8.28.15 — Becoming Expressionism

I like every summer to take advantage of the down time to offer a long look at just one work. See, for example, my immersion in Jan van Eyck (and maybe his brother Hubert) and Giovanni Bellini. This year, though, I got an early start. My post excerpts a talk that I prepared for Cheryl McGinnis gallery in May. You can read the full text in a longer review, as my latest upload.

I feel lucky to be able to talk about this artist and this painting. It is a very early but intriguing painting by a major painter, Adolph Gottlieb. When it comes to art, Abstract Expressionism was among my first true loves, and here one gets to ask how it came to be. Adolph Gottlieb's Untitled (Still-life) (Cheryl McGinnis gallery, 1924)

Abstract Expressionism is still the textbook standard for American art’s entering the modern stage, and Gottlieb worked and exhibited with the best of them. He appears in that 1951 Life magazine photo by Nina Leen of the “Irascible Group of Advanced Artists.” The movement is also called the New York School, and Gottlieb along with Barnett Newman and Lee Krasner were its native New Yorkers. Well, Krasner was actually from Brooklyn before it was hip, but we forgive her. Like her, Gottlieb was also Jewish. Like the immigrants in the group, they knew well what it meant to leave the turmoil of Europe behind.

You may know him from his signature work of the 1950s and after, until his death in 1974. Most Abstract Expressionists had signature motif, like drips for Jackson Pollock or “zips,” meaning vertical bars, for Newman. Gottlieb’s was a vertical pairing, much as Mark Rothko often paired his floating rectangles. On top, against a field of bright white, sometimes scarred or stained with black and color, he placed a plainly geometric form. It might be a soft-edged circle filled with color or one or more tilted red crosses. So what's NEW!Below, he placed a circle with much rougher edges, from paint smeared out in all directions.

John Ruskin, the nineteenth-century critic, famously accused James McNeill Whistler of flinging a pot of paint at the public. You could imagine that bottom field as a single splash of paint, although of course that is only an illusion. The outward marks are individual brushstrokes. You could also imagine the top form as something more impersonal, a mere symbol. Yet it, too, emerged from the artist’s head and hand. Together, they appear as an explosion on canvas.

You may also know Gottlieb from work in the preceding decade, for which he coined the label pictographs in 1941. They are transitional work, much as Pollock had to work his way through Surrealism. They consist of stick figures or totems arranged in columns on a field of darker color. People often associate them with “primitivism” or the supposed universals of Carl Jung. Maybe, although Gottlieb was making art for today. No question, though, but he was learning to look within.

Here we have an early work, from 1924. To give you an idea of just how early, Pollock was then twelve years old. Gottlieb, who was twenty or twenty-one, had taken classes at Parsons and the Art Students League. Gottlieb's The Alchemist (Tate, Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation, 1945)He grew up across from Tomkins Square, when it was still part of the rough and tumble Lower East Side. His father, who had a stationery business, did well for himself, and the family moved to the Bronx when Gottlieb was seventeen and the Grand Concourse was a Jewish Park Avenue—as I can fairly say since my father came from a much less endearing Bronx neighborhood. Still, Gottlieb had had enough, dropped out of high school, and worked his way across the Atlantic on a merchant ship.

This painting dates from soon after his return and his completion of school. Looking at it, we want to ask how it differs from his mature work and how it does not. We want to ask how it differs, because we want to find that moment when he and Abstract Expressionism became themselves—and why. And we want to look for continuities, because we want to know if we can find the roots of the movement within its artists. We want to know what made them special, maybe even all along. You can read the full talk, where I take those questions one at a time.

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

8.26.15 — Asleep and Aflame

Frederic Leighton may have had death on his mind. It was the very year before his death, in 1896, although he was by no means ready to retire. His career had won him a peerage, the first ever for an English painter, and presidency of the Royal Academy.

He may have had sex on his mind, too, because not even a man in his sixties needs an excuse for that. He definitely had luxury on his mind, for Flaming June began as a detail, embellishing a marble bath in another painting. On its own, it has become his most popular and recognizable work. Frederic Leighton's Flaming June (Museo de Arte de Ponce, c. 1896)

He found sex and death an enigma all the same. His subject curls up so tightly that she could easily fit in a bathtub—and so close to the picture plane that one can almost reach out and touch. A bare foot lightly touches the floor, as if she could spring up at any moment, leaving her flaming dress behind. A preternaturally large and muscular thigh occupies the painting’s center, pressing tightly against the almost translucent fabric of her orange dress. Its satin flows as freely as her long brown hair, on top of still more sheer draperies in deep burgundy and yellow. The flowers above her to the right offer just one more temptation.

She has a presence well beyond the fluid play of color, highlights, and shadows. She is asleep, in evident comfort, although her twisted pose makes it difficult to account for her limbs. The brightly lit shelf behind her could be the marble niche of an altar or a tomb, as if sculpture had come suddenly to life. Her face has the indifference of death but the reddish glow of life itself. Leighton hardly needed an excuse to lend his sitters at once solidity, an assertive glance, and an outrageously diaphanous robe. He did so for himself, too, in a bulky self-portrait.

Not that the Frick Collection needs an excuse to indulge in elegance either, through September 6, with a loan from Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. While running up, rightly, against objections to expansion plans, it has been adept at collaborations with other small museums, such as the Norton Simon in Pasadena and the Scottish National Gallery. MutualArtIf it fills out its image of luxury with simply its own standing portraits by James McNeill Whistler, it has made an exhibition before of “Whistler, Women, and Fashion.” And if Leighton’s over-the-top yet thoroughly academic art was long an embarrassment, the Frick has its period rooms for Jean Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher as well. Flaming June landed in Puerto Rico some fifty years ago, when Victorian art and bluster was at its least fashionable, because no one would meet the stated price.

It deserves a close look nonetheless, along with an oil sketch focused on that flaming orange, for not just the virtuosity, but also the enigma. People debate even the identity of Leighton’s model and the origins of his title. That masculine thigh makes its sexuality ambiguous, too, just as with its source in Michelangelo—who used it in a sculpted Night for, fittingly, a tomb and in a lost painting of Leda and the Swan. The flower is oleander, a serious poison, meaning that June could be dying or the carrier of death to others in her sway. You just cannot trust those women. You might not trust Leighton’s sexuality either, and speculation continues as to why he never married.

Do not answer too soon. Sex and death had been in the air at least since Romanticism, as with Anne-Louis Girodet in France, and the Pre-Raphaelites in England had taken them as their theme. And the painting’s compressed space has parallels in their highly linear compositions. Leighton, who had studied in Florence, also shared their interest in the Renaissance and myth, in what a Modernist might call a dying culture—or a Freudian something frightening and new. He just happens to add excess and ambiguity. While their lovers faint and their bodies on the ground are dead, his could only now be flaming into life.

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

8.24.15 — What a Waste

For more than ten years, starting in 1998, Zoe Leonard photographed not suburban sprawl, with its planned waste for the privileged few, but the still greater ravages of urban life. Is there a greater waste of space than the architecture of the Museum of Modern Art? For her there is, lying everywhere around her, and I add this to other recent reports on the collision of humanity and nature as a longer review and my latest upload.

From New York to Eastern Europe, Africa, Cuba, and Mexico, she found shuttered storefronts and fallen marquees, makeshift signs and dated logos, obsolete computers and manual typewriters, and everything and anything left out for trash or for sale. And who knows but that someone is buying.

Leonard has every right to judge wasted space, for the results occupy MoMA’s atrium, where Martha Rosler, Marina Abramovic, Gabriel Orozco, Julien Isaac, Jennifer Bartlett with Rhapsody, and more have come to grief before her. It resembles less a gallery than the perpetual shopping mall of a global city. Leonard, though, can claim a closer fit. Her Analogue, now in the museum’s collection, can even claim the trappings of urban efficiency—the work’s more than four hundred photos arranged in the tight grids of twenty-five “chapters.” (I lost count at twenty-three.) They do not quite tame the atrium, which reduces them to postage stamps, but they do fill it, through August 30 (and I would have told you about it sooner, but this review had first to appear in Artillery magazine).

The series is both a tribute and a warning. It begins on the Lower East Side, where she lived, and it has the pulse and variety of a city walk. Bundles of materials present tapestries of color. Bags of grain attest to the planet’s diversity. Still, Leonard means to document displacement and loss in an age of globalization. One can never know from the images just what is where.

Analogue also helps make sense of her work as a whole. Like many today, Leonard moves easily, maybe even too easily, between subjects and media. She has left out blue suitcases, mounted a tree on scaffolding, photographed a model of New York as if flying above it, and haunted the city with a wax anatomical model. For the 2014 Whitney Biennial, the museum’s last on Madison Avenue, she captured its surroundings with a camera obscura. One can see her as always on the move, while calling attention to the fragile and fleeting context that she leaves behind. For Analogue, she adopts means that others have left behind as well, with a 1940s Rolleiflex camera—a twin-lens instrument, like a classic Kodak but higher in quality.

The curators, Roxana Marcoci with Drew Sawyer, compare the results to Rosler’s documentation of real estate on the Bowery, Los Angeles for Ed Ruscha, Paris for Eugene Atget, or America for Walker Evans. Yet Leonard has little interest in particulars or preservation. She does not have Rosler’s outrage, Ruscha’s dispassion, or Atget’s cultivated beauty. She has no individuals in view at all. She comes closest to Evans when he collects penny pictures and postcards. Consider, though, another model entirely, in Charles Baudelaire.

In “The Painter of Modern Life,” the French poet saw the key to the present in cities—and in the flâneur, or idler, exploring them. For the perfect flâneur,” he wrote, “for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.” Leonard is looking for analogs, in analog media, like Baudelaire with the entire world at his feet. Like globalization, Analogue can be drab and leveling. It misses the sheer presence of her previous installations, in the present. Yet it has the charm of the familiar in its planet-wide space of waste.

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

8.21.15 — What About the Wherewithal?

America Is Hard to See. With the inaugural exhibition in its new home on Ganesvoort Street, titled after a poem by Robert Frost, the Whitney is pondering its very mission, as a museum of American art in an increasingly global art scene. To wrap up from last time, it answers with welcome attention not just to its collection, but also to a context in the museum’s history and America. Jay DeFeo at work on The Rose (photo by Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1960)

While a 2006 exhibition looked within, on the occasion of the Whitney’s seventy-fifth birthday, this one starts in the lobby gallery with its origins on West 8th Street, where Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney had every reason to demand a showcase for American art: the Met had refused the gift of her collection. It moved to 54th Street in 1954 and uptown in 1966, but the Whitney would like you to think of its latest move as a homecoming.

Not only does it care about its collection, but also about criticism that museums, most especially the Museum of Modern Art, are bastions of white male privilege. If you fail to recognize something, there is a good bet that it will be by a woman—starting with Whitney herself, a sculptor. Elsie Driggs has her sooty Pittsburgh just as Charles Sheeler has his industrial Detroit, Ilse Berg her smokestacks by the Queensboro Bridge just as Joseph Stella has his Brooklyn Bridge, Agnes Pelton and Irene Rice Pereira their place between abstraction and the imagination just like Georgia O’Keeffe and Stuart Davis, and Margaret Bourke-White her unflinching photography just like Edward Steichen.

The list continues, but suffice it to say that it in no way reduces the display’s quality and interest. Hedda Sterne, the sole woman in a notorious photograph of Abstract Expressionists, does not stand out all that much, but her airbrushed enamel resonates with the casual mixed media of abstraction today. Besides, that room also has space for Lee Krasner, Norman Lewis, and Alfonso Ossorio.

As that example suggests, the diversity extends pointedly to African Americans and others. Bill Traylor and Charles White challenge Benton’s view of America’s heartland, Al Loving the free-floating anxiety of American Surrealism. As for globalization, the Whitney gave its very first retrospective of a living artist to Yasuo Kuniyoshi, a Japanese American. The museum wants its history to be the story of America. Its six hundred works proceed chronologically, but in “chapters” named for art like Sterne’s New York, N.Y. and Loving’s Rational Irrational. And the implicit message of those chapters is almost invariably political.

They see Stella and others as drawing on not just European Modernism, but the city. They see familiar highlights in the very contexts from which they so often diverged—such as Early Sunday Morning by Edward Hopper within Surrealism, The Artist and His Mother by Arshile Gorky within American realism, or Three Flags by Jasper Johns within Pop Art. They see Minimalism, starting with Eva Hesse, as consumed not just with geometry, but also the body. They see Pop Art and Minimalism alongside responses to the Vietnam War, and in fact Emil De Antonio borrowed Frost’s title for a documentary about Eugene McCarthy and the antiwar movement. So what comes on the final floor, after the 1960s? New Image painting, sure, and Chuck Close, but mostly continuing crises.

The show targets race from the start, but come the end Negro Sunshine in neon by Glenn Ligon also faces the High Line. Gender identity comes early, too, with Marsden Hartley off the top floor’s elevators. And then the final floor’s elevators open to a David Salle nude and We Don’t Need Another Hero by Barbara Kruger layered over Donald Moffett’s wallpaper blaming Ronald Reagan for the toll from AIDS. A leg by Robert Gober rests near Robert Mapplethorpe with a death head and Nan Goldin with The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Finally comes art after 9/11, like video of falling shadows by Paul Chan. And with that, the Whitney’s self-portrait comes to a screeching halt.

Its history does not descend to a lecture, but it maintains a respectful distance, as if stuck in the Whitney of the 1990s, of Fred Wilson and Charles Ray—those mannequins that were supposed to tell you something racy about racism and child sexuality. Abstract Expressionism looks great, but it quits before color-field painting apart from Joan Mitchell, much less painting today. The Rose by Jay DeFeo, a dark cavity of torn canvas by Lee Bontecou, and a wall by Louise Bourgeois make an impressive corner. Still, would they want their work to look anything other than larger than life and utterly obsessive? To quote Frost again, “But what about the wherewithal?” Perhaps American art really is hard to see.

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

8.20.15 — To Crowd but Still Be Kind

To pick up from last time, so which will it be, when it comes to a new home for the Whitney, an eyesore or an eye-opener? How about both?

One can already strain for good news in its towering windows as seen from the northeast. Mostly, though, one just has to accept the bad news and to enter, so allow me an extra post this week for a look inside. Unlike at the Morgan Library, Renzo Piano skips the fashionable waste of space for a museum atrium. Edward Hopper's Early Sunday Morning (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1930)As with the Menil Collection in Houston, he seeks instead space for art in relationship to its surroundings—to crowd but still be kind.

Piano was a safe choice, and safe is not exactly a compliment, for good reason. Still, he delivers thoughtful reminders of Madison Avenue. Like Marcel Breuer, he relies on movable walls and high, gridded ceilings to accommodate varied displays of art. Elevators open directly onto the galleries. (Richard Artschwager supplies fake wood veneer and mirrors, which make the galleries appear to wrap around the elevator bank.) And where Breuer’s trapezoidal windows and recessed lighting provide a singular balance of natural and artificial light, Piano opens things all the more.

Central stairs, winding around ropes of lights by Félix González-Torres, run to the fifth floor, where the main galleries begin. Ultimately the eighth and fifth floors will hold temporary exhibitions, with the permanent collection between them. That means half the space, a pointed contrast with MoMA’s neglect of its collection in favor of crowd control and spectacle. If one starts at the top, beside a coffee shop, they become progressively larger as one descends, to the point that a cigarette butt by Claes Oldenburg can slip out of its pretend ashtray and halfway across the room. Glorified fire stairs connect these floors, a weakness as at the New Museum, but one has another option in good weather: each floor has a terrace, with more stairs outside.

The terraces serve for sculpture—with one right now for David Smith and one for Tony Smith and Minimalism. (Not that anyone ever used Breuer’s idea of a sculpture garden, the moat-like basement exterior.) Just as much, though, they hold sweeping views of the city, from landmarks to an adjacent water tower. The largest terrace has colorful chairs by Mary Heilmann, in case one wants to relax and enjoy the scene, beneath video of the neighborhood and additional geometry in hot pink. Seen from above, her installation blends into the High Line a floor below. This museum is not all that open to the city from without, but it is from within.

The galleries share that openness. Some face out, like a wall now for Jonathan Borofsky and the silhouette of his Running Man, but others do implicitly, because partitions never erase the feeling of vast uninterrupted galleries. Will it work? Will it allow intimate and extended encounters with a work of art, in galleries that integrate photography and prints, not always to their advantage? Does it help to hang walls salon style, with labels on hand-held cards, amid rooms for larger work, and will brighter lighting wash out subtleties—as I could swear befalls a black square by Ad Reinhardt? The opening exhibition mostly looks great, and I take a closer look next time, but the real test lies in the months to come.

America is hard to see.
Less partial witnesses than he
In book on book have testified
They could not see it from outside—
Or inside either for that matter.

We know the literary chatter.

Critical chatter gushed over the New Museum and MoMA’s expansion, when it should have known better, and once again the uncritical chorus has begun. While I got those right, they should teach me to resist the temptation to gush this time. I feel it, but for now I shall leave the experience to time and to you.

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

8.19.15 — The Whitney Sails West

America Is Hard to See.” So the Whitney calls the inaugural exhibition in its new home in New York’s Meatpacking District, but take heart: it gets easier and more rewarding once you come closer and start looking. It will be the subject of three posts over the rest of this week—and a longer review in my latest upload.

One could say much the same about the new building, designed by Renzo Piano. Monstrous as one approaches from the north, half-hidden from the east by the High Line, it nonetheless became part of the life of the street even before its public opening on May 1. Renzo Piano's plans for the Whitney downtown (Renzo Piano Building Workshop, 2010)The welcome extends inside, too, where the lobby gallery will remain free to all. The museum will also stay open till 10 three nights a week for the length of that inaugural exhibition, drawn entirely from the permanent collection, through September 27. And sure, that exhibition deserves your close attention, for its attempt to see a diverse and often divided America. First, though, all eyes will surely be on the museum’s architecture and its future.

America Is Hard to See. The line draws on a late poem by Robert Frost, who traces the difficulty all the way back to Christopher Columbus:

Remember he had made the test
Finding the East by sailing West.
But had he found it? Here he was
Without one trinket from Ormuz
To save the Queen from family censure
For her investment in his venture.

And now the Whitney has sailed west, to the very edge of Manhattan, at a cost of $422 million and with a capital campaign of nearly twice that.

From the very moment it set sail, too, art’s extended family was near to censure. What would happen to its architecture on Madison Avenue, and what ever could match it? The museum itself raised the question barely a year before its closing, recreating a 1977 installation by Robert Irwin that reduced one floor to its luminous interior. Initial plans called for its retaining a footprint near Museum Mile by sharing the space with the Met. Jerry Saltz even urged relegating the new building to contemporary art, as if to keep up with the latest trends in clothing stores and restaurants north of Greenwich Village. At present, the Met will have the old building to itself, on an eight-year lease—perhaps with murals by Thomas Hart Benton once destined for the Whitney.

Censure only grew after the groundbreaking in May 2011, as Piano’s eight-story architecture took imposing shape. The view from the north quickly went viral, earning comparisons to a hospital or prison. From the foot of the High Line, one has only a slab that one can touch but not enter. From the west, its stacked boxes lack even the coherence of the New Museum on the Bowery. Speaking of sailing, it takes a more horizontal shape along Ganesvoort Street, where one enters, like a luxury liner run aground. It recalls Frost’s harsh judgment of Columbus:

But all he did was spread the room
Of our enacting out the doom
Of being in each other’s way,
And so put off the weary day
When we would have to put our mind
On how to crowd but still be kind.

These things matter, because they touch on access—and on whether American art will be hard to see. The building helps create an extended arts district connecting Chelsea to the south, at a healthy remove from the subway, and indeed it takes over space that the Dia Foundation once considered. Yet it comes into full view only across West Street, perhaps from a future park designed by Thomas Heatherwick. Its institutional look picks up on the site’s industrial roots, right down to a row of ventilation ducts on the roof, but without the wit or transparency of Irwin’s own architecture for Dia:Beacon or Piano’s for the Pompidou Center. Maybe the interior can still shine, for maybe form no longer follows function, but they do impinge on one another. When they try to stay apart, and the exterior is only a skin, they are often reviled as Postmodernism.

From the very first, though, the Whitney’s plans also held a liberating promise. It gains twice the space, including its first theater and education department. It gains offices on the building’s north side and spacious on-site quarters for conservators. Better yet, it can do all that without encroaching on old neighbors. It had first proposed demolishing Upper East Side brownstones and handing over the Marcel Breuer classic to an actual postmodernist, Michael Graves. Thanks to its current director, Adam Weinberg, no more.

The new Whitney may loom apart, but it has a determination to become more open and easier to see. It treats the lobby (with its Danny Meyer restaurant) as part of a larger public space outside, with a sheltering cantilever overhead. It places art on a façade across the street facing the High Line, starting with a boisterous painting by Michele Abeles. It signaled its welcome, too, with a preview reserved for artists in its collection. Unlike MoMA with its condo tower, the Whitney also resists treating expansion as a real-estate venture. Last, it chose an architect known for museums—which brings one at last to the design, my subject for next time.

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

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