4.18.14 — A Nice Jewish Boy

Like many an old-world parent in New York, Marc Chagall had a dream—to welcome into his family a nice Jewish boy. And so he did in his art, only Jesus Christ. Why did a Christian god mean so much to a Jew in love, war, and exile? (Yes, I wrote this one during the winter, but I could not help saving it for this weekend, when you may have at a couple of religions and some nice Jewish boys on your mind.)

The subject had haunted him even before he left for America with his wife and daughter in June 1941, but it came more and more to stand for the cataclysm that he had left behind. As self-conscious as ever, he even called one wartime painting with an upside-down cross Obsession. Something else happened, too: Jesus began to appear alongside the artist himself, at his easel, often as if he were in the act of painting the suffering man-god—or as if his painting were coming to life. Marc Chagall's Self-Portrait with Clock (private collection/ARS, 1947)The image of the Crucifixion concentrated his memories, while also becoming a matter of self-identification.

In “Chagall: Love, War, and Exile,” through February 2, one sees a man who spent much of his life coming to grips with exile. Along with a review of another Jew (at least by some accounts), Balthus, that appeared in this space it is the subject of a rather longer review, in my latest upload.

Chagall has long stood for a lost world of European Jews, including memories that many of his admirers, like me, could never have had. It has made him a much loved painter, not to mention a seriously cloying one. The Jewish Museum attempts a double feat. It undertakes a retrospective with relatively modest means, by using the artist’s later years to revisit themes from throughout his career. Yet it also seeks to rescue him from his own reputation. It wants to recover a darker side of the art of memory. It cannot really pull off either aim, but only because Chagall earned that reputation the hard way, through his art.

Born in 1887, he showed his talents quickly, while never surrendering his roots in a fiercely premodern art. He came from Vitebsk, a largely Jewish town in present-day Belarus, but he traveled widely, first to art school in St. Petersburg. By 1910 he was in Paris at the very center of an unfolding modern art. These were the years of Cubism and inventing abstraction, and one can see them both in his first vision of Calvary (Golgotha), from 1912. One can also see his gift for color, in its fragmented planes and disks right out of Robert Delauney. Those were the years, too, of his better-known images not in the show—like the artist, the goat, and their village and, of course, the inspiration for a hit musical, Fiddler on the Roof.

Cubism obliged him to place those themes close to the picture plane, part of what makes them so strong. It also allowed details to unfold in a dizzying spectacle, as background spins into foreground. Calvary (Golgotha) includes another goat’s face, a village elder, and a rower navigating among them all. Chagall is assembling the stock characters for his art, with a visual tightness and spatial experimentation that he will never achieve again. His late compositions look scattered, repetitious, and just plain cute by comparison. Still, by 1911 he already insists on his realism and his fantasies, a combination that anticipates Surrealism a decade later while looking back to the visionary Romanticism of William Blake.

So what's NEW!His saga of love, war, and exile begins well before America, with representations of tradition and memory. Chagall illustrated Yiddish poems in 1931, with ink drawings of a pogrom, the Russian revolution, and their prisoners that show a gift for caricature akin not so very far from Francisco de Goya. He also recalls the interiors of synagogues he had seen, in striking detail. He starts to lay down his stock characters as well—the old men with their beards and their Talmud, the lovers in each other’s arms, the cows playing the violin, the candle in the darkness, the grandfather’s clock in the sky, the wild hair, the fallen angels, and the mother and child in the clouds. The angels are blood red, the women mostly naked, and the men asleep, shrouded, or weeping. Terrible fears are starting to compete with whimsy, and it is by no means clear which will win out.

Chagall wants to picture Jesus as an emblem of a “tragic humanity” and an “innocent child.” Maybe that is also how he saw the Jewish people. Maybe he felt that he had found himself in a Christian culture, and it was his job to recover that culture for a Jew, just as he had brought his vision to Modernism. Maybe he felt neither Judaism nor assimilation as an option, because he could neither live in the past nor deny it. The Wikipedia entry on Chagall starts right in by quoting Robert Hughes, who called him “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.” One might better say the quintessential artist in exile.

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

4.16.14 — Ambassador for Soho

I was late getting home from a studio visit way south in Brooklyn, because the artist was delayed on the way from the art fairs. And that naturally started a lively conversation.

Was the destination worth the detour? Step into many a fair booth or an upscale gallery, and one could be almost anywhere, amid much the same cast and much the same international style. You know the mix of media, of casual realism and gestural abstraction, of extraordinary polish and a determination to shock—all on an ever larger scale. Robert Rauschenberg's Canyon (Sonnabend Collection, gift to Museum of Modern Art, 1959)The very name Miami Basel speaks not to a place, but to a global scene. Surely things were different fifty years ago, when Ileana Sonnabend made herself “ambassador for the new.” No doubt, but one might have second thoughts after a show of that very name, through April 21, a tribute to her as dealer that looks curiously like art today.

MoMA opens with a double portrait of Sonnabend by Andy Warhol, as he turned more and more from death and disaster to flattery and celebrity. A plank by John McCracken leans against a wall, as it did so often back then, while bathers by Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselman add a touch of glamour and pop culture. Piero Manzoni’s sealed metal drum holds a thousand meters of ink on paper, but it could just as easily have held once again his own shit. A violinist’s grating repetition of a few bars from Igor Stravinski, thanks to Jannis Kounellis, hardly disrupts the Greek artist’s soothing oil on canvas. Bernd and Hilla Becher set out their gridded photographs of a vanishing industrial landscape. Something blurry plays out silently on video, and it takes patience (or the wall label) to realize that Vito Acconci lay under a gallery floor, jerking off.

You may look to the past for an age of “slow art,” but you will recognize the formula from today. At least you have every right to think you do, in a show that ends chronologically with Jeff Koons. Yet Sonnabend was taking chances every step of the way, just as she did in bringing Robert Rauschenberg to Leo Castelli’s gallery before. She opened her own Paris gallery in 1960 to introduce the new American art to Europe, starting with a solo show for Jasper Johns. And she opened her New York gallery in 1970 as an ambassador for Arte Povera in America, like the “igloo” of slender insect-like legs by Mario Merz. She kept up with the Pop Art of Claes Oldenburg and James Rosenquist, the Minimalism of Robert Morris and Mel Bochner, the LA conceptual art of John Baldessari, the Neo-Expressionism of A. R. Penck, the blend of cartoons and abstraction in Carroll Dunham, and much else along the way.

If art like this could be anywhere, Sonnabend had long been in transit. A photo album by Christian Boltanski speaks implicitly to his father’s trials in hiding from the Nazis, but for Sonnabend it might have testified to her and Castelli’s plight as European Jews. As Leslie Camhi argues in a catalog essay, she was at home only in art. MutualArtBorn in 1914 in Bucharest, she was seventeen when she married Castelli, and they escaped Europe by a most circuitous route. Castelli opened his gallery in their living room on the Upper East Side in 1957, two years before their divorce—and they helped make Soho an art scene on a September day in 1971, when their galleries, John Weber, and Andre Emmerich opened together at 420 West Broadway. It must have been quite a night.

MoMA insists on Sonnabend’s independence. Ann Temkin, curator with Claire Lehmann, places her in a line of such pioneering women dealers as Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons. Not even Camhi mentions Ivan Karp, a force for Pop Art at Castelli’s gallery in the 1960s and then at O.K. Harris, or Paula Cooper, who preceded them all in Soho. A show of just fifty works devoted to an existing gallery sounds loaded regardless. One might mistake it for a plea for donations, like the gift from the estate of Rauschenberg’s Canyon in 2011, with tax exigencies for the estate and conditions attached that included this very show. That combine painting, its stuffed eagle still soaring above a pillow suspended like testicles, looks far too cramped as the centerpiece.

The show feels oddly like business as usual for a woman who truly did put art above business. Her father’s money backed Castelli’s first gallery, in prewar Paris, and she sold work that she had collected to keep her galleries and her artists alive. Still, Gilbert and George in their suits, like Michelangelo Pistoletto’s cut-paper couple against mirrored steel, anticipate Chelsea’s crowded elegance. Haim Steinbach’s black ceramics, a polyurethane animal by Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and Ashley Bickerton’s Tormented Self-Portrait in corporate logos and leather—they and more anticipate its irony and its chill. Even Bruce Nauman with his neon and histrionics, Terry Winters with his watercolor Schema, and Jan Groover with her gorgeous still-life photographs start to feel the weight of the present. They also make me think of a later ambassador for the new, in fiction.

In The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner’s novel about fatalism and promise in the mid-1970s, an artist leaps from motorcycle gangs to Minimalism and from Soho to Rome. For all the energy of the prose and the coming-of-age narrative, Kushner portrays artists and dealers then as into one thing, attitude. If that sounds more like LA in the present, the author is young and lives there.

But then I began to wonder: did Sonnabend’s generation precede art’s globalism, refuse it, or usher it in? And is there a point in looking back?

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

4.14.14 — Comfort Food

To pick up from last time, “New Photography” breaks a medium wide open, while insisting on its didacticism. With paintings this winter by Scott Reeder, I had to ask if art could be both too smart and too beautiful for its own good. It could, and it could be the new normal. How smart (and again apologies for one last late rundown, to round out a theme worth the worry). Scott Reeder's Untitled (The Hole, 2011)

Even smart critics can let their guard down (and apologies that several of the examples here are now closed). Jerry Saltz was not the only one to celebrate Michael Williams at Canada, reopened at last, for a luxuriant rush of images, through December 15. The painter can saturate a canvas with fluorescent hues or bury his own subject matter with fresh drawing. He might be a graffiti artist defacing no one but himself. Sure enough, the one consistent image is a full-scale male, reduced to nudity or to a cartoon. If someone can put a restraining order on art’s macho indulgence, from Mike Kelley to Paul McCarthy, it may as well be him.

Still, he very much reflects their extravagance, longing for childhood, and self-abasement. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, although upside-down. And the praise comes from some of the same writers who regularly denounce the Museum of Modern Art for neglecting women. Contradictions come easy in an unruly art scene, and Williams makes the most of them. Still, artists like these could not persist without a knowing wink. MOMA’s thorough and creative review of emerging photographers depends on just that.

Can there be comfort food for those in the know? I, too, am happy to let my guard down. The month after Williams and at the same gallery, Anke Weyer even addresses people like you directly, in a show titled “Du.” Through January 26, the German packed her canvases more tightly than Willem de Kooning or Joan Mitchell, but with almost the same colors. Her creamy brushwork never quite pushes the boundaries of painting, but I had found my comfort food for the night. The ripeness is all.

Sophie von Hellermann is still more determined to nurture complexity while denying the pain, at Greene Naftali through January 4. The four walls of a room interweave bare faces with a network of trees, like an entire civilization banished from Eden while unable to leave. The faces come close to tears, but in the style of a sophisticated children’s book. On canvas, the same lush simplicity applies to people trapped in a lion’s den and, literally, the elephant in the drawing room. A woman in white shies away from her own shadow, and who is to say which is a ghost? Yet for all the pathos and the comedy, no one ever gets hurt.

Of course, big-name dealers have their own comfort food, with a harsher and more predictable taste. It includes images that never quite come to fruition, so that they can quote that many more familiar styles. It includes transgressions, to which, of course, the buyer is immune. Yet the temptations may not be so different for those on the margins of the system. It includes the comfort of the familiar alongside the shock of the new. Think of them as two ways of asserting beauty and smarts.

Critics have spoken of art now as Neo-Mannerism, and where would Mannerism have been without technical skill and sophistication? Artists are breaking borders in a new eclecticism, and I might have chosen many of the same photographers as the Modern. And yet all these shows go out of their way to recover certainties, whether in politics or a postmodern vocabulary of symbols and signs, much as MoMA recently returned political architecture to deconstruction.

Art here knows a little too well where it stands, whether in the club scene or in war and peace, and each artist stands in a particular corner of the action. One can also question whether the galleries and museums are the one drawing the boundaries, under the guise of breaking them. I just wish that they did not work so hard to exclude me.

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

4.11.14 — The New Insiders

A survey of “New Photography” bears a heavy burden (and pardon for one more blog post, concluding Monday, that slipped somehow through the cracks): it promises to change what one knows about photography, and the Museum of Modern Art does. Take whatever familiar use of the medium you like, as portrait or document, real or imagined landscape, advertising or Surrealism, America the beautiful or America the other. One will not find it here (where the show ran through January 6), and one may leave wondering if the medium has opened vast new possibilities—or if there is anything left of it at all.

Linger, though, and one may find an oddly oppressive sense of certainty among the unknown. This is photography that knows who counts. Lisa Oppenheim's The Sun Is Always Setting Somewhere Else (New Museum, 2006)

This year’s version of an annual tradition has separate sections for its photographers, so that one can get to know their certainties well. It feels smaller than its sixty works, to its credit, because the eight contributors, two of them a team, think in terms of series or of books. The curator, Roxana Maroci, even narrows their vision when she finds it helpful.

In Chelsea recently, at Andrew Kreps through November 2, Annette Kelm dared one to find a point of reference in an urban sea of role models, products, and signs. She leaves cryptic even a German museum’s declaration of woman’s history—and she leaves its ideal of female identity, like the empty dress on display, all but impossible to assume. At MOMA, a very few “typologies” of mass production are there for the taking, if only one could reach them.

One may not. Julian, Italian Restaurant sets an artist apart from the crowd, and the croquet wickets nestling a flower define a pristine course that no one could ever navigate. Up close, the striped ground becomes as dizzying as Op Art. Photography here is starting to disassemble before one’s eyes. Similar patterns disrupt cloudscapes, tapestries, and bombing runs for Lisa Oppenheim, who subjects the immediacy of photograms to the artifice of solarization. She takes as one subject “a cataclysmic event” and the very act of photographing it, while leaving the threat itself uncertain.

Brendan Fowler makes the medium’s destruction, as image or as object, plain from the moment one enters. He stacks his frames against the wall so that they fan out, in at least one case from behind like stretchers for Jasper Johns, Joshua Neustein, or Jane Fox Hipple. He also rips the inkjet prints so that the rough edges extend to their mounting. Fowler’s subjects have been on something of a tear themselves. They belong to a music scene that one can never quite make out, apart from its screen doors and security jackets. His humongous titles describe the actions of a moment already lost to time.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin recover time, in museum display cases at that, but the results are not pretty. They update Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer for today’s headlines, inserting their found photos and captions directly over the originals. One can still make out World War II GIs, the ruins of Europe, and the poet’s four-line stanzas, but one will have no trouble recognizing the war room on the night of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden—or the cell phone cameras reveling in death. Brecht’s testimony to air power and brutality still has the last word: the Germans were “kind” to the French prisoners of war, in blindfolding them before killing them. One gets to giggle at Donald Rumsfeld riding a unicycle all the same.

The politics of outrage is never far away. Josephine Pryde displays MRIs of human embryos against a desert landscape, as It’s Not My Body. Her photos of seriously cute guinea pigs come with reminders of their role as lab specimens and in trade with, well, Guinea—which just happens to have included the slave trade as well. Anna Ostoya’s photomontage uses artist portraits from the twentieth century and clips from both popular and censored films to muddle gender and cultural traditions. In the past, Oppenheim’s photos came with their own reminders of voyeurism and the Mideast wars, with an American soldier holding his photograph against the horizon. Even abstract photography by Eileen Quinlan takes its names from David Lynch, yoga class, and Judy Chicago to make sure that it is duly “grounded in feminist history and material culture.”

Is “New Photography” too certain, too beautiful, or too smart? All of the above and more, and next time I wrap up a review with how the show fits with alternative art today.

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

4.9.14 — A Handful of Dust

Sylvan Lionni has two ways of playing, clean and dirty. Like most con artists, he also makes it difficult to tell them apart, and you may not mind one bit being taken in.

On the dirty side, his nearly bare rectangles, at Kansas through April 19, began life as dust on aluminum. He then photographed the panels, so that they could become screen prints on newly primed aluminum. On the clean side, his other wall hangings purport to supply the tools to tidy things up. They consist of L-shaped rulers, marking the space down to a fraction of an inch (and I have added this to earlier reviews of Ted Larsen, Paul Gabrielli, and others who work with tools, as a longer review and my latest upload).

Naturally they, too, play dirty tricks. Like the “dirt paintings,” as Lionni calls his first series, the “ruler paintings” are not paintings at all, but rather screen prints on steel. They are also not any tools I know, although one wants ever so much to find them at the hardware store, perhaps along with T-squares—or to take them off the wall and put them to use, much like the joyous and colorful pretend rags in layers of oil by another housecleaner, Leslie Wayne recently at Jack Shainman through March 22. I cannot even swear to their unit of measure. They vary in length as well, enabling black and color rulers to nestle into larger compositions that gently break the symmetry. Where the dirt paintings can almost blend into the wall, they pop out.

The two series have more common than their medium and their trickery. Like Minimalism, they both reference and use industrial materials. Both series also approach abstraction, in the same territory as huge inkjet prints for Wade Guyton. Robert Ryman might have created the nearly white dirt paintings, except that Ryman would have stopped at the priming. And both, for all their impersonality, also point to the artistic process, whether in the incomplete brushwork of one series or the measuring of a work in the other. One might not hire Lionni as either a painter or a handyman, but he leaves his dirty prints everywhere.

Pello Irazu, too, adapts photography to Minimalism, conceptualism, and abstraction. At his best, recently at Yancey Richardson through March 29, he is also at his most colorful and clean. The Basque artist sees himself in a “dialogue” with his studio, where his sculptures begin. They indulge in artifice as well, like aluminum cast in the shape of wood blocks and painted with the illusion of wood grain. Given the history of veneer and wallpaper in art, starting with Cubism, these tricks orient the work simultaneously toward household materials and fine art, much as with Lionni. Other sculpture refers more directly to the studio, with painted cardboard that might have served as shipping materials or the crossed wooden legs of a worktable.

So far so good, but also the most derivative. A small block sculpture looks like a static rehash of art from Constantin Brancusi to Joel Shapiro, redeemed by the comedy of its awkward presence on the floor. Irazu comes most to life with his relatively recent turn to photography and rephotography. It allows him to squeeze a sculptural presence into the two dimensions of a print—or to project prints onto the surface of bigger and brighter sculpture. It also allows the glimpses of his studio to enter the gallery. As with Lionni, those glimpses can include real or simulated masking tape, as another step in the artistic process.

Better yet, photography allows large planes of color, most notably red, to get along with the glimpses. In the end, the photographs merely on the wall come closest to conceptual art and collage. They are also the most visually alive. Like Guyton and, well, too much contemporary art, both Lionni and Irazu can become too smart and knowing, if also enticing. Still, I appreciate both the clean edges and dirty tricks. Neither has the depth to show you fear in a handful of dust, but they can share its simple pleasures.


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

4.7.14 — Mister Althamer’s Neighborhood

If Paweł Althamer were any more well-meaning, the New Museum would kidnap passers-by on the Bowery and hold them hostage until they declare the profundity of his art, their common humanity, and their responsibility for the human condition. He is perilously close as it is—and it is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload.

Anyone entering in hope of a quiet respite from a brutal winter may need an attitude adjustment. You will have not have left behind New York’s cold heart—or its persistent street musicians. One is always playing in the lobby, through April 13, from among fifty in a changing cast over the course of the show. from Pawel Althamer's Mezalia (New Museum, 2010)They do not have hat in hand, but you may well think twice before stepping past. They also introduce the Polish artist’s retrospective. The curators, Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari, call it “The Neighbors,” but this is not Mister Roger’s neighborhood.

Upstairs recruits from more than seventy community groups cover the fourth floor with art of their own devising. You may join in, but be prepared to don a white lab coat and to play well with others.

On opening morning they had already filled much of the walls and floor. The doodles, in mostly black and white, have less in common with the exuberance of New York street art than with William Kentridge in South Africa. A tepee at the cavernous room’s center adds a further political message, should any be needed. The museum describes the work’s incarnations, since the 2012 Berlin Biennial, as “dimensions variable,” and do not even ask about quality.

The background music has a name, The Musicians, labeling it firmly a work of art. For Althamer, art is necessarily collaboration and performance, even when it is by his own hand. It both draws on the community and promises to create one on a harsh and lonely planet, but very much on his terms. It is idealistic, but like the graffiti also seriously in need of editing. It can approach cliché even at its most sincere, much as street musicians lean to familiar melodies. At least three galleries in the last few months alone have now asked people to pick up a pen to lend a hand.

The clichés take on a more visible shape a floor below, with sculpture from as far back as 1991, and so does the existential anxiety. Here art runs to the social engagement, hyperrealism, and outright kitsch of John Ahearn or Duane Hanson. Althamer and his daughter stand naked, like remnants of the last human tribe on earth. His sculpture’s hemp and animal intestines allude, he explains, to “rural Polish traditions.” Other life-size characters, created in collaboration with children, “celebrate” society’s cast-offs—in one case, to be displayed near the subject’s favorite bar. Even a more expressionist portrait, in metal, takes on a glaring literalism once one learns that the woman has multiple sclerosis.

Althamer even makes art out of his lack of editing, in So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind, a video collaboration with Artur Zmijewski. Monitors scattered around the show’s final floor follow him as he ingests various mind-altering substances “on a journey to explore the depths of his own mind.” It apparently does not run all that deep. He tastes bark from a tree and pronounces it “ruins of a city.” He looks inward as “all thoughts drift away . . . vanish . . . peace.” One may fairly wonder how much thinking went on in the first place.

“Let the journey begin,” he exclaims, as if in a lost episode of Star Trek, but for museum visitors it will almost have ended. Still, they will also have shared the entire floor with Althamer’s largest work, his most anxious, and maybe his most human. Venetians also comes closest in style to the expressionism of Thomas Houseago or, in Eastern European art, Magdelena Abakanovich. The fifty standing figures do not acknowledge the videos, the visitor, or one another, even when close to touching. Their gaunt plastic shapes, cast from extruded ribbons, resemble bare skeletons or rags. Still, there is no escaping having seen this act before, and of course one face lost in the crowd is the artist’s.

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