8.18.17 — Marching on Harlem

Columbia University is marching on Harlem. It could be a display of raw power, a case study in gentrification, or a step toward a brighter future. One thing for sure, though: it has produced an impressive center for the arts and sciences—and a new home for the Wallach Art Gallery.

With “Uptown,” through August 20, it opens with an acknowledgment at last of its place in the community—and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. The show’s twenty-five artists, all working north of 99th Street, can offer a warm welcome. Nari Ward's Xquisite LiquorsouL (Lehmann Maupin, 2009)

Morningside Heights has long felt like a privileged enclave, separated by Morningside Park and the physical chasm of 125th Street from the realities of Upper Manhattan. These days, though, the Upper West Side has reached up to it, all of the city is safer, and the Studio Museum in Harlem has brought sculpture to the parks. These days, too, Columbia is growing, much as New York University seems out to consume Greenwich Village and beyond. The Jerome L. Greene Science Center opened last fall on West 129th Street, on what Columbia calls its Manhattanville campus, while construction continues apace by Barnard College. Now the Lenfest Center for the Arts nestles behind the science center, west of Broadway. You may find yourself walking through one to locate the other.

Renzo Piano designed both. He has become a go-to architect for museums, and you can see why. For one thing, he is a team player. His buildings project less a signature style than the needs of an institution. They are big, bright, and anything but sleek, much as the new Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District looks from the outside like a hospital or a prison. The Morgan Library wanted a decent café, an atrium, and a connection from its public areas to its conservation department and offices, with barely a nod to its galleries, and Piano delivered. Columbia, too, gets big lobbies and bulky exteriors.

For another thing, he cares about the movement of people and the display of art. His buildings are airy and well lit, outside and in. The new gallery has the sixth floor of the arts center, with big windows on three sides. They turn mostly away from the heavy traffic and near empty yards by the Hudson River—and toward their neighbors. Where MoMA’s 2004 expansion gave it a diminished emphasis on the collection, the Wallach Gallery has grown. (You will just have to wait and see how MoMA does with further enhancements by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.) And where MoMA or the New Museum architecture by SANAA has its closed boxes, the Wallach Gallery welcomes natural light.

“Uptown” takes its time and tests the space, and my longer review tells you more about its contributors. Julie Mehretu and Jessica Rankin use the outside corridor for works on paper between fluid squiggles and landscape photography, while most others have just a work or two apiece, not all of it recent. Nari Ward plops a big assemblage down in the main area, while Marta Chilindron suspends translucent acrylic from above. Reza Farkhondeh uses the front of the entrance partition for floral painting, while Shani Peters places a rug and cushions around the back for a place to meditate or simply to sit. Virginia Inés Vergara and Balleté Ross Smith have new media alcoves, while Renee Cox and Elizabeth Colomba share an alcove for photography. So what's NEW!They add up to a healthy variety of scales, media, ethnic and gender identities, and often political art—but also a compromise between business as usual and reaching out, from a gallery dying to enter the big leagues.

“Uptown” is not just an opening exhibition, you see, but a triennial. Consider it less a promise than a threat. Yet this installment works—because it is as focused and open as the architecture. The curator, Deborah Cullen, cultivates encounters, in the hanging but also in collaborations like that between Mehretu and Ranking (a couple in real life as well). Encounters extend as well to the roughly equal numbers of established artists and newcomers. They serve as a useful reminder that not all the first have abandoned the city, and not all the second live in Brooklyn.

Ward makes the most of the central space—to return to what Columbia might have wanted to leave behind. Out in Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, he recreates the marquee of Harlem’s Apollo Theater, lights and all. Here he settles for the burned-out sign on a liquor store. Lying on its side, it becomes a giant window box, but for artificial flowers and nowhere near a window. It might have suffered from vandalism, gentrification, or a hard night’s drinking. Either way, the remaining lights spell out SOUL, and its comedy makes the Wallach’s presence in the neighborhood that much more real.

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

8.16.17 — Face to Face with God

If God has spoken to an artist face to face, it would have to be Rembrandt. Could that be why Rembrandt kept returning to a man who spoke with God? With “Divine Encounter,” through August 20, he takes up the life of Abraham—and I have added this to an earlier report on “Rembrandt’s First Masterpiece” as a longer review and my latest upload.

Kidding aside, Rembrandt always thought of belief in personal terms. He shows the patriarch prostrate on the ground, unable to face God, humbled by the promise of a son and a covenant with the Jewish people. MutualArtHe shows him hearing again the promise, from three strangers who will reveal themselves as angels and then as the voice of God. He shows him facing God’s command to sacrifice that promised son, Isaac—and acting on that command even as an angel interrupts the sacrifice. He shows him casting out an older son, Ishmael and the boy’s mother, a mere serving woman, while unable to turn his back on them. In every case, Rembrandt shows Abraham coming to grips with the strangeness of the divine, only to rediscover the terror and confusion of his own humanity.

The Frick borrows a single painting less than nine inches wide, perhaps an oil sketch for a lost or never completed major work. With that and just eight prints and drawings, it has staged a small show in every respect but its artist. The painting, from a private collection, shows Abraham Entertaining the Angels. The patriarch has welcomed three strangers—in anticipation of the commandment only much later, through Moses, that “you shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Abraham raises a pitcher, its lid just slightly ajar, and a bowl to receive its content. Will he ever deliver sustenance to strangers in a strange land? It depends on what anyone can know about the needs of the human or divine.

A man addresses Abraham at the painting’s center, as a teacher or a friend. The mere mortal at right and the other two strangers at left form a half circle, hanging on every word, but also a pyramid with the young speaker at its apex, elevating him to the rank of a god. He has not yet revealed himself, but he is not just bathed in light. His glow also illuminates others in a darkened world. The angels still shield their wings from Abraham’s field of vision, and the one in the foreground has the earthy colors of this world. The tree behind them, with its thick bole and twisted branches, could stand for earthly vegetation or the tree of life.

The illumination does not extend to Abraham’s wife, Sarah. The Bible has her laughing at the thought of a son at her age—or even scorning it. Here she looks on in suspicion, lurking in an open door, just as she will in a print of the same scene ten years later, in 1856. Rembrandt's Sacrifice of Isaac (Hermitage, 1635)There God has the beard and robe of an elder statesman, with Abraham almost his mirror image. The background has grown deeper and lusher, and Ishmael scampers over a fence. His playfulness reinforces the moment’s solemnity, and his crossing the fence to a wider and wilder world anticipates his banishment.

Abraham is caught between families, between obligations, and between worlds. So he is again with his arms outstretched to banish Ishmael and the boy’s mother, Hagar. Is he lying to himself about his responsibility toward others? One hand points to the wilderness, the other to the doorway and a dog—at once firm in his resolution and desperate to hold onto them all. Rembrandt never does represent him at his most outspoken, negotiating with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. When Abraham asks if God will kill even a handful of the righteous in order to punish the wicked, is he speaking on behalf of the saints, the sinners, or his own dual nature?

Maybe only Rembrandt could have found a way to ask. His etchings animate the shadows with cross-hatching and freer touches of drypoint, while thick squiggles of ink leave much of the paper untouched and a story’s conclusion unstated. The curator, Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, suggests that he understood the burden of a divine encounter from Calvinism, but he has a way of speaking the unspeakable in art. The show does not borrow The Sacrifice of Isaac from 1635, a century after a shocker by Andrea del Sarto, when Rembrandt was not yet thirty, but the remaining drawings and prints stick to its theme. Even when Abraham fondly strokes a son’s chin, one has to remember where he will later raise his knife.

In Rembrandt’s early painting of the sacrifice (now in the Hermitage), the angel obliges Abraham to drop his knife—but it hangs suspended in midair, its point aiming straight at Isaac’s throat and its blade falling toward the boy’s crotch. Does it matter that God will provide or that God’s covenant requires circumcision? In a drawing from the 1650s, Abraham still bends over Isaac, laid out on a table as if for surgery, even as the angel bears down. In a print from 1655, Rembrandt clings to the knife even as the angel’s face comes close to kissing his dark, blank eyes. One can barely discern the ram that the angel has brought to the sacrifice, and the angel still covers the boy’s eyes. God has spoken, but will human nature have the horrifying last word?

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

8.14.17 — Experimenting on Himself

In 1926, at the very peak of his career, Eugen Gabritschevsky reported on “Experiments in Color Changes and Gender.” He was not yet describing his art.

Back then, Gabritschevsky was a biologist, with a specialty in insects. (That 1926 paper was about spiders.) The son of a bacteriologist, he had grown up in the most elite and progressive circles of tsarist and revolutionary Russia, at home among scientists, diplomats, and Tolstoy. Eugen Gabritschevsky's Untitled (Galerie Chave, 1949)Fluent in English, he had just wrapped up his postdoc at Columbia University under T. H. Morgan, the leading geneticist of his age, and was settling into a post in Paris. In only five more years, he had lost it all to mental illness—but his greatest experiments were just beginning. For the American Folk Art Museum, through August 20, he spent the rest of his life in a “Theater of the Imperceptible.”

Insects live fast and die young. Not him. Sent to an asylum in Germany in 1931, Gabritschevsky was only slowly picking up the pieces and discovering his art. Some of it still looks like scientific illustration, including exquisite bird studies in his chosen medium, gouache on paper. Folding and blotting brings out the symmetry and segmentation of, once again, insects—if not also a Rorschach test. The show’s title brings out the parallels between his lives. He was making the imperceptible visible, just as he had behind a microscope.

Increasingly, the imperceptible belongs not to the furthest reaches of the senses, but to the mind. In his madness, he can experiment only on himself. The birds morph into faces, their color and gender no longer intact. Forms multiply, with the obsessiveness of folk art—and who is to say what is glorious and what is a nightmare? Memories of Moscow before the revolution become images of crowded theaters, but of solely the audience in fancy dress and with mere dots for eyes. Gabritschevsky’s subject has become the pageant not of art and nature, but of the perceiver.

He might have seen the changes coming as early as his stay in New York. A crowded skyline in charcoal has one foot in science fiction, with seemingly familiar towers rising a good five years before construction of the Chrysler building began. A man leans over his microscope in the laboratory, but in near darkness. Seen from the back, he is and is not the artist. Then, too, the move from hard science was never quite complete. Species other than people join the lost souls at the Last Judgment, and men with odd growth for heads could be suffering from a physical as well as mental disease.

Those crusty heads look right out of Jean Dubuffet, and Gabritschevsky’s brother wrote for encouragement. The French painter was polite but measured. Gabritschevsky, he explained, was not turning against “l’art classique” but rather “handling” it. He had done so before in charcoal, with those skyscrapers informed by Modernism—or with a ghostly man in the woods informed by Symbolism and Edvard Munch. The Last Judgment, too, is a classical subject, rendered in lush browns. Yet its god is only a small point of light, and its tiers belong just as much to the artist’s theaters of Moscow and the mind.

Maybe Gabritschevsky never had time to become an outsider or an artist, as his state of mind grew worse. Work belongs almost entirely to the 1940s, although he died only in his mid-eighties, in 1974. The museum pairs him with Carlo Zinelli, an Italian who took up art in an asylum well into his forties. Zinelli had served both in a slaughterhouse and (by devilish coincidence) in combat, he exhibited with Art Brut, and his work became more cramped, chaotic, and colorful right up to his death. Gabritschevsky, by comparison, was at least half in control of his experiments all along. They just had a way of turning on him.

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

8.11.17 — Burying Summer

To wrap up my tour of summer sculpture, Anish Kapoor is not the only sculptor evading death. Lluis Lleo raises sandstone slabs along Park Avenue, like burial steles for Minimalism. If the graves lie empty, blame it on zombie formalism.

One side of each stone has an overlay in color, the other a second color with the very same geometric shape cut out from it, as a display of positive and negative space. You get to decide which is which, but watch out. Sheila Hicks's Hop, Skip, Jump, and Fly: Escape from Gravity (photo by John Haber/High Line, 2017)Summer sculpture in Manhattan has more than enough positive and negative vibes to go around.

Not to be outdone, Joy Brown brings nearly five miles of sculpture to Broadway—but with just nine clay pieces. Think of them as official greeters to subway stations from the Upper West Side deep into Harlem. Not even I can claim to have seen them all, but Brown has sure spread a lot of conviviality. Each has the mass of Fernando Botero, the childlike smirks of anime, and the rounded outlines of both. With heads in hands or as parents with children, they all but cry out adorable. They made me grateful to catch the ride home.

Back in Rockefeller Center, Jeff Koons means his forty-five foot Seated Ballerina to honor National Children’s Month. It does better at calling attention to America’s enduring love of kitsch and, more to the point, Koons himself. Up by Central Park, Liz Glynn leaves out gray concrete arches and chairs, as Open House. She models them after the ornate interior of a Fifth Avenue mansion, designed by Sanford White. The rigid seating plays out against the mansion’s disappearance into history, the arches against the great outdoors. No one seemed to worry, though, about either the layers of meaning or the discomfort—not when seating comes in handy at lunch.

The High Line calls its summer show “Mutations,” but much of it is static and lifeless. Dora Budor does say that her white blobs change color when wet, but pardon me if I do not venture up in the rain to find out. And Veit Laurent Lurz says that a craggy stone fountain flows with the “herbal juice of the future,” but pardon me if I hold off until then. Henry Taylor looks down on them all from a mural, but if only he could see Sheila Hicks half a mile north after a late start. Her colorful tubes lie poised against rusted inaccessible railings and lurk in weeds. The Hudson Yards may not welcome more than luxury real-estate, but it can still run warm and wild.

Josiah McElheny treats Madison Square Park to sets for music, dance, and poetry, but I prefer to see them as elements of architecture. His sea-green floor never quite settles into the grass—or a perfect circle. For a ceiling, he has a red and yellow arch, facing the deep blue curve of a wall. McElheny achieves his colors with painted wood broken by circles of prismatic glass. They have their own territory in the lawn, fenced off from sunbathers. With luck, they will never settle into a structure that keeps out the summer sky.

Katja Novitskova, an Estonian, looks for the complexity of life on two scales, one more intoxicating than the next. Her aluminum disks in City Hall Park take on the rotundity and fertility of the earth or, she imagines, distant moons—but with an overlay of microorganisms, human cells, and marine biology. So is New York for the summer a pool party, a banquet for the senses, a graveyard, or a laboratory? If you have to ask, you have missed the depth of its history and the diversity of its pleasures. The Governors Island Art Fair holds off until Labor Day. I shall let you know more.

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

8.9.17 — Getting One’s Goat

To pick up my tour of summer sculpture from last time, Nari Ward can really get one’s goat. In fact, he can get about a dozen of them, scattered across Socrates Sculpture Park as if in search of dinner.

None of them look all that frisky, as goats go, perhaps because they lack for grass in a park eternally in need of a new lawn. They bear a heavy burden as well. They carry everything from rough metal spikes to tar and feathers, through September 4. They could be giving off energy or the victims of a lynching. Nari Ward's Xquisite LiquorsouL (Lehmann Maupin, 2009)

As for meaning, too, Ward can get one’s goat. He keeps returning to the theme of role models for young black men. He sought a dialogue with the cops on video, as Fathers and Sons, and displayed burnt oil drums as anything but a call to violence at the 2006 Biennial. Yet he plays the bad boy quite as well as macho white artists, maybe more than ever in the comfort of summer sculpture. He may have no other choice if he wishes to explore the pressures of mass culture without blaming the victim. Besides, artists are supposed to get on one’s nerves.

Ward is on familiar grounds, starting with the work’s title, G.O.A.T., again. He means not just his past, but that of others as well. The acronym stands for “greatest of all time,” as with Muhammed Ali and LL Cool J, and Ward is not dismissing their physical and verbal wizardry—or their pride in African American identity. He does, though, raise challenges. A huge jump rope on the Broadway billboard has the coarseness of knotted fiber, with King imprinted on its handles. It might celebrate a formidable training routine, or it could be reducing culture heroes to overgrown children.

Not that child’s play is unhealthy, especially in art. And Ward, too, is entitled to boast, with the park’s first solo show. He boasts of black culture again with a riff on the marquee of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, much like his riff on a liquor store in “Uptown” at the Wallach Gallery. The blinking letters POLL suggest the need for action where it counts, at the polls. Elsewhere a green mass hangs from a supporting frame like a bell, but in the shape of goat gonads. Both its resonance and its virility have suffered from serious oxidation.

At forty feet, the show’s largest work boasts as well, while attesting to a boast that failed. One more goat head lies at the end of a concrete pole, like the fallen idol of a dead culture—or like the “shattered visage” in “Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. As the poem goes, “Look on my work, ye mighty, and despair.” Like Shelley, Ward is enough of an ironist to take those words to heart. The mighty may despair because they will never rise so high—or because they, too, in time must fall so low. Ward got out of the way just in time.

Still, he brings the fall into the realm of play and into the present. A black chandelier hands within a circular shed, like the disco light that failed. And the pole ends with a big wheel, and a handle runs through the goat’s head. Someone might have been using it as a unicycle before falling. In Shelley’s poem, the head has fallen on a wasteland, where “nothing beside remains.” This head is in a park in Queens, where people walk their dogs and come for summer movies—for now, surrounded by a herd of goats.

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

8.8.17 — A Banquet of Antiquities

The roof garden of the Met is set for a feast, but do not expect to dig right in. Oh, drinks and light snacks are still for sale, for those long summer evenings with views of the park. Banquet tables are there as well, with enviable place settings. Still, everything has the same ghostly white, from overturned goblets to mismatched knives. Coins lie strewn across one table, like mints or crackers—but with a sleeping child in place of dessert or a dip. Other tables bear restless, dead, or sleeping bodies.

from Adrián Villar Rojas's The Theater of Disappearance (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017)Besides, this is art, with clear directions not to touch, much less to dine. Pierre Huyghe changed little in 2015, beyond a few floor tiles, while Roxy Paine filled the roof with a forest after a storm some years before. This year’s summer sculpture offers a treacherous compromise, as “The Theater of Disappearance,” through October 29. Adrián Villar Rojas leaves room to wander, while undermining hopes of where to sit. His checkerboard flooring rises up to form two short benches, but also a barrier on the way to the bar. He sets standing sculpture in black, like guards distracted by stories of their own.

Already at age thirty-seven, Villar Rojas has a habit of raising obstacles. He set a concrete box on the High Line in 2015, as The Evolution of God, and he directed a dark restaging of MoMA PS1 in 2013, as The Innocence of Animals. He has animals and gods here, too, all of them from the Met’s collections. He selected nearly a hundred objects, in conversation with the museum’s curators, for a theater of repeat appearances. He then combined scans of the antiquities with scans of live people to produce his seventeen sculptures. He also took charge of the tiling and planting, with twisted vines that fit right in with the twisted bodies and twisted narratives.

The dialogue extends from the artist and curators to the visitor. It just happens to lack subtitles. Turning the corner from the entrance, you might mistake additional wall text for a list of source material, but nope: it is the bar menu. It would take a smarter critic than I to name much more. The museum goes too far in calling this a critique of collecting practices, but it is still a feast for historians.

That feast belies a genuine melancholy—for much of the art began in commemoration of the dead. An Arthurian hero from the face of a tomb has a second sword as a pillow and a young man by his side, lending him a maternal side and an uneasy new life. A man stares at an empty plate in search of his image or a meal. A kneeling soldier could be constructing a statue of lovers or separating them. A man with African figurines on his shoulders, a body in his backpack, and the bent head of a homeless person stands guard over the southern end of the terrace, where the checkerboard gives way to metallic flooring. Judging by the Met’s photo of Villar Rojas, the figure’s pose and hoodie match the artist’s.

One can tire quickly of art’s bad boys, like Maurizio Cattelan or Paul McCarthy. One can tire, too, of the drive to anoint the next superstar with a 3D printer and the cutes. A figure with hunting horns for a hat and wild animals for shoulder pads may sound cringe inducing at that. Credit Villar Rojas, though, with a creative dialogue. A woman sleeps beside an alert cat, while a sleeping boy holds a horse’s head like a scene out of The Godfather. Meanwhile the visitor stares at the work of seven continents—and a living Argentine.

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

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