Yale as a career move today.

Stylistically, he was in all the right places, too, as seen this fall at Alexander Gray through October 24—and I pull this together with other recent reports on just that, with such artists as Stanley Whitney and, last time, Louise Fishman (with apologies that this last installment is so late), as a longer review and my latest upload. Tworkov first summered in the artist’s colony at Provincetown in his twenties, and he died there in 1982. A painting from 1931 shows the piers in sunlight, with the sober realism of an older American art but with visible brushwork and cube-like sheds out of Paul Cézanne. In a still-life, he pares back, with more white and a greater approach to Cubism, like Henri Matisse crossed with Stuart Davis. White persists into an abstraction from 1951, with acid yellows out of Willem de Kooning. By the decade’s end, crayon and brush are darting up and down in reds and blues, much as for Joan Mitchell.

He is also looking for new ways to stay in motion while paring back. Canvases darken to explore the rectangle, like black paintings for Rauschenberg. Diagonals appear, most notably in the 1970s, creating compound geometries. Based often as not on a rhombus, they suggest a foreground object and a theme, like folds for Rockburne. Short but thick curls cover them in muter tones, bringing the entire composition back to its surface, like geometry as gesture for Mangold or for Marden. By the very end, diagonals provide the only trace of the brush, and geometry has taken over for good, but as motion. Tworkov thought of them as knight’s moves without a chessboard.

His entire work can feel like gamesmanship of a high order, with others writing the rules. At each step, he hits on someone else’s discovery just after the fact, even as he calls it his own. His really was a textbook career, from an artist comfortable in academia. He came late to painting itself, after studying English at Columbia University as an aspiring writer. As for so many great American artists, Cézanne and Matisse set him off, with Joan Miró to add the finishing touches. His very shift between styles has stood in the way of appreciation, for viewers who expect an artistic signature—and by his death painting, too, seemed dead, as if he had somehow managed to take it with him.

For all that, his influence was real, and exhibitions keep running into it. This is his third mini-retrospective in a decade, not one of them in a museum. The UBS tower in midtown had the larger one in 2008, while another gallery focused in 2010 on his paring back. One will and should remember him for the early 1970s, with the rhombus in the foreground and the quick curls everywhere as a grid to themselves, like a Pointillism in shades of gray. Oh, him, you want to say, and there is always someone better. And yet there is always him.

His very eclecticism makes him newly relevant, much as for a greater show-off in Albert Oehlen. What once seemed slow in coming may now seem interdisciplinary. If he started as a writer, he also collaborated with writers in the theater. Yet his strength still lies in discipline—the discipline it took to make a style his own. Color or design comes as a tool for what to him really matters. Look at black squiggles on paper, and one can almost see a de Kooning woman, but sex for him lies only in paint.

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

11.18.15 — One Stroke at a Time

Louise Fishman wants you to take her work one stroke at a time. Even now, well into her seventies, she uses lots of them. It is part of a story about commitment and abstraction that I began earlier with Stanley Whitney and wrap up next time, with Jack Tworkov.

Fishman’s recent paintings, at Cheim & Read through November 21, can stand more than six feet tall. Their marks thin out quickly into streaks—and then keep going. They have a consistent palette, leaning heavily on blue and gray, so that one is aware of the paint all the more. For all that, though, they are lighter than ever before.

The lightness starts with the palette, which can hardly help evoking sea and sky. It has its heart, though, as in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, in long verticals on largely open fields and in broader strokes brimming over the grid. Both give added prominence to the white of the ground. It penetrates the colors almost as if added last, as highlights. If it also recalls Joan Mitchell, Fishman may simply be returning to her roots. She grew up with Abstract Expressionism, and she has never altogether left it behind.

Make that second-generation Abstract Expressionism, given her age, and the label is not often a compliment. It could make her work seem out of touch even in her twenties, when Minimalism already ruled—although she experimented with that as well. It has also had people reaching for other labels instead. She has exhibited in context of gay rights and Judaism, although the work remained largely abstract. She has looked relevant again thanks first to Neo-Expressionism and then to Pattern and Decoration, although she is not neo anything, and she long had little concern for patterns. Her work has gained from its shifting context, but the context has shifted more than the work.

Still, one can locate a divide. In her earlier and more somber museum pieces, paint gathers thickly. Fields of it or thick black curves run up against one another or the edge. For a while, text intrudes as well, including a feminist’s repeated cry of angry. One can think of the work as about paint more than design, like a novel that one reads more for the characters and the prose than the plot. One can also think of the paint as itself a sign, with no need for more.

The lightness is the biggest change in her art over the last twenty years, along with a greater acceptance of the grid. They go together, in fact. It takes the grid to make one this aware of where brushwork begins and ends. The interplay is most obvious in her latest paintings, and they are stronger for it. Fishman has spoken of taking her cues from the support, even if that means just the sheet of paper for a watercolor. She sounds like a formalist, but maybe she is only just becoming one. That makes sense, too, for painting more and more about process.

The process involves scraping as well as addition. That appearance of a single brushstroke is often an illusion. At the same time, the grid brings with it a palpable layering, as verticals and horizontals compete for the picture plane, while other colors break through like physical disruptions. Again subjectivity runs up against its limits—and vice versa. There is something quaint or embarrassing in talking so much about paint, and she might be the first to refuse. Yet one can still enjoy it, one stroke at a time.

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

11.16.15 — Nature’s Magic

Who is that up in the branches or lurking in the leaves? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is Andy Goldsworthy, at Galerie Lelong through December 5, and he is already off to another of those natural wonders that might almost lie in someone’s backyard. He has been crawling through the countryside for forty years now, like a single extended ego trip. He has become slyer about it, though, and more intent on nature’s magic. Andy Goldsworthy's White Walls (Day 4) (Galerie Lelong, 2007)

Goldsworthy takes pride in working with his hands and with things as they are—things that he cannot or must not alter. Yet he sure gets his hands dirty. In one early work he emerges on all fours, covered from head to toe in mud, like a figure from a primitive race that ought to have vanished long ago. A room to the side holds a photographic record of work from the 1970s and 1980s, looking all the starker in black and white. Now he comes clean, but his feats have multiplied. The rest of the gallery has a far greater number of videos and photos in time sequence, all from the last few years.

More than ever, Goldsworthy puts the emphasis on process, while blurring the distinction between natural processes and art. Works like these identify him with nature while making nature his own. He has always worked between earthworks and performance, but he is becoming more openly a performer. When he throws sticks into the sky, he could be returning them to their place in the landscape and to the wind—or he could be in the middle of a juggling act. When thistles form an imperfect sphere in front of his face, he could be inhaling them or exhaling them, as part of a magic act.

The sequence of still photos is ambiguous, but I would put my money on exhaling. He wants to breathe life into nature itself. No, he was never really taking things as they are, much as he trashed this very gallery in 2007 in order to identify it with the great outdoors. With his wall at Storm King Art Center or in walks across the United Kingdom, he is the one assigning a local habitation and a name. In the show’s title work, Leaning into the Wind, his silhouette assumes an improbable angle over four frames without evident change, but do not count on their outcome. In context, even that early mud-man looks like a character in a comic book, and I do not mean Superman.

Goldsworthy was always pretentious, like any male presenting himself as primitive man. When Robert Smithson ran along his Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake and Agnes Denes planted a wheat field in Manhattan, they took delight in what they had made, but also in its growing or vanishing beneath their feet. Some part of their energy was necessarily lost to time. Goldsworthy wants control for all his protestations otherwise, although his latest comes closer to accepting entropy. The universe runs in only one direction, like the sticks destined to return to earth only after they have flown apart and away.

The new work displays more obvious physical virtuosity than before, from an artist who turns sixty in 2016, but also more of a sense of humor. Maybe he is inhaling the thistles after all, and maybe he will choke. The videos also invite the viewer into the game, like a treasure hunt. One learns in no time to focus on that pile of fallen leaves, where he is sure to pop up—and then those leaves will no longer be as they were. One accepts the need for patience with his high jinks in order to discover him at work. He may move only slightly, up in a tree or beneath a waterfall, but he wants you to see him coming into the light.

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

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