9.26.16 — War with No End

What is there to do when the war has no end? The question, once spoken, hangs in the air long after a video plays to its end. It hangs over the entirety of “But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise,” at the Guggenheim through October 5—and it is the subject of a fuller account, in my latest upload. Nadia Kaabi-Linke's Flying Carpet (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2016)

The show of art from the Middle East and North Africa is the latest in the UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, following art from Latin America two years before. (The corporate name translates into funding for purchase from among the work on display.) The curator, Sara Raza, makes good use of the tower galleries, tailoring work to entire walls or enclaves, although limited space means that two artists rotate in only in July, a little less than halfway through. The series boosts the museum’s commitment to contemporary art as well as global art. And the commitment appears real. A year after the installment from Latin America, the same space had an unforgettable show of Doris Salcedo, from Colombia.

Mariam Ghani, who created that video, was born and lives in New York, of a Lebanese mother and Afghan father. She also typifies the show’s strategies. She confronts past and present, Europe and the Mideast, colonialism and Islamic art. One channel shows a museum in central Germany built in 1779 that became a model experiment for Nazi Neoclassicism. The other shows a palace in Kabul, built in 1929 and fallen into decay. Together, they supply A Brief History of Collapses.

Who has collapsed, and who is responsible? A breathless narration rushes past, without emphases or affect, daring anyone to make the connections. It seems culled from far too many academic lectures and far too few particulars. The work has trouble looking for answers beyond museum interiors, and so does the entire show. Yet it lingers over places far away, claustrophobic but filled with light. Its questions do indeed hang in the air.

City planning returns often, from the Internet and from the air. Haerizadeh paints over YouTube, improving it no end, while Ahmed Mater flies over Saudi Arabia in an official helicopter that monitors the pilgrimage to Mecca. From above, the mosque becomes a science fiction fantasy. Ali Cherri borrows aerial maps of Beirut as a fault zone. The influence of Fluxus appears in Mohammed Kazem’s sheet of white, scratched to produce a tight pattern of small bumps. So what's NEW!Hanging on the wall and rolling out onto the floor, it could be a monochrome painting, a player piano roll, or an ancient scroll.

Like Kazem, the show’s best work makes the confluence of cultures explicit, while leaving open whether to see the diaspora as productive or a loss. Nadia Kaabi-Linke has by far the largest and most geometric sculpture. Flying Carpet draws on The Arabian Nights and memories of street vendors selling rungs, but as shifting volumes of steel, rubber verticals, and their shadows. And Ergin Cavusoglu spins out dust trails into colored lines, converting the museum floor into both personal histories and earthworks. One might hesitate to walk beneath the first or on the second. They carry that much lightness and weight.

It will take others to cross into Africa and the Middle East, as sites of conflict and lived experience. Others are doing so in photography, like Barry Frydlender and Shimon Attie, or conceptual art, like Walid Raad—but not here. For all the show’s heavy talk of politics, philosophy, and logic, it comes most alive apart from any of them. Cavusoglu also has a video of people reciting Italo Calvino and Anton Chekov, as Crystal and Flame. They could be telling stories over a common meal, as part of what holds families and peoples together. For once, war seems far away.

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

9.23.16 — Loaded for Bear

For once, the New Museum deserves a hug. It even comes with a teddy bear—and then some. Are no two snowflakes alike? “The Keeper” has no end of collections to make you wonder.

Step behind a partition, through September 25, and you may think that you have stepped into not just another installation, but another museum and another age. Ydessa Hendeles fills two rooms with three thousand family photographs, all of them with teddy bears. MutualArtPartners (The Teddy Bear Project) also contains any number of stuffed animals themselves (hugs!) and additional photographs of their owners. In a show about the impulse to preserve and to collect, it takes that impulse beyond the point of excess, to something more like a dream. It also insists on that excess as part of both a museum’s collection and memories of home. Just whose memories? With four floors and countless obsessions, from more than a century and around the world, “The Keeper” is big on spectacle but short of answers—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review, in my latest upload.

Hendeles has arranged her project as antiquities, in museum vitrines beneath mahogany lamps, amid spiral stairwells connecting floor to ceiling shelves. It opens all at once onto something very much like J. P. Morgan’s 1906 library in the museum that bears his name. Those who miss the old comforts of the Morgan Library, before a Renzo Piano renovation directed a visitor elsewhere, will sigh in recognition. And those who come to the former New Museum of Contemporary Art for the contemporary and for art may wonder if it has cast aside either one. They will find remnants from the National Museum of Beirut, shattered and displaced by fifteen years of civil war, but nothing of their history. They will find dust, pills, thread, and chewing gum from New York streets, scavenged by Yuji Agematsu, but little sense of place. Ydessa Hendeles's Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) (New Museum, 2002/2016)

“The Keeper is like that”—filled with familiar sights, unrestrained obsessions, and puzzling directions. Sometimes the contributors seem to be working out the puzzle, too, as they go. You might not even notice a space behind that partition, but for the narrow corridor it leaves on the other side. There a row of photos carries Ye Jinglu through sixty-three years, until his death in 1968. As discovered by Tong Bingxue, the sitter returned each year to a professional portrait studio, starting as a dapper young man of age twenty-one. In the process, he was not just aging, but also staging his life, struggling with his identity between East and West, modernizing himself and his image, and becoming more fully human.

Madness and the stuff of thrift stores have to recall a fully contemporary obsession—with folk art and its recovery for the mainstream. And obviously much here counts as outsider art, if not the entire exhibition. A family of Gee’s Bend quilt makers in Alabama also appears. Is an art collection itself an obsession? Aurélien Froment patterns a “picture atlas” after a pioneering art historian, Aby Warburg. The question, though, has to run through the entire show.

It also threatens to undermine the show, not least because the curators, led by Massimiliano Gioni, dance around it. Maybe they were not quite obsessive enough. They miss the chance to explore the growth of the art world and the dominance of wealthy collectors. They miss much of contemporary art along the way. Maybe Bove does not lean to the obsessive object or the obsessive installation, but plenty of others do, like Fischli and Weiss or Tara Donovan. Just a few blocks away, at the Drawing Center through September 2, Gabriel de la Mora salvaged fabric from old radio speakers, set out in pairs facing one another across the gallery, like a veritable echo chamber.

So are no two snowflakes alike, in a show all about numbers? Maybe so, but Wilson Bentley required five thousand glass negatives and fifty years to find out, beginning in 1883. And for Zofia Rydet, who took up photography only in her sixties with the urge to document every home in Poland, “there are no two similar . . . houses,” but their proud or dutiful inhabitants quickly start to look much the same. Thankfully, “The Keeper” as a whole does not, and what may sound like too many objects and too little art gains in interest by its sheer accumulation. Then, too, one collection invites visitors inside its obsession. With the teddy bears, you can discover the old museum in the New Museum.

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

9.22.16 — So Short a History

Castle Williams has quite a history—to judge by the 2016 Governors Island Art Fair, one better measured in geologic time than in New York stories. Volcanic stones seem to have tumbled into its courtyard, thanks to José Carlos Casado, his crumpled metal sheets saturated in black and color. Pardon me an extra post this week to wrap up a visit to the island!

From the hills of Governors Island (photo by John Haber, 2016)Water from some subterranean cave still rains down on a larger black construction upstairs, thanks to Charlotte Becket. Humanity enters, too, where a projection creates a ring of fire, from Chaney Trotter, flanked by dirt, debris, and cots that might once have held the island’s sailors and soldiers. A beached dolphin, whale, or shark by Charlie Cunningham might have drifted in from New York harbor, but wearing sneakers. For one last step between past and present, a spiral sculpture by Mark Lorah bridges geology, biology, and sculpture by Tony Smith, but in white cardboard.

The Governors Island Art Fair often seems stuck just slightly in the past. It centers on the former officer’s housing of Colonels Row, between stairwells and peeling paint. Like most artist collectives, it also sticks mostly to the tried and true, one artist to a room. Painting can leave as haunting a presence as women by E. Thurston Bellmer, and site-specific work can mimic or challenge its surroundings, like a replica of the underlying kitchen on canvas by Cody Brgant. Together, they present what another artist, Umberto Kamperveen, calls a specimen sanctuary. Still, political and conceptual touches seem beside the point, along with the island’s actual history and electrifying painting.

That helps explain why this year’s fair, on September weekends, gains by stepping out. That begins with small steps. Another of Cunningham’s dead fish tumbles off a front porch, titled Nude Descending a Staircase after Marcel Duchamp. The steps continue onto the front lawn, where Bernard Klevickas gives metal the forward thrust of an enormous red kite. Rusted metal from Roderigo Nava stands on spreading sheets like clothespins for Claes Oldenburg. Larger strides, though, carry the work to Castle Williams and Fort Jay.

Who knows what else might wash up, all the way to the castle’s second floor? Alisha Wessler covers the floor with lotus twigs and Emily Chatton with blue swirls. On the way toward Fort Jay, an automobile pileup seems to have produced not an abstraction, as for John Chamberlain, but a makeshift helicopter, with an assist from Aleksander Razin. It may come as close to a comment on the former military outpost as anything in the show. That lack of specificity can feel like a major lost opportunity. It also has the irony of looking back, just when Governors Island is leaping ahead.

Landscaping, completed in mid-July, has transformed the island’s south half into a play land, but with little equipment beyond artificial hills. They give places to climb and outlooks onto lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Statue of Liberty, which has never looked closer. They nestle a sculpture by Rachel Whiteread, playing fields, and picnic grounds, which people seem more inclined to use for a rest and the view. They even offer sliding ponds back down. Not that the grounds were half bad before years of being fenced off, and one can still bike around the edges. Still, they invite one to imagine New York itself as a shining city on a hill.

As for the fair, it feels arbitrary to single out any of the roughly one hundred contributors—or to dismiss them. I feel guilty already. (Additional artists occupy the wood-framed houses of Nolan Park on the island’s northeast end, as usual, including Sculptor’s Guild.) If they cannot surpass their setting, at least this year they are addressing it. Several video loops dissolve the tunneled ceilings of the fort’s magazine, while recovering them as a user experience. There, too, as with Wiley Aker, the fair seems at its best suspended between past and present.

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

9.21.16 — An Airman Foresees His Death

When an artist dies young, it may do more than cut short a career. It can freeze that career into a single image, where the art would almost certainly have moved on. For Michael Richards, that image has come to commemorate his death, as if he had been preparing for it all his life.

In sculpture, Richards himself stands just off the ground, arms by his side as if immobilized, palms raised in supplication or in hope. He bears the burden or the empowerment of a pilot’s full dress, right down to the straps across his chest that both grant him a parachute and hold him in place forever. Michael Richards's Air Fall 1/Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, 1998/1999)I thought of a poem by William Butler Yeats, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” but Richards was an African American from Jamaica.

Gilding lends the sculpture both the tackiness of pop culture and a greater glory. So do small planes, like a child’s toys, assaulting his body from every side. He has any number of echoes in Renaissance painting, as Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows. He could be plummeting to the earth or rising into the heavens, and Richards himself spoke of “the idea of flight” as that of “being lifted up, enraptured, or taken up to a safe place—to a better world.” He seems to speak for all the lives lost in the Twin Towers, like so much art after 9/11 in memory of disaster. Only he made the sculpture in 1999, and he died that awful morning in Tower One.

He also had a few tricks up his sleeve. Others have riffed on the first Christian martyr as well, such as Antony Gormley and Chris Ofili, who convert the arrows into spikes or nails. Richards, though, does not settle for either self-aggrandizement or martyrdom. His title, Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, shows an awareness of Judeo-Christian tradition, but also of stereotypes and folklore closer to home. Of course, the arrows did not kill the saint, who was then beheaded, and those who tried to pummel the tar baby found themselves stuck. In other sculpture, the artist’s forearms become wings, pierced only by feathers—and in one those feathers, motor driven, get to wriggle.

The pilot’s uniform, like much of his art, points to the Tuskegee airmen, the first African American military pilots. And Richards sees that segregated unit, too, as at once empowered, ignored, and in danger. In Air Fall, planes dive toward a mirrored target, covered in artificial hair. The same black hair gives a row of helmets the look of fur hats for a long Siberian winter. Drawings invoke the fall of Icarus, the doomed subject that everyone sees fit to ignore for Pieter Bruegel. They offer “escape plans,” but on the order of a mere ladder and a grave of chicken bones held together by watermelon glue.

For Richards, death at age thirty-eight came close to aborting his career entirely. He did not flame out in the public eye like Jean-Michel Basquiat, and he has not had much attention since. A retrospective on Governors Island, in building 110 near the ferry landing, promises to help, but only barely. A single room limits him to a few works and fewer themes, through September 25. Screen captures suggest other interests, with allusions to the Middle Passage, Al Jolson, and “Let Me Entertain You.” Yet the videos do not appear, and the limits could well be his.

At least the sponsor, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, makes an effort and recovers a bit of history. Its “River to River” weekends have largely omitted art, and its exhibitions have left lower Manhattan behind. Once, though, it had residencies on the ninety-second floor of the World Trade Center, where Richards spent that fateful night. Artists are not supposed to sleep in their studios, but he wanted to continue to work and to have that view of heaven. As another sculpture puts it, of faces smeared with black, A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo. One can never know whether he had more in him, but one can see him at work on the myth of the overturning of myth.

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

9.19.16 — Struck with Amazement

“Even as I write these words I am struck with amazement.” At just twenty-three, Rembrandt had a fan in Constantijn Huygens—and, the Morgan Library argues, his first masterpiece. It is also the subject of a longer review, together with an earlier report on another show-off in Anthony van Dyck, in my latest upload.

Listen to the Dutch writer, musician, connoisseur, and diplomat describe it:

The gesture of that one despairing Judas . . ., that one maddened Judas, screaming, begging for forgiveness but devoid of hope, all traces of hope erased from his face; his gaze wild, his hair torn out by the roots, his garments rent, his arms contorted, his hands clenched until they bleed.

Rembrandt's Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (photo by National Gallery, London, private collection, 1629)For the Morgan, the interest of Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver does not end with that gesture. Displayed with five sketches toward the painting, through September 18 (and sorry for the late report), it offers a rare look at the artist’s first thoughts and his passage toward maturity. It shows Rembrandt back when he still worked out paintings on paper rather than in layer after layer on canvas. It also comes at the center of a further selection of prints and drawings, almost all from the Morgan itself.

To be fair, Huygens does not rest his case on a gesture either, apart from “all the other impressive figures in the painting.” Judas has entered the temple, where at least eight others are going about their business. Yet another is arriving in the background, through a dark passage at right. Highlights linger on the open book and ceremonial shield above their heads, testimonies to their authority and their duties. If the disciple hopes to return the price of betraying Jesus, the priests and elders have other things on their mind. As the high priest says in Matthew, “What is that to us?”

In 1629 the young Rembrandt had not yet left a newly thriving Leiden for Amsterdam, where he got to know the Jewish community. Already, though, this is more than the story of an alien order. He takes care to insert Hebrew lettering in the book and to lend his entire cast both vulnerability and respect. They form a rough triangle within a circle, with Judas as its base. Several look apart or within. The background figure might be groping in the darkness as painfully as he.

Look again at the praise from Huygens. It shows the new value placed on interior states, especially extreme states—despairing, maddened, screaming, begging. Yet it also shows the value placed on making them fully visible, as gesture and as theater. Judas, in desperation, has cast the silver to the ground, which a circle of light converts into a proscenium stage. “A blind impulse has brought him to his knees,” the writer adds, “his whole body writhing in pitiful hideousness.” The backdrop at left, in its pale green, resembles a stage curtain.

The Morgan opens with self-portraits on paper. Not only van Dyck back then was presenting himself with style. The strikingly young man lets his hair grow wild, and shadows divide his face in half, like theatrical lighting. He is a whole new kind of artist, self-conscious and divided in two, much like Judas. He is confessing to his impulse, but also forging an image. He is fixing on a signature literally as well—no longer RHL (for Rembrandus Hermanni Leydensis), but Rembrandt.

Yet the greatest surprises lie in the painting—as inwardness and spectacle alike. As at a play, the viewer is watching, but so are the actors within. Judas is not gesturing wildly but looking on and looking for hope. Those looking out of the canvas engage the viewer directly with their eyes. You are in his position and in theirs. The dilemma of hope or madness, salvation or suicide, is on you.

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

9.16.16 — Trapped Outside

Ronald Lockett may have felt like a deer trapped in the headlights. The last thing he expected was fame—not even the recognition that comes now at a museum dedicated to outsiders, through September 18. I have added this to a report on Art Brut in America, as a longer review and my latest upload.

One can hear him at the American Folk Art Museum, wrestling already with the modest recognition that he received in his lifetime, before his death in 1998 at only thirty-two. “Try to keep an open mind,” he said in an interview. “Try to stay the same.” The advice sounds downright contradictory. Ronald Lockett's Confusion (Sargent's Daughters, 1988)He stuck to it anyway. He kept finding new ways to work with his materials, in seemingly whatever came to hand, and he kept returning to the same motif, a stag or deer.

Lockett may cut tin into its shape before adding color, or he may paint on plywood, where the deer can acquire horns. Either way, it is likely to find itself along with twigs behind a chain-link fence, as what he called his Traps. Trapped, yes, but also a force of nature and a sly work of art. A backdrop of corrugated metal may add that much extra force, while a painted forest may add its murky depths. Lockett may reverse black and white as in a photographic negative, so that it shimmers in the night. Amid a splendid further selection on the Lower East Side, recently at Sargent’s Daughters through July 15, the white animal looks more like a dog—and it turns its head as if trapped in the headlights.

Trapped, again yes, but also simply on the other side of the fence, like a proper outsider. Outsider art keeps getting harder to define, but Lockett has every claim to outsider status. He worked in Alabama, as a gay African American, and he died of AIDS. And his retrospective does everything it can to claim him for folk art. The curators, Bernard L. Herman with Valérie Rousseau, include tribal objects about as far from the Gulf as possible, from Alaska—as well as Sandra Sheehy, who embeds glass in stone like geodes or jewels. Still, Lockett found a mentor in Thornton Dial, a much older cousin who broke the New York art scene wide open. Like Archibald Motley, he could also boast of sophistication and skill.

His was not thrift store art, but appropriation, with knowledge and wit. The hose from a vacuum cleaner becomes the trunk of an elephant. A block of wood becomes the table at the Last Supper, with deft brushwork for the poses after Leonardo. Lockett took, too, to drips after Jackson Pollock, and his brush moves as easily as the scissors he applied to tin. White pushes into black and color into color, so that almost anything can resolve into an animal or a ghost. Elsewhere, rusted metal will challenge anyone to find the ghosts, in what approaches abstraction.

Folk art also suggests isolation, with the animal as alter ego. Perhaps, although Lockett is the one trapping them in the headlights. He knew the sufferings of others as well. Paintings invoke the Holocaust, Hiroshima, toxic waste, the Oklahoma City bombings, and more. In turn, he could count on support from family, particularly from a great aunt who lived past one hundred. An assemblage in her honor has the colored grid of late Modernism—or a quilt.

For all that suffering, a title can sound too sunny for its own good: You Can Burn a Man’s House but Not His Dreams. It helps that he was not above playing with the dreams of others, as with his tin Adam and Eve admiring a landscape close to popular illustration. It helps, too, that he insists not on an edenic future, but the dream. When he calls a work Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die, he suggests a spiritual life—much as the skeletons in his Holocaust rise from the darkness like spirits. The museum calls its retrospective “Fever Within,” after a bright yellow portrait or self-portrait, because the fever lies within.

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

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