10.24.14 — Emerging as Material

Of the three artists in “Material Histories,” through October 26, one has words as her materials, while another soaks, stains, and coats his materials to the point of burying their history. The third piles her materials on plainly enough, as if rescuing them from their past.

But then art is like that, they might argue, where ideas and things can take on new lives and new histories. And African American art is like that, with the added burden of recovering lives and a history. Piling on materials is also the nature of way too much trashy art and way too many oversized installations. Still, this year’s artists in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem seem to know when to shock and when to hold back.

One expects new voices to bring something new, but all three work reasonably familiar territory. Bethany Collins effaces, rewrites, and reproduces found text. Jenny Holzer might have produced her Colorblind Dictionary, with all references to color obscured in a real dictionary, and Glenn Ligon her scarred and blown up definition of “ravel” or “skin.” Charles Gaines has erased single letters, and Allen Ruppersberg has blocked out whole passages, as in her copies of Southern Review.

Kevin Beasley comes at a time of rediscovery of craft in the form of everyday fabric, as with Sheila Hicks, and his stains and folds recall black artists from Al Loving to Shinique Smith. And Abigail DeVille enters a line of junk dealers like Isa Genzken too long to count.

Yet each also brings personal materials and personal histories. Collins wields a mean but delicate knife in cutting through paper, and she knows that skin can stand for either a covering or a painful stripping away. She also leaves implicit its role as a marker of race while rendering it in white. Beasley scavenges simple materials associated with creature comforts, like a pillow or a dressing gown. Then he adds a grisly reminder of the body, not unlike David Altmejd, by caking them in polyurethane and colored dust, while leaving their human scale intact. A pillowcase floats against a wall like an angel.

So what's NEW!DeVille claims the deepest history, with titles like Gone Forever and Ever Present. She describes her assemblages as “detritus” of the Great Migration, or African American journey north, and as “embedded histories” of entire communities. At the same time, they look quite at home on 125th Street. A black column rises, with a woman’s leg showing off and peeking out. More mannequins and shopping carts, plus box springs, tumble off a gallery wall. If one has any doubt that they suggest drudgery or homelessness in the present, she also creates a Harlem Flag of fabric and sharp colors layered over slashed sheetrock. A coil of barbed wire resembles a crown of thorns.

Not everyone can say something new, assuming that, after Modernism, anyone can. The Studio Museum may even have something of a house style by now for its studio program, with objects as records of historical consciousness and urban unrest. One can see it in the titles of residencies for past years like “Evidence of Accumulation,” “Quid Pro Quo,” “Usable Pasts,” and “Scratch.” They seem to call for a more restrained and focused version of art’s bloated installations. I could do with a bit less of all that, but the program still has its purpose. It actually reduces the pressure to pounce on the new.

Big shows of emerging artists can try to assuage that pressure, and the museum has its own. Two of these artists appeared in “Fore” in 2013, one in “The Ungovernables” at the New Museum, and one also in “Starfall,” a recent show at the Studio Museum on the theme of southern history. Yet a year’s residency allows them a space apart from the latest thing. Beasley’s dressing gown has the outline of a leaf as well as a person, and both seem both fallen and alive. When Collins turns to painting in He’s Trying to Fuck His Way Out, letters cluster and scatter like dandelion puffs in the wind. The artists can decide for themselves how much to outgrow text art and material histories.

10.22.14 — Where Black Is a Number

When it comes to Minimalism, Charles Gaines would like to show how it is done. With Walnut Tree Orchard, a series from 1975, each triptych begins with a photograph in black and white of a single tree. A drawing then manifests its shape and tonal range in the elements of a grid, where the number in each cell also stands for its location in the visual field. A second drawing transforms the first, based on previous drawings and predetermined rules, and voilà: the tree has become an orchard.

Gridwork,” at the Studio Museum in Harlem through October 26, includes this and nine other series from 1974 to 1989, to spell out his own transformation as an artist. It ends with an explosion of color, scale, and change. Charles Gaines's Numbers and Trees VI, Landscape, #7 (private collection/Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 1989)

Sure, others before Gaines have spelled things out, like Sol LeWitt, who manifests the making of his wall drawings right in their titles. When a performer closes the lid of the piano for 4’33”, by John Cage, you know what the next 4 minutes and 33 seconds will bring. Even Chuck Close in confronting his growing disability has had to interrupt the perfection of his photorealism, with visible brushwork in a more perceptible grid. Still, LeWitt begins with the directions and lets an image take shape as it will in the hands of others. With Close, skill defies explanation that much more. As for Cage, one could argue that nothing happens at all.

With Gaines, plenty is going on, because the results never set aside their dual origins in chance and nature. A photograph has its own unarticulated rules for picking out a tree, and the result is a landscape that testifies to its growth. Each work unfolds both in time and space—the space of a wall and the time of its making. The numbers in his grids recall the tables of Hanne Darboven, at once encyclopedic and incomplete. Darboven sometimes converted those numbers into sound—and Gaines, an accomplished drummer, took the opposite course in setting aside a career in jazz for art. He is still riffing.

Yet he lets on less than may appear. In Regression, an early series, the number of filled squares in one grid drives the cryptic geometries in the next, but how? Branching spikes arise not from LeWitt’s simple rules, but from mathematical equations one will never see much less solve. MutualArtIncomplete Text Set, from 1979, all but boasts of how hard it is to read. Successive sheets transfer letters from a Pacific Ocean whale watcher’s log, based on the arbitrary assignment of color to the alphabet. Even the later transformations of nature have their enigmas.

Born in 1944, Gaines worked amid larger transformations in art as well—from analog to digital and from Minimalism to conceptualism. He taught at an epicenter of California conceptualism, Cal Arts, although he moved there only as the show ends. The curator, Naima Keith, also argues for a context in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, but that had its greatest impact on writers, and it ended barely as the show begins. Still, she raises a fair question: Gaines, who grew up in Newark, has appeared in a show of black LA art, and later work has become more overtly political, but is this really about blackness? Can there be black mathematics or a black Minimalism?

Gaines has refused labels, even when he based drawings on the African continent. He counts Adrian Piper as another influence (along with LeWitt, Cage, and Darboven), and he could have found an exemplar of duration in black performance art. Instead, he photographed Trisha Brown in motion, once every three seconds for one minute, in the years that she was also collaborating with Robert Rauschenberg. Maybe it matters that she was dancing Son of Gone Fishin’. His most obvious play with race comes with Faces, in 1978, based on what look like mug shots. Then he reverses black and white, as in a negative, before settling on bare outlines in color.

Somehow the subjects have become people of color, and that color is not black. And yet blackness always has its residue as difference, in an art about nurturing differences. These were also the years when Eva Hesse had gendered Minimalism, and a crucial turn for Gaines was from formulas to the physical—in faces, dance, whaling, plants, and trees. Also in 1978, he produced his greatest tribute to chance, with numbers that record fallen leaves.

The show ends with its largest and most dramatic layering, in three dimensions and in glorious color. Grids of trees, in acrylic on acrylic sheets, cast their speckled shadows on the photographs from which he begins, as if to deny once and for all how he does it.

 

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

10.20.14 — Heading North

I’ll be telling you about shows at the Studio Museum in Harlem all this week. So if I may, let me warm up with a review of the summer show just before the current choices, one that I had (ouch) never posted.

If a museum had to celebrate a moment in African American art, if might pick one of two. Most likely, it already has. Exhibition after exhibition has done the same. Ralph Lemon's Untitled (Studio Museum in Harlem, 2014)

Make that an extended moment. One came in World War II, when Jacob Lawrence painted his Migration Series. He took three years to depict the passage north of African Americans, a passage that took decades, but was it a tale of displacement and loss or of community and common hopes? Surely both, with figures in rows as if on a forced march. Lawrence’s War Series again teases out the promise of freedom. His colors are warm but airless, but his struggling humanity and the light on the horizon reiterate a pledge that remains unfulfilled to this day.

The other extended moment came later, when Romare Bearden took the pulse of Harlem. He had served in the war, before Truman integrated the military, but he found new beginnings in the Civil Rights movement. Increasingly, too, he captured the vitality of the street. And he, too, described a mythic voyage as a homecoming. He painted the journey of Ulysses, and MoMA called a 1971 exhibition of his prints “A Graphic Odyssey.” He also turned to collage to place that odyssey more fully in the present.

When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South,” which ran at the Studio Museum in Harlem through June 29, has in mind a third moment. It is what the others left behind, in the rural South, but also the present moment, of outsider art moving toward the inside.

The results may have less to say than they should about either one. They go light on both politics and history. They do, though, make a contemporary case for a hybrid. It is also the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload.

The show juxtaposes folk art and sophisticated artists, at a time when self-taught art and outsider art have new champions. And the show’s central image of the South is not of the beaten down, but of the forgotten and the visionary. Benny Andrews introduces it as early as 1967, in pencil allegories of trees with legs, surrounded by vibrant color circles, while Henry Ray Clark locates it in Texas with a three-headed mandala, On Our Planet Name Yahoo We Are Called Destiny Childs We Sing and Dance to We Do Know One Thing for Sure We Will Never Separate Are Be Apart. (On our planet, I guess, words spill out from the sounds inside our heads.) Georgia and Henry Speller confront her “Grecian” dancers with his folk drawings of a Tennessee riverboat. Jacolby Satterwhite is another sophisticate who knows madness at first hand, in his mother’s schizophrenia.

Others find the beast not down south at all, but rather in the capitals of western culture. Deborah Grant takes Henry Johnson, an artist who died in 1970, from South Carolina to the National Academy of Design in New York and then to Paris, as The Birth of a Genius in the Midnight Sun. Romare Bearden's Untitled (The Family) (Michael Rosenfeld gallery, c. 1969)Theaster Gates’s character sings “Amazing Grace” on the streets of Harlem, while Courtesy the Artists, a collective, videotapes the willing as they interpret a song in the dark. David Hammons evokes the South with cheap wine and chicken wings, but nothing that he could not have purchased down the street. Kevin Beasley never so much as leaves the museum, amplifying the ambient silence into a roar. For them all, the outsider is everywhere and nowhere.

The outsider here belongs plainly to the present moment, in a South that has modernized without eradicating poverty and racism. Ralph Lemon invents his own comic alter egos, posed with animal heads in suburban interiors.

Maybe this show’s history seems so lacking in particulars in the hope of forgetting and healing. Thornton Dial in Birmingham could be speaking for others when he calls his paintings Two Souls Set Free and When I Lay My Burden Down. Still, the Studio Museum risks falling back on outsider styles as its own primitive, just when black art is demanding attention as an American mainstream—and just when the “red states” are a harsh obstacle to progressive politics. Yet someone else will have to reimagine the American South.

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

10.19.14 — The Sense of an Ending

I can’t let today pass without at least a tiny notice. The good news is that, after tonight at 11:00, Jeff Koons is gone from the Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue. The bad news is that so is the Whitney. Robert Irwin's Scrim veil—Black rectangle—Natural light (photo by Warren Silverman, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1977)

Of course, one still hope for a bigger and better museum in the Meatpacking district. And one can still hope for the future of art in a great building, under the guidance of the Met, which has a fairly long-term right to display there. Or one can fear for both.

Then, too, one can delight in memories. One can be happy, too, that people are lining up to say good-bye, as the Whitney ends its run by remaining open for thirty-six straight hours. More often, the crowds prefer MoMA and a certain Frank Lloyd Wright museum building on Fifth Avenue. For me, though, all I can feel is the coming silence and the sadness.

10.17.14 — Security Risks

Maybe you find airport scanners a little too intrusive. Roxy Paine in his vision of airport security will not leave a record of you naked, at Marianne Boesky through October 18, but neither will it allow you to take flight. It may leave you wondering if the state has become too intrusive or simply too dysfunctional—and maybe the same for art.

Paine means it that way, too, for he has long treasured the unruliness of life, even as he recreates it in polished wood and steel. His steel tree planted in Central Park, for the 2002 Whitney Biennial, joined New York’s most gracious meeting of humanity and nature, while warning of the growing threat of one to the other. Roxy Paine's Conjoined (James Cohan Gallery, 2007)A construction in 2009 extended Central Park to the roof of the Met, but could it return to nature what arts institutions had wrested away? One climbed through it as in a playground, but with nowhere to emerge but in contemporary art. In between, in 2007, two steel trees bent toward one another in Madison Square Park while never quite touching, another gesture at once natural, human, and unyielding. Now he takes up wood itself, with maple’s lightness, art’s hard edges, and a reminder of everything they exclude.

For one thing, they exclude people. Checkpoint stands motionless and apart from gallery traffic, within its own maple box. Converging walls pick up the diorama’s heightened perspective. One may have to reach out to confirm that it has no glass wall in front, despite grooves to contain one. Everything looks complete, down to the single maple sneaker in one of the baskets, and everything feels just as unreal. Is an actual security checkpoint ever without a long line?

The rest of the show picks up the themes of puzzlement and authority, with titles like Machine of Indeterminacy and Scrutiny. The first is half engine block and half photocopier, its interior rotors about to shred the resulting documents or you. The multiple video cameras of the second would amount to overkill, even were they not scrutinizing nothing but themselves. Maybe the final work, a simulated chain saw, has already rendered them superfluous. You may still feel obliged to empty your pockets of loose metal. If you are a collector, the dealer sure hopes so.

An all-seeing eye goes back to the heyday of, you know, theory—most notably to Michel Foucault and his metaphor of a panopticon, or prison centered around an observant authority. Been there, done that.

Paine’s insistent illusion evokes other threats as well, much as still more French theory reduced modern life to its “simulacra.” Is he seeing through the illusion, or does he see nothing beyond the observer? The exhibition title, “Denuded Lens,” might imply either one. Theory aside, this is art, in which illusion comports with beauty.

Is it also a little too much fun? Without its centerpiece, the chain saw would offer little more than the mock realism of Thomas Friedman’s Styrofoam acoustic guitar. Its hybrid machine’s might make little sense at all. Yet they challenge every public space that bears down on private needs. Paine leaves one wondering if anything lies unspoiled by human hands. Not even dysfunction offers an escape.

Paine has worked within a gallery before, on a pretend machine for making art and an artificial terrarium. He might seem now to have abandoned threats to planet earth or the whole idea of the “machine in the garden.” Yet he still holds out the promise of a wider and wilder world.

Who knows what lies beyond the checkpoint, in the twists and turns of airport corridors? The diorama trails off into an unseen private space, behind closed doors, unlike any departure gate I can name. Perhaps it is for frequent fliers like you.

 

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

10.15.14 — Behind the Veil

What lies behind the veil? Canvas, of course, and Morris Louis leaves plenty of it exposed to light.

It was essential to his technique, of pouring layers of translucent color onto unprimed, unstretched cotton duck, and one example retains a gap that he never got around to filling. These are mural-scaled paintings, where fabric itself is the mural. One can imagine its novelty, amid the triumph of “all-over painting.” Color surrounds even the floating rectangles of Mark Rothko. Morris Louis's Beth Samach (Mnuchin gallery, 1958)

Still, one may not have time to appreciate the empty space, not when there is so much resplendent color. Up close to his Veils, at Mnuchin through October 18, the pigment sparkles in Magna, the acrylic resin made specially for him. Step back and it darkens, as overlapping layers intercept the light. Colors shift from point to point across the surface, so that even from a distance they offer an immersive experience, as they were for him. Color also gains mass, anchored to the bottom edge of the canvas. The veils broaden at the top, in the direction of the pour, like gigantic mushrooms.

Not that he intended the image, although this was 1958 into 1959, when the word mushroom went with clouds, and school kids were hiding under their desks. Yet Louis was quite comfortable with metaphor, even in the heyday of “pure painting.” He and Kenneth Noland got the idea of stains from Helen Frankenthaler, especially from her 1952 Mountains and Sea. The titles in his own series allude to veils and curtains, along with Grotto and Dawn. Did he think of canvas as a stage for the act of poured paint? What then would one see if one could draw aside the veil?

Maybe canvas, or maybe nothing—nothing beyond the veil itself. Look up to the very edge, for what might peek out from behind, and one sees more color. Color is his real subject, and it is startling.

Those deep blues, greens, purples, and browns began as light, unmixed colors, like bright orange. Veils may sound flimsy, and color-field painting has had to battle a reputation as lightweight compared to Abstract Expressionism before it and Minimalism to come, but these are not like the physical curtains that often heighten the illusion in trompe l’oeil painting. They are the thing itself.

Helen Frankenthaler was turning to acrylic as well, in relatively small paintings from 1962 and 1963. A nearby gallery focuses on the turn, at Gagosian and also through October 18, and there, too, one sees plenty of canvas. If the work looks downright sketchy after Louis, it was, she, too, conflated object and process. Her color was also gathering mass, as the fields nestle, jostle, and overlap. She now draws only with color, reaching more and more to the edge. These are perhaps her purest but also weakest abstractions, before a sensation of landscape returns in her finer work, but then remember the date.

They were not alone in demanding that painting become itself at last. Frank Stella was about to undertake his first black stripes, and the ultimate in black paintings from Ad Reinhardt were on their way. Canvas takes center stage for Louis in his later Unfurleds, but there, too, color defines image and object, pouring in from each side. Painting as material object took on a personal meaning as well. Notice the colorless stains, in resin and solvent that spread beyond the veil? One had better, for they contributed to his death from lung cancer in 1962, at age fifty.

 

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

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