12.11.17 — The Way Home

It has taken a few years, but the Whitney has found its way home. Maybe it never could find its way back to Madison Avenue, obliging the Met Breuer to pick up the pieces—at the cost of a balanced budget and a director’s career. Maybe it felt a bit lost in the Meatpacking District, reopening in Renzo Piano architecture with “America Is Hard to See.”

Now, though, after a stormy Whitney Biennial, it has taken a liking to what it sees. It even calls a rehanging of the permanent collection through roughly 1960 “Where We Are“—and what better way to enjoy tourist season in New York than with a return visit? This being a museum of American art, naturally it has to assess who we are as well. Johns's Three Flags (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1958)

The show alludes early and often to a poem in the darkness of a world at war, and it opens with paintings about a previous war. Yet it has space for the comforts of home, including two different paintings of room heated by a stove. It has no room for Stuart Davis and American Cubism, some of the leading lights of the Ashcan School and Abstract Expressionism, or the showpieces of Pop Art, but repeat appearances by Edward Hopper and a renewed emphasis on race and gender. Who we are, then, is changing, but not all at once, which is only reasonable. It is less out to change the face of American art than to change how one sees it. In other words, it is even now looking for home.

It takes its title from an exile in America, W. H. Auden, but the British poet opens “September 1, 1939” with a chilling specificity of time and place:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.

It has become something of a cliché to say that this or that warning hits home in age of Donald J. Trump, but Auden’s does. As curators, though, David Breslin with Jennie Goldstein and Margaret Kross are at least cautiously optimistic about home ground. Their five rooms borrow further from the poem, for familiar themes of American aspirations—”No One Exists Alone” for family and community, “The Furniture of Home” for domesticity, “The Strength of Collective Man” for labor and industry, “Of Eros and Dust” for the greater longings of postwar art, and “In a Euphoric Dream” for American icons. In this company, a near abstract riff by Larry Rivers on Washington Crossing the Delaware looks less like a shriek of pain than the sheer pleasure of painting.

Auden would have had his doubts, to judge by the context of a quote: “but who can live for long / in an euphoric dream.” You are entitled to your doubts, too. Museums rehang their collections all the time, as the Whitney did for its seventh-fifth birthday—and I have not even bothered to write up work from the 1980s on another floor or at MoMA. The wall text, too, can sound phony, in comparing “the rural Kansas of his youth” for John Steuart Curry to “the mother he lost” for Arshile Gorky. The double portrait of Gorky and his mother, who died in the Armenian genocide, has a monumental blankness that Curry’s regionalism could never attain.

Within, though, Curry’s Baptism in Kansas hangs next to an equally ecstatic religious community bathed in a blue light from Archibald Motley, the black artist in Chicago. A trite history has given way to diversity and feeling. The same comes in the room for “collective man,” where linoleum cuts by Elizabeth Cattlet pronounce I Am the Negro Woman. Right off the elevator lies another recent acquisition of African American art, the war series by Jacob Lawrence. It puts on equal terms the pain of soldiers in World War I and of families learning of their death at home. Look off to the side, to a parade in Washington Square by William Glackens, and its sentiments look a lot more suspect but its dabs of color more modern.

So what's NEW!Women appear again to the other side, where as unfamiliar a name as Agnes Pelton under the influence of theosophy leads to a glowing abstraction Georgia O’Keeffe. A pair of eyes by Jay DeFeo hangs next to a Veil by Morris Louis, as if looking behind the curtain. Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French supply another kind of diversity, in collaborative photos of gay identity as PaJaMa. White males can add surprises, too, like Andreas Feininger. His photo of a house brought in one piece to suburbia seems torn between assertions of rootlessness and home. Speaking of home, I had forgotten that Edward Hopper also painted East River apartments.

Icons like Hopper and Jasper Johns still have their place. In fact, Early Sunday Morning and Three Flags have a wall to themselves, just in case you had never noticed that the first has its own red, white, and blue—in the shape of a barber’s pole. So does an abstraction by Ellsworth Kelley. A black painting by Frank Stella appears with scenes of white working class America by Charles Demuth, Elsie Driggs, Margaret Bourke-White, and Dorothea Lange because, among other reasons, Stella applied house paint. But picking winners gets old quickly when it comes to the permanent collection. Even Auden ends his poem with an “affirming flame.”

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

12.8.17 — Trigger Warnings

Nina Chanel Abney comes with a warning. Given the necessity of Black Lives Matter, make that a trigger warning. That could explain the choice of signs that Abney has adapted many times over for a two-gallery show of paintings, at Mary Boone through December 22 and at Jack Shainman through December 20. Get help, one painting screams in capital red letters. MutualArtGet first aid right away, runs another. Trouble comes when you delay!

Trouble is coming anyway, and Abney is a worthy troublemaker. The works at her first gallery stick to a poster format, right down to their flat renderings, routine fonts, and plain, slim frames—and then she messes them up in all sorts of ways. The fonts may shift even within a line, and their message may veer off just as suddenly as well. Someone has added text here and there or effaced it, and it is hard to know which amid so many cross-outs and underscores. They could show off a graffiti artist or an ingenious designer. The frequent X-marks could stand for further erasure or love and kisses.

Color runs wild, too, from bright backgrounds to a colorful cast of characters. Even those frames contribute with their mix of black, green, red, and blue. Most of all, the message keeps changing before one’s eyes. A black couple walks their dogs in sunlight, but the silhouette of another creature lies below them, RIP. Nina Chanel Abney's Fruit of the Womb (Mary Boone gallery, 2017)It’s great to be alive, another work announces above joyful or angry birds and an athlete literally tied in knots. Yet a cross-out has either upped the ante from be alive to live—or else paused for a moment in the middle of denying life.

Characters are running around in swim trunks, showing off, supporting one another, or breathing a sigh of relief—but one, the text explains, lies under a truck, one will have to spend a month in the hospital, and another is crippled for life. The ambiguities extend from the message to its audience as well. One painting could be preaching mutual respect or every man for himself, with watch out for the other guy! But then the paired signs beneath for uh oh black and oh no blacks could remind blacks to watch out for the cops or whites to watch out for who is taking over the neighborhood. Both, of course, are signs of racism aimed at African Americans, but the paintings speak more of joys and sorrows than of anger or fear. They are too alive, too aware of the hormones in her largely male cast, and way too busy messing things up.

The poster style, dry humor, and grim politics recall Barbara Kruger as well as black artists concerned for police killings like Sanford Biggers, Carl Post, and Arthur Jafa (and I have added this to previous reports on Biggers and others as a longer review and my latest upload). Like her, Abney turns appropriation into a signature style. Kruger should receive credit if not a copyright fee every time an ad overlays text in bands of red—and for all I know she does. Abney, though, has another model, too. The X‘s, O‘s, overlapping color fields, and sheer exuberance recall Stuart Davis. Her WOW here and there shares his amazement at that.

She approaches Davis all the more in her second gallery, where her posters give way to murals. His thoroughly American Cubism anticipates Pop Art, and she is both looking around her and looking back. These paintings run denser and even wilder, with men crowding in and strutting their stuff. They take place in the here and now of a 99¢ store, but also in the belligerence of the imagination. The curator, Piper Marshall, moves from the first gallery’s “Safe House” to the second’s “Seized the Imagination.” Abney still, though, has her signature X—and, here and there, a determined NO.

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

12.6.17 — Be Careful What You Wish for

Even great architects have to get things built. If there is one lesson in the hundreds of unbuilt projects in the Frank Lloyd Wright archives at MoMA, it is this.

Then again, some things should never come to be. “Never Built New York” presents an imagined city and a torrent of ideas, at the Queens Museum through February 18. Buckminster Fuller's Dome over Manhattan (Stanford University Libraries/R. Buckminster Fuller estate, 1960)I felt its pleasures and its regrets, but also one huge sigh of relief. In fact, Wright preferred open space, too—and I have added this to an earlier report on the Wright archives as a longer review and my latest upload.

Almost any architect you can name had a shot at New York City and a share in its disappointments. And almost every urban landmark became the target for a makeover, even Central Park. Frank Gehry finally made it into town with his bulging IAC headquarter in Chelsea and twisting tower near the Brooklyn Bridge, but not with a Guggenheim Museum by the East River—and Diller Scofidio + Renfro with the High Line, but not Eyebeam, the arts nonprofit, in the shape of an ascending folded ribbon. Michael Graves had his postmodern moment in the sun, but not with an annex to the Whitney Museum (today the Met Breuer). Marcel Breuer himself proposed a sports center in Queens. Left to their devices, I. M. Pei would have plopped a “hyperboloid” down on Grand Central Station and Wright a party-colored fantasy on Ellis Island.

Real estate being what it is, Manhattan gets most of the attention, although Norman Bel Geddes had a plan to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. If the outer boroughs fare poorly, public transit fares worse—unless you count bridges to New Jersey, a gondola by Sergio Calatrava, and yet another soul-crushing highway or two from Robert Moses. Luxury is the word of the day, although Isamu Noguchi and Louis I. Kahn designed a playground, and Buckminster Fuller hoped for apartments in Harlem. Why would they have resembled nuclear power plants? Why, for that matter, would anyone want to cover Manhattan with a glass dome? I hesitate to say, but futurism for Fuller has a mind of its own.

The curators, Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, are not saying either. And the exhibition design by Christian Wassmann makes things more puzzling still. A room follows plans north from the foot of Manhattan, but with only a handout to determine which is which. I promise that you will fail. The same handout applies to forty models in white, inserted into the great scale model of New York left over (and occasionally updated) from the 1964 World’s Fair. They literally shine.

The largest section sticks to plans for Flushing Meadow, including a glass entrance for the Queens Museum itself. Wallace K. Harrison proposed to place the United Nations there, and SHoP architects thought up a sports complex as recently as 2013. Still, almost everything here amounts to pavilions for the fair, which would have vanished in a few months even had they come about. One unbuilt pavilion, by Eliot Noyes, becomes the show’s centerpiece, recreated as a “bouncy-castle”—or, in plain English, an inflatable gray balloon. Why? For all the unbuilt city, the museum wants to be the star of the show.

Maybe Queens gets the last word for good reason: modern architecture had mixed feelings about urban density. Moses wanted to recreate New York as automobile country, with his expressways and housing projects utterly apart from the grid. And Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to make it over as the image of America. Queens never once mentions Wright’s towers—or his Broadacre City. First presented in 1932, it would have spanned four square miles, with everything from farm units to a factory. Fortunately the new Wallach Art Gallery of Columbia University tackles “Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem, and Modern Housing,” through December 17.

After a model of Broadacre City, it follows Wright out of the city, to prefabs that communities resisted and often lacked the skills to build. It weaves these together with Harlem housing, which it sees as an alternative to Wright’s failure to serve African Americans. Its fifty years of projects dispel all sorts of myths. If you think of Moses as the sole villain, they begin with “slum clearance” in the New Deal—and if you think of cookie-cutter projects for the poor, they eventually tried to learn from Jane Jacobs by adding shops and cultural centers, as well as integrating affordable and private housing. Yet the show’s parts hang only loosely together, and the projects end up dismaying alike. As in Queens, be careful what you wish for.

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

12.4.17 — Tell Her No

Who will inherit England—and could it be a middle-aged American man? If the second question sounds laughable, the first was serious enough that a great critic, Lionel Trilling, took it for the subject of a great novel, E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End.

As it happens, Duncan Hannah counts Forster as a touchstone. And his paintings might well belong to Forster’s England, to everywhere, and to nowhere, with an assist from the movies. Could it be enough to recover the good old days of painting? Maybe not, but it could expose their dark undercurrents. Hannah has been aiming for both for nearly forty years.

If anything, he is growing closer over time to England, if not quite to Forster’s 1910. He calls his recent work “Adrift in the 21st Century,” at Invisible-Exports through December 10, but one might never know that it had set sail. Trompe l’oeil Penguin classics, though not Howard’s End, look thoroughly worn in a style that I cannot swear ever made it to the United States. A tea shop has shut its doors, but its successor remains unclear. People loll about by sporty old cars, bike past thoroughly quaint post boxes, or punt on a lake in a suitably picturesque park. Even there, the man has not shed his tie or his companion her heels.

Their morals, too, belong to a past time—before the sexual revolution, second- or third-wave feminism, or the audacity of harassment in Donald J. Trump’s America. A man and woman meet furtively at a corner. A still younger man touching an erect woman wearing only a G-string could be groping her, posing her, or confirming her suitability for art. Fashions range from the caps and furs of the age of flappers to the preposterously high hairdos of mods and rockers. One of the latter takes little pleasure in the album covers beside her on the floor. The only legible one is of the Zombies, like a stand-in for Hannah’s entire cast.

His very format, easel paintings, seems only right for an amateur painter from a long-gone past. Hannah speaks of his admiration for Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer, and the gallery compares him to Fairfield Porter. Yet their sharp lighting and deep colors have given way to a soft but uneasy glow—and their particulars of cities, seas, and suburban landscapes to a restive nowhere a continent away. The sexual tensions may recall Balthus, but without his columnar forms or iconicity. The figures draw just as much on old commercial illustrations as on fine art, and they seem all the more remote and familiar because of it. Are they, though, strange enough?

One can search for clues in his work from the late 1970s and 1980s, at Half through December 9. Here nowhere lies more clearly in the movies, but also closer to home. A woman at a window raises her top to expose her breasts, perhaps even to you. A self-portrait looks much like James Dean on a facing wall. A text painting, interrupted by a revolver, has a cryptic narrative suggestive of film noir, but the gun need never go off. Life is dangerous enough as it is.

Hannah feels adrift even then. He assembles receipts and documents from a visit to Paris. The hastier brushwork fits with portraiture from the time, like that of Alice Neel, but with muter colors and an absence of bravura. It, too, refuses a place in the present. Can he ever quite recapture or unsettle painting, despite the stereotypes and soft focus? For now, I shall say yes—even if the Zombies have already answered with “Tell Her No.”

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

12.1.17 — Feeling the Draft

I stick to art, because it is where I have something to contribute, and I could never find time to keep up with more. Not that I avoid politics, since neither do artists and institutions, but apart from them I try to keep my opinions to myself. Allow me, though, this once an exception. With Donald J. Trump saber rattling time and again, it has become more pressing.

An article just days before Trump’s inauguration on the legacy of the Vietnam War got me thinking and arguing, and it has had any number of follow-ups along the very same lines. And when someone on Facebook backed its call to reinstate the draft, those thoughts and arguments came out, so let me share them with you—as the opening of a longer article and my latest upload. Sue Coe's Wheel of War (Galerie St. Etienne, 2004)

In The New York Times, Karl Marlantes wrote of “Vietnam: The War That Killed Trust.” I have to admire his article. Yet I also have to feel the toll of that lost of trust even today. I have to feel, too, my horror at his single proposal, in a return to the draft. It stems for him from proud and lasting memories, but it still comes down to a nostalgia for murder.

Marlantes argues for the spirit of national service, pointing to the broad support for just that in World War II, when even those at home knew about what went into the war and when people spoke not of “the military” but of “the service.” I am not convinced. That reflects World War II, when we could justifiably feel a sense of service not just to the nation, but to the world. That feeling soured for good in Vietnam, when talk of “the service” gave way to talk of “the military-industrial complex.” War as dedication may never come again, and the draft cannot bring it back.

Still, while the article does not rely on this, some argue for a draft by turning my point in its favor. It can help turn people against war, they say, because its costs then extend to so many Americans. Now, I have already spoken of the terrible price of cynicism. We should not be calling for more of it, ever, not even to reform politics today. That already argues against the draft. But, as you will see in the longer article, I consider further whether the antiwar hopes are justified, and I conclude otherwise, before dwelling further on the terrible personal and moral costs.

The argument for a draft is not so very far from others common in politics today—and just as flawed. One can hear something like it at both ends of the political spectrum. From health care to public assistance, conservatives often call for a greater burden on the poor. Their belief in the wisdom of the marketplace leads them to conclude that people will make better decisions if they have “skin in the game.” And, from health care to public assistance, the result is a continuing cycle of poverty, illness, and death.

Ironically the left has a comparable belief. Progressives may choose to sit out an election or to vote for a third party—and not solely those who see no difference between the candidates of the major parties. Are they throwing the election to by far the greater evil or even the sole evil, when they could instead rest hopes in a modest but very real good? Some positively welcome that outcome. The outrage that will result, they believe, will usher in a revolution.

In reality, there is no winning by losing. In politics, a loss only empowers the worst in America and shifts the debate to the other side. Calling for a draft as a means to a better future is much the same. There the loss in lives is immediate and the hope for trust, racial harmony, and peace only a dream. We should not let our dreams become a living nightmare.

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

11.29.17 — Oh, no, Twitter!

Topics:

Just to let you know, I have finally given in to Twitter, and here I go, having just sent my very first two tweets. Ironic for someone who started a Web site for art history and reviews as long ago as 1994, but I’m so behind the times. I did not even add hashtags for, well, the text you are reading here, but that will change.

So what shall I do with it, let you and others know when I post a new review or jot down thoughts about art and New York that I’d never otherwise share? We’ll see! I have made it John Haber@HaberArts.

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