5.4.15 — From Prison to Temple

In 1777 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, just past his mid-fifties, stopped at the three ruined temples of Paestrum, near Salerno. Barely a year before his death, could he have attained at last a sense of release?

Raised in the Republic of Venice, he had made his name with monumental views of Rome that belong at once to the fabric of a modern city and the past. Now he sketched the sunlight of southern Italy, so hot that herdsmen sought relief in the Greco-Roman ruins of their early Doric pillars and triangular lintels. He lives most to this day with the Carceri d’Invenzione, or “Imaginary Prisons”—prints so fiendish and intricate that they soon came to stand for a confining dream. Now he turned to what the period knew only as holy ground, as a basilica and as temples to Neptune and Ceres. Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Temple of Neptune, Looking Southeast (Sir John Soane Museum, 1777-1778)

For Piranesi, though, there was no escaping the fantasy or the fever. Perhaps his prisons never did press in all that closely with their torments. They reach upward in level after dizzying level, anticipating the steel frames of the great railway stations still to come. Now he subordinates peasant life to his own unreason. He adopts baffling points of view, multiple perspectives, and sudden contrasts between light and shadow that bring out the crumbling incompletion of columns and triangular tympani, weeds flourishing at the top. One temple looms beyond another as less a relief or an alternative than a pale vision.

Who are these people anyway? The fifteen studies leave them ambiguously at work, at rest, or at play, at times quite out of scale to the architecture. One figure is absorbed in reading, and some might well be tourists. A man of the cloth appears outside, but he might be a figure out of commedia dell’arte or just plain slinking off. Few speak, and pigs and cattle loll contentedly, to judge by a discernible smile. Most look just as ghostly as the temples—and just as often drowned in the towering contrasts of light and shadow.

The artist still took his care. He worked extensively in black chalk before adding pen, ink, wash, and sometimes red chalk. He also meant the series as models for prints on the same scale, which his son, Francesco, completed after his death. If the etchings look clear by comparison, one can attribute the difference to the media or to a generation. In 1817 Sir John Soane acquired fifteen of the seventeen surviving drawings in 1817, at the Morgan Library through May 17 along with two etchings as “Piranesi and the Temples of Paestum,” on loan from the architect’s London museum. Downstairs through October 4 as “Exploring France,” fourteen oil sketches from the Thaw collection, shared between the Morgan Library and the Met, fill out a view of landscape art just entering the nineteenth century—their diligent precision caught in time between Neoclassicism and the crisp light of Rome for Camille Corot.

So what's NEW!Was it Romanticism yet? Arguably Piranesi reached that before anyone else, and one should not misremember his prisons as designs out of M. C. Escher, with the latter’s more rational exuberance. It was Thomas De Quincey, in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, who compared the Italian’s art to “the delirium of a fever,” after conversations with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It may seem strange that Soane took to them as well, but the English architect, known for hi rationality and institutional restraint, had met Piranesi in Rome. Besides, in sorting out the corner and side views for the Différents Vues de Pesto, wall labels make clear each building’s classicism and symmetry. Maybe you knew all along—and what one cannot quite see still helps account for a drawing’s impact.

Italy had just stumbled on the ruins as well, south of Pompeii, in the process of attaining modernity. The rediscovery coincided with road building. If it misunderstood what were originally temples to Hera and Athena, ancient Rome had already renamed the site in toppling a greater Greece. Piranesi was always observing and always the antiquarian, even when he was making things up—not just architecture, but also the rot and struggle of everyday life. A shepherd leaning on a hoe could come right out of Jean-François Millet decades later in France. Choose your own prison.

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

5.1.15 — Getting to Today

It takes a long time to get to today. On Kawara made it his life work to be sure that you knew it, and he planned his retrospective the same way. He did not live to see his retrospective, but he still shows how to live day to day.

As for getting to today, there is the span of a human life, and Kawara sent nearly a thousand telegrams over some thirty years to remind others of just one thing: I AM STILL ALIVE. There is the course of time and history, and he filled binder after binder from almost the same years, 1970 through 1998, with One Million Years. There is simply Today, as he called forty-eight years of date paintings—almost till his death in July 2014, at age eighty-one. On Kawara's JAN. 4, 1966 (David Zwirner gallery/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1966)Each bears nothing more than its date of execution, in plain white against a monochrome field, often as not black. And then there is his retrospective, at the Guggenheim through (be it noted) May 3, 2015, which does indeed take almost its entirety to get to Today, and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

Kawara is inconceivable without Today. The date paintings have become a gallery and museum fixture—and not often an inspiring one. Their drab simplicity, in sans serif without spacing, can elicit little more than a shrug. The artist committed himself to completing a painting within the day it began and, if he failed, to throwing it away. If he succeeded, there might always be time for another, looking almost exactly the same. At the Guggenheim, pairs and threesomes hang vertically within the largely single file.

Yet his retrospective also shows how much that account leaves out, starting with its contradictions. Each work belongs to a day, bringing out the process of its creation, while signaling its place in the past. Its predictability accords with an assembly line or, for that matter, the Frank Lloyd Wright ramp, but each has its distinct text and execution. Kawara painted them all by hand with a layered ground, although one would hardly know it, in the native language where he happened to work. MutualArtThey aspire to Minimalism and conceptual art, the handmade and the ready-made, the obsessive and the arbitrary, the personal and the universal. He chose as his typeface Helvetica, because it is ubiquitous and because he liked it—or maybe because it improves on Universe.

The account also leaves out half of each work, from the very first date painting on January 4, 1966. One might not know it from routine gallery displays, but a painting, unlike a date painting for Alighiero Boetti, comes with a cardboard box intended for a newspaper’s page from the same day. Naturally Kawara leaned to the “paper of record,” The New York Times, for that, too, is both a personal choice and larger than a human life. It is an alternative means of marking the date as well, just as the telegrams come with all sorts of cryptic codes thanks to the telegraph companies. Last, the account leaves out just how many alternatives he sought. Titled “Silence” followed by a small spiral, like a stylized at sign, this is one noisy retrospective.

Kawara designed the show, with the Guggenheim’s Jeffrey Weiss and Anne Wheeler, to call attention to the alternatives. They may not make him any more lovable or surprising, but they do make him a lot more interesting. Along with paintings, clippings, and telegrams, he had any number of other sign systems, like alternative languages of art. They will have anyone pondering the alternatives, in search of meanings and in search of the artist. Was he, as the museum claims, “devoted to painting” or branding it? Surely something was at stake, in thousands of objects so painstakingly assembled, but what?

Ninety-seven paintings, presented as Everyday Meditations, offer a chronicle of exactly three months, beginning January 1, 1970. Not just an aging Pablo Picasso had to date his paintings, and Kawara’s thus become a part of their time. The clippings include still more sign systems in TV listings, stock quotes, and advertising along with crises and hard news. Yet it has to say something about him that he selects pictures of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, not to mention an obituary for Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, and he keeps returning to issues of race and war.

I felt long-forgotten anger at Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s call for “benign neglect” of race, new compassion at a full page for the worn face of LBJ, and the pleasure of recognition in a gallery’s legendary Soho address, on postcards to Paula Cooper. Along with searching for art and the artist, I realized that I was also in search of me.

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

4.29.15 — Minimalism as Chimera

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Only Cordy Ryman could paper the walls with two-by-fours. And only he could call anything so eye-catching and so solid a chimera. It comes as the latest addition to a review of seven years of his work, as my latest upload.

Actually, Chimera 45 is only a trial run, from an artist who treats everything as an experiment. He plans to extend it for a two-person show with Roxy Paine at the Columbus College of Art and Design, in Ohio, but he is not starting small. Cordy Ryman's Door (Lesley Heller Workspace, 2007)Already sixty-five squares cover three walls at Zürcher through May 5—and sixteen or seventeen times that many pieces of wood. Each square, four feet on a side, consists of diagonals that alternate direction from square to square, and most diagonals have paint on just one side. The bright colors, often red and electric pink, are as unpredictable as their application. The gallery speaks of his work as “caught between sculpture and painting,” but Ryman will not allow himself to be caught.

The resemblance to Sol LeWitt wall drawing is unmistakable, and so are the differences. Like LeWitt, he begins with fixed rules, but only so that a design can race unpredictably across the room. LeWitt, too, has worked with both wall drawing and sculpture in wood with still plainer geometry—but never at once. For his generation, a medium must stay true to itself. Ryman’s father, Robert Ryman, already treats the material support for a painting as part of the work, whether a metal panel or the bolts that hold it to the wall. Yet he, too, is making a single medium as explicit as it can be.

Chimera 45 is two things at once, if not three. One cannot miss its design or its projection into the room. Paint runs over the side of the wood, in outright puddles on the edge. Even the rough-hewn geometry has its limits. Pieces more or less make it to the edge of their square, and squares never make it to the top of the wall. Wood here is both the materials of architecture and distinct from the gallery’s own.

Ryman flirts with conceptual art, but only to make it firmly material. Unlike LeWitt, he likes working by hand, rather than leaving the entire execution to assistants. He draws back from illusion as well. Every line in LeWitt wall drawings must follow the rules, and the results must look closer to chaos. Ryman allows himself only one illusion, that of scale. A prototype of just four squares looks larger than its wall-size companion, because it starts above the floor.

His is also becoming both more ambitious and more painterly. In earlier work, a vertical might stick to its corner of a room or not, and segments might cover the space above a gallery desk like bricks until they just happened to quit. Here they keep going. The gallery’s back room has smaller and less regular works that approach collage and painting. Text by Michel Butor, the unbound pages partly folded and stacked, refuses to be caught between architecture and the artist’s book. One can still see the artist’s hand and flip the pages, albeit forward.

An irregular return to Minimalism is common enough right now. Painters like Merlin James are showing the backs of stretchers or coming off the wall. Many nurture irregularities, too, in resistance to the impersonality or star power of more popular abstract painters. Bridging media has become practically the hallmark of emerging artists, at the expense of an avant-garde’s bold assertion and critical spirit. Part of Ryman lives in the cracks between his large squares. But the cracks are growing.

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

4.27.15 — Off the Wall

Quite often these days, painting is off the wall. Not figuratively, since it keeps getting harder to offer an alternative or an avant-garde. Nor consistently, for some of the best painting out there still works with gesture and geometry on canvas or the wall itself. Still, especially in a crowded market, artists feel the pressure to make the past their own.

Cordy Ryman's Door (Lesley Heller Workspace, 2007)That can mean cutting across media—or across whatever divide remains between abstraction and representation. And sure, it can mean cutting across the edge of the canvas and, from there, heading off the wall. Let me round up some recent examples.

I first encountered Cordy Ryman with a work that slipped tidily into a corner. Now he has taken over a room the hard way, recently at Morgan Lehman through February 7, with green slivers of wood that trace a path through space. I kept searching for the right place to stand, from which they would resolve into a cube, but it never came (and I’ll tell you about an even more recent and ambitious installation of his next time). Of course, his father, Robert Ryman, long ago made the bolts that mount a painting part of the work, both binding it to the wall and setting it apart. Shaped canvas, as with Charles Hinman, has long implicitly done the same. Again, it keeps getting harder to stay in place and yet harder still to “make it new.”

Joe Kupillas starts with bright, jagged overlays of line like those of Jonathan Lasker or Mary Heilmann, who already imply a leap off canvas and into space. His do so, though, in real space, with bungee cord wrapped around a painting or color directly on the wall. When a work lands above the gallery’s desk, recently at Molly Krom through April 11, it might have floated up there only a moment ago. That bungee cords effectively hold a painting in place may or may not count as irony. Then there is simply loose canvas hanging down apart from the wall, as for Kamau Amu Patton at Callicoon, through March 29. He thinks in terms of “feedback loops” of sound, digitally translated into geometry, but his horizontal stains of dark, intense color look the most traditional of all.

Joan Waltemath presents unstretched canvas as one of two bodies of work some years apart, at Hionas through March 14. Its black bands can appear as a compositional element out of Russian Constructivism, but also as border, frame, or division. The other series is just as rigorously abstract. Yet its muted palette, its seemingly arbitrary insertions of smaller rectangles, and its half-erased surfaces had me thinking of Jasper Johns. If Johns consistently uses borrowed imagery to allude to the artist in his studio, Waltemath says that she bases all her work on the golden section and the human form. It may not be so easy to separate her two series after all, especially in a show called “One Does Not Negate the Other.”

Merlin James, too, takes the measure of his studio, at Sikkema Jenkins through March 7. Naturally he finds it full of paintings. The Brit runs to the fad for exhibiting the back of the stretcher, with a bit of scrap wood on top now and then, perhaps as proof that it really does hang on the wall. Yet his light scrim in place of canvas brings the translucency and physical reality of a painting, in work dedicated to both. It also brings art as object closer to still-life. One can keep looking through it to rediscover the painting.

For her largest new work, at Eleven Rivington through April 5, Marsha Cotrell embeds a white circle within a black field the size of a gallery wall. Yet it, too, peels away from flatness, here across ordinary inkjet prints—with the circle conforming to a single sheet of paper. In smaller prints, the whites glow like lamps in a dark studio, while glimpses of actual interiors have her spying on herself along with you. Still more computer-assisted drawing throbs within the outlines of a monitor, so that the work’s construction and imagery alike ties it to the artist’s workspace and the conceptual space of the digital. Often, as with Patton, the conceptual framework is never half as convincing as the painting. And sometimes, plain old compositions look mysterious and new.

4.24.15 — An Experiment with Light

More than thirty-five years ago, Barbara Kasten threw everything she could into photography, at times even a photo. Talk about double exposures.

Her Amalgams from the late 1970s combine photograms with conventional prints, created and enlarged within the spooky confines of the darkroom. Often she topped them off with paint, for true blackness and slim lines or arcs of color. Their orientation relative to the edge of the paper helps to ground an image slipping in and out of the third dimension. They are also a record of what a recent survey at MoMA, Kasten included, called “Photographic Processes in the Studio.”

That third dimension is not strictly an illusion, not when a photogram relies on the direct imprint of an object. What looks most illusory, in fact, is the most straightforward representation of depth—in images of, I am guessing, wire constructions. Off-center cubes seem to surround and gather light. Conversely, the most literally three-dimensional element, the paint, comes closest to the picture plane. Born in 1936, Kasten had been at it for a while, including Polaroids displayed in the 2013 Armory Show, and she had a long memory. The abstractions update László Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus for Minimalism, and (to wrap up my special photography week) I have added them to earlier reports on him, Harold Edgerton (shown here) and other photography as science experiment as a longer review, in my latest upload.

Her gallery, Bortolami, would add the “Light and Space” movement, although Kasten has her darkroom east of Southern California. And if the Amalgams seem a little too dark or fussy, leap ahead to the present. She introduces them, through May 2, with larger photos from 2014 of tumbling Plexiglas constructions filled with light and color. At the same time, these Transpositions adhere less obviously to the vertical, bringing her closer than ever to early Modernism. In this version of experimental photography, every print is an ongoing experiment. It just happens to sit still.

Kasten’s latest does move, only slowly. Sideways leaves a back wall mostly black, interrupted by nothing more than light. The light’s intensity follows naturally after the translucency of Plexiglas. The projections sometimes echo the architecture, as if the four corners of the room were marching across the wall. At other times pie shapes open and close. The video uses repetition and variation to slow one’s perception. It also adds one more stage to an experiment with light.

Owen Kydd places his “Out-of-Place Artifacts” in actual light boxes, recently at Nicelle Beauchene through April 19. His images move slowly, too, but not as Kasten’s strict abstractions. Kydd sticks to the city, indoors and out, give or take the intrusion of nature. In his most puzzling video, people do seem to be up to something in a more or less open landscape, although just what is hard to say. Consider it an invitation to resist narrative—and to resist locating his settings in one’s past. It also has one looking all the harder for change.

Change does come slowly. Mist fills or pours out of a corner, while household utensils in color recall the still-life photography of Jan Groover. A knife gives way to a feather, and a metal ring, maybe like the ones supporting a shower curtain, casts its rotating shadow on a wall. The most abstract, though, also sticks most firmly to the city. Shadows play across pavement splattered with white, a shape like the police outline of a human body. As for Edgerton, photography here has to perform its experiment with people.

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

4.23.15 — Moving Images

They say that Eadweard Muybridge invented stop-action photography to settle a bet. Harold Edgerton just wanted to know how much damage he could do. For one more extra catch-up post on my all-photography week, allow me to explain.

He shot bullets through playing cards, Plexiglas, and balloons. He scrambled eggs and photographed the empty shells along with the bowl and the swirls. Not that he confined the damage to his alone. He captured a nuclear explosion in 1952, the year that the hydrogen bomb changed the stakes of the Cold War to survival. Harold Edgerton's Densmore Shute Bends the Shaft (Sikkema Jenkins, 1938)

Even when it came to sports, he took the measure of deformity, if only for an instant. He showed just how far a hardball, golf ball, or football gives way at the moment of impact. It is not far or long, but it is more than you knew. Precision matters, in an art of small differences—just as a century before for Muybridge, who confirmed once and for all that a horse’s four legs leave the ground at once. MoMA included both men in a show of “Photographic Practices in the Studio,” but Edgerton had his studio at MIT as a professor of electrical engineering, beginning in 1934. Muybridge was a pioneer, but Edgerton was a scientist.

Still, he was arguably the more self-conscious artist. Muybridge traveled between England and the United States back when photography had to prove itself as an art, much as for Julia Margaret Cameron, and he broke things down frame by frame like a slide show or a lesson. Admirers have noted his influence on the birth of motion pictures and “a new kinetic art.” Edgerton made each image a compendium of motion and a lasting impression, with contributions to Life magazine and with a full awareness of their strangeness. Others have included him in shows of “Ghosts in the Machine” and American Surrealism. He thrived when going to the movies was becoming a ritual, and he was happy to compete with them for effect.

A small show, in the back at Sikkema Jenkins through March 7 (and I would have told you about it sooner, but this had first to appear in New York Photo Review), focuses on the artistry and the strangeness—and, along with an earlier review of photography as science experiment, it is the subject of a longer review as my latest upload. The documentary impact of an A-test is out, along with the playing card, and the swirls and shadows are in.

One may never experience contrasts this sharp outside of a laboratory or a photogram, and one may not even know half the time what one is seeing. (Do those swirls and eddies really belong to tennis?) Multiple flash units track a bullet’s path through air from its shadows alone, as if through sand and smoke. It might be the universe in a grain of sand, as for William Blake, but the grain is itself an illusion.

Athletes here have their own self-conscious artistry. The muscleman with a baseball bat could well be posing for the camera, and the multiple reflections of a gold club surround the golfer like flower petals or echoes of his body. Even the title sounds artier than needed, Densmore Shute Bends the Shaft. Most of the images go back to the 1930s, starting with water from a faucet in 1932, although prints mostly date to the year before Edgerton’s death in 1990, but if anything they become showier. The bullet leaves one balloon in shreds, in 1959, before bursting a second and passing neatly through a third. Well into the nuclear age, he is still measuring the damage.

Was he first, then, an engineer or an artist, a journalist or a connoisseur of chaos? Was he even a photographer? He actually contributed the technology of strobes and “shadowgraphs,” working in collaboration with one, Gjon Mili. Are the displays of athleticism a self-reflective boast of virtuosity, and is the dog begging while wagging its tail the confession of a born entertainer? For all the air of danger, Edgerton shares the exhilaration at once of Modernism and scientific discovery. To make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.

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

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