7.25.16 — Arch Support

For an artist who all but disappeared from the art news, Rosemarie Castoro made at least one striking late appearance. One can see her in a photo, blurred by the long exposure, striding or maybe dancing past sculpture that could be striding or dancing itself. One might never know that the artist and dancer had entered her sixties with the millennium.

In the Arched Waves of welded steel, successive folds add up to two feet on the ground but arching into space. They might almost update Italian Futurism for Minimalism and its dreams of pure form. But then Umberto Boccioni did call his 1913 bronze Unique Forums of Continuity in Space. Rosemarie Castoro's Shaded Flashers (Hal Bromm gallery, 1979)

Not that Castoro ever quite disappeared, thanks to steady support from her long-time Tribeca dealer, Hal Bromm. She was intimate with Minimalism’s first circle in the 1960s, and her work makes little sense apart from it. A large red painting dates from 1964, roughly the time of Frank Stella in black, aluminum, copper, and color. Bright red lines outline fields of a softer red, much as the gaps between Stella’s stripes define his canvas. The repeated curves of her Trunk Tracks, close to tongue lickings, fill rectangles much like typewriter drawings by Carl Andre. Drawings based on parallel lines recall Sol LeWitt.

Still, she took her share of hits as a woman and her share of neglect, long before her death in 2015. A look back at her career, through July 29, came as news, in fact, to me. It also comes at a time of greater interest in recovering figures from that generation, including women like Phyllida Barlow and Sheila Hicks. Castoro appeared in an experimental film with Andre and Lee Lozano, who similarly fell off the radar in the 1970s. Still, surely part of her invisibility has to do with a refusal to play by the rules. Back when art was so often rule based, that had to be a big deal.

Castoro embraced irregularity. Diagonal bands in graphite from 1966 cross each other every which way. Paintings from the 1960s may build on a single element, such as the letter Y, like alphabets for Richard Tuttle. Yet the big red painting is more like a jigsaw puzzle. She favors optical activity over conceptual rigor in “pencil paintings” from 1968, where diagonals in several colors of pencil on acrylic create a single vibrant field of blue-gray. She also has an obvious eclecticism, across media and strategies. Even in graphite, she saw herself as working in, not to mention covered in, dust.

So what's NEW!Just as much, she moved between two and three dimensions as if they were one. In Rotating Corners from 1971, graphite darkens panels some seven feet tall, like the triptych leaning against a facing wall. Only here the panels stand at right angles on the floor. While diehard supporters may prefer work from the 1960s, her move toward sculpture continues for some forty years. Torched stainless steel from 1985 already has its share of twists and turns, as well as a depth of dark color from the torching. A wire sculpture appears the next year, and soon enough gesso lends graphite on paper and board the firmness of papier-mâché. The shift brings out the illusionist in her as well, as in large, richly shaded drawings of even more twisted sculptural forms.

The shift also brings out a susceptibility to allusion, most often to something between spirituality and nature. Titles refer to Venus, Erda, and of course trunks and waves. It has to say something, too, that those are female gods. Still, Castoro has not gone altogether misty-eyed, not when arches also refer to architecture. Maybe her mind was on too many things to come up fully to her more famous peers. Still, the vigor of her eclecticism has lessons for the chaos of art today.

7.22.16 — Familiar as Old Shoes

Philip Guston infuriated almost everyone by abandoning abstraction in the late 1960s, and he would not have had it any other way. He had angered his teachers with cartoons for the school paper—enough to get a classmate, Jackson Pollock, expelled. He had quit figuration in time for Abstract Expressionism, befuddling some of the same tired critics who jumped all over his seeming return to cartooning, only this time on big, bold canvases in oil. MutualArtAnd he was helping others to look ahead each step of the way, even if they discovered him more as a fellow traveler than an influence.

A decade after he first painted Klansmen and old shoes, political art and appropriation were everywhere. Now more than a quarter century after his death, in 1980, galleries cannot get enough echoes of street art and the graphic novel.

Guston is still infuriating, even as he has become painting’s secular Jewish saint. He is also still the latest fashion. Just when abstraction is back, big time, so is he, with ten years of it, at Hauser & Wirth through July 29. The new show promises to reclaim him for the genre, to answer a mystery, and to fill a gap in his career. What was he doing from 1957 to 1967, and could it connect abstraction to figuration after all? Could it alter his reputation as an abstract artist?

Part of the mystery was always the nature of his first paintings in New York. At once colorful and glistening, but also misty and subdued, they earned him the label Abstract Impressionist, and it was not exactly a compliment. It has left him a lesser figure in a great movement. And of course part of the mystery, too, is how he hit upon not just a new subject matter, but a new style to go with it. If critics were impatient with the mist, so it turns out was he. Philip Guston's The Studio (Collection Musa Guston, 1969)And if his late style was up-front and deliberately clumsy, with figures isolated in black and white against acid pinks and muddled grounds, so, too, were his last abstractions—and, together with a report that (sorry) I am overdue in posting on an artist finding his way to and in Pop Art, Tom Wesselman, they are the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

In truth, those years were visible enough in the Philip Guston retrospective, in 2004 at the Met, only hard to pick out from his larger history. It was also hard to see them as a gradual evolution. If Guston was so polarizing, how could his work be anything but polar opposites? Yet by 1967 a tangle of black brushstrokes had gathered near the center of canvas after canvas, in a shape much like a torn and tortured brain. And by then his palette had shrunk almost entirely to pink, black, and gray as well. In the show’s last painting, the black tangle nestles into a looser tangle of gray and gray alone, as if in need of a long rest.

By 1957 he has already blown away the mist, as part of a love-hate relation with formalism itself. Paintings approach a fixed palette of basic colors, including red, yellow, blue, black, and green—but with two shades of blue and plenty of pink and gray. The colors also congeal into overlapping patches, approaching a formal architecture, but with no particular logic and no sign of a grid. In the next few years the patches multiply further, with purple emerging from the overlay of red and gray. They also retreat from the edges of the canvas, leaving nothing but white, while works on paper resemble cels in an abstract comic strip of indecipherable signs. All-over painting, be gone. And then the patches grow again, only with fewer colors, the denser tangle, and the growing separation of figure and ground.

He had his notorious show that followed in 1970, in his late fifties, and it announced the isolation of not just a figurative painter, but also of age. He could associate the Klan with assaults on Jews from childhood, but the air of confessional painting belongs to an older man in his studio, not least because confession came with the less than frank irony of a cartoon. Could those missing ten years show him at last as a mature artist in the prime of life? Probably not, but they do recover him for his time. They might not earn undiluted praise did he not already have a fan club eager to embrace them, but one can see the white borders and think of Joan Mitchell, see the blacks and think of late Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still, or see the tangle and ambivalence and think of Willem de Kooning at different stages of his career. Mostly, though, they are a reminder that nothing in art comes out of nowhere, not even the blackness and the tangle.

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

7.20.16 — Tea for One

Can a tea ceremony come to Mars and a vision of heaven to New Jersey? Tom Sachs, Rachel Harrison, and Virginia Overton are not expecting miracles. They are, though, happy enough with large museum installations—and, in the case of Sachs, with himself. I shall take you to Harrison at MoMA and Overton at the Whitney as part of a longer review later this summer, but for now a spot of tea. Cylinder Lamp (Isamu Noguchi Museum, 1944)

Sachs sets his mind on higher things. Already in 2012, he took over the venerable Park Avenue Armory as a purported gateway to outer space. Now he aspires to the serenity of the Isamu Noguchi Museum, through July 24, and a tea ceremony. Can he set aside his titanic ego long enough to kneel in harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility? Can he avoid sneaking in some booze and a Big Mac into the garden? Of course not, and one can hear him laughing all the way to the banks of the Tonegawa.

Obviously his own private mission to Mars never left the ground, so why should one expect more from Tea Ceremony? Whatever is he doing here in the first place? Where Isamu Noguchi nurtures maturity and silence in Modernism, Sachs is among the noisiest and most adolescent of postmoderns. Where the one bridges eastern and western traditions, the other looks to Japan and sees only another site for the golden arches. Where the first designed his garden museum around the materiality of stone and the lightness of a Japanese lantern, the second reduces everything to trash and cyberspace. He treats the museum as a toy store and a site for his retrospective, which is to say much the same thing.

Space Program: Mars could not nearly fill the armory, but its video alone felt as long as a four-hour ritual. And this tea ceremony does nothing half-way. A tearoom? How about three or four different sheds, including an airplane lavatory, all of red-striped wood beams and blue Dow Chemical Sheetrock? Sachs has not just one but two fountains, one an industrial sink with liquid soap and running water, the other more like a backyard pool. Stacked iron stoves mime a pagoda, but with other grills strewn along the way.

These represent male territory, a universe in which women prepare tea while men take over now and then for a barbecue. So does a second room, for used appliances that Peter Fischli and David Weiss would envy. One device promises to dispense alcohol, just as the Upper East Side space program included a bar, here with Stoli bottles relabeled in black marker for less upscale choices. A video of Mount Fuji turns up, and so does a sign in Japanese, but sure enough from Macdonald’s. And then a space suit reappears, beside the stairs to the second floor, where Tea Ceremony gives out. So much for higher things.

Sachs does not quite elbow out his predecessor, although this is hardly tea for two. The main event weaves among Noguchi’s weightier work, drawing on its monumentality. The shelves for appliances could almost parallel the long shelf for smaller sculpture upstairs. Sachs has explanations for all this, on plastic cards much like the ones that usually serve as guides to each room. He swears to his own tea practices, and he claims that Japan is taking the lead to Mars, where it will have the first tea ceremony beyond planet earth. The first, that is, unless one counts this one.

Still, it all feels like excuses for more of the same, with Space Program 3.0 set for a global tour just when his pretend boom boxes and, yes, another stocked bar have come to the Brooklyn Museum through August 14. Art institutions have a soft spot for Sachs, as the bad-boy artist who can look at home in high places, much as he enlarged plastic toys as summer sculpture for Park Avenue in 2008. So what comes next to Astoria, stuffed animals by Mike Kelley lounging in the garden? Styrofoam rocks by Ryan Trecartin and a fishtank with basketballs by Jeff Koons instead of a pond? Enough with tea. Like Sachs and his guests, I need a real drink.

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

7.18.16 — Endless Columns

There is the art of monuments, and then there is an art that just cannot get it up. Actually, if I remember rightly, it was the sculptor of Broken Obelisk, Barnett Newman, who used the latter description as a crude but mild dig at Minimalism. And Newman, whose writings include “The Sublime Is Now,” knew a thing or two about verticals, although this was to be his only significant sculpture. His “zip paintings,” or color fields both broken and defined by a slim vertical, may look minimal, but in search of the erect human form and transcendence. Still, Modernism had long been wary of macho gestures and displays of authority. Even Endless Column, by Constantin Brancusi, comes to an abrupt end, and Broken Obelisk is, after all, broken.

Now Louise Dudis and Nicole Wermers find their own ways to take art off its pedestal, while asserting the vertical. Dudis does so naturally, by laying down roots, although one never quite sees them. She photographs sycamore trees, but apart from their branches and base. Their trunks become instead a portrait of New York in close-up, as subject to dirt and decay but also fresh possibilities, like sidewalks for Henry Rothman. Ever the attentive observer, she lingers over variation and difference, even while bringing objects closer to Cubism or abstraction. They become subject to what her show calls “An Absorbent Eye.”

They also bring photography closer to architecture or sculpture, recently at Robert Henry Contemporary through May 27. Unframed, at life size and as parallels, they make the gallery into to an environment, with the trees and gallery-goers its inhabitants. It is a richly textured environment at that. One can easily mistake the inkjet prints for collage—and to mistake growth for peeling. For fans of the sublime like Newman, she cites the influence of American transcendentalism, although in the shape of natural or human presences. These may not be endless columns, but the portrait gallery is potentially endless.

Wermers takes on the urban environment as well, although one shaped entirely by humans. Not that anyone is present apart from the pursuit of style, class, and money, just past at Tanya Bonakdar through July 15 (and sorry for my slight delay). Her obelisks are Vertical Awnings, actual awnings rolled up and set on their side. They look colorful and slightly comic, their curved edges sticking out from the columns and giving them individual shapes. They are also commodities, like the city’s retail good and real estate. Compared to gallery-goers, they are larger than life.

They never make it off the ground, so it makes sense that another artist has the second floor. There Sandra Cinto, like Dudis, closes in on both nature and abstraction. With ink and watercolor, she conveys the flow of water over rocks—seen, as the works’ title has it, as Chance and Necessity. Unfortunately, sublimity can get sentimental, and an additional work goes over the top. A cast of the artist’s arm, in white alabaster, has a purity and insistence that the drawings do not. One can, though, return downstairs for the nastier side of human flesh.

There Wermers brings dirt and doo-doo into the picture along the gallery walls, as sculpture. Its two series fix on public spaces meant for the most private of uses. Givers and Takers set ventilation fans over hand driers, like stainless steel top hats, while Mood Boards inlay baby changing stations with terrazzo tiling. To unsettle the mix, she reproduces the driers at double scale, while marbling a found place for soiled diapers. For another layer of irony, she points out that terrazzo is designed to disguise the dirt beneath one’s feet. Newman might be appalled at the earthiness, but then his pointed obelisk is standing on its head.

7.15.16 — Up Against the Wall

Getting to know Larry Walker is like running up against a brick wall, so take care. This is not a figure of speech.

His are real walls, with all that entails. They convey the pace and texture of the city, painted and peeling, worth lingering over even while the facts on the ground have changed. Larry Walker's Enigmatic Spirit Wall II (Sikkema Jenkins, 2008)They stand as a record of the community, of faces and what they advertise—whether the strength of individuals or the bluster of pop culture, in posters and paint. They are barriers where barriers are inescapable, for Walker is a native New Yorker and an African American.

They are paintings and mixed media as well, for he is also a retired professor, influencing decades of artists—at the University of the Pacific in Stockton and then at Georgia State. Kara Walker, for one, told The Times how much it meant to her to sit on his lap while he worked. She has become more widely known than her father and, for some, more “in your face.” Now she curates his work since 1967 at her own gallery in Chelsea, at Sikkema Jenkins through July 15, like an invitation to reconsider. His Wall series covers barely a year or two, around 2008, and simulated brick appears only halfway through. Right from the entrance, though, one runs up against a wall.

The show’s first painting is among his largest, with brushwork to spare. It represents a wall, with found objects marking a school crossing to either side. One can already imagine lives at risk. It contains film posters and other faces, staking the horror and staking their claims. An audio cabled descends down the middle to cards in a small sandbox, each bearing the word Secret. Other wall paintings have their secrets, too, from black with that word in spray paint to Enigmatic Spirit Wall, with a survivor’s faraway glance and overlaid newsprint, Communing Soul to Soul.

Like Jasper Johns, Walker challenges the old choice of art as a window onto the world or an illusion. A thick, flat surface is literally a wall, just as an arrangement of stars and stripes is literally a flag and concentric circles are literally a target, however painterly. The artists also share a predominant bilateral symmetry, with found objects descending down the middle—in one case a slave’s shackles. Then, too, the series hints at a personal history, like Racing Thoughts for Jasper Johns. Still another wall bears the image of William Sanders Scarborough, a university president born into slavery. One has to think of Walker as scholar, department chair, and program director.

He still, though, has his secrets. He calls another series Children of Society, and a film poster on one wall reads Children of Men, but that covers a lot of ground. His actual self-portrait from 1990 belongs to his Blindfold series, in black gesso. Born in 1935, he grew up in Harlem with Sundays at the Museum of Modern Art. He received a first-class education in New York and Detroit—and then moved on. For all the years and the titles, his work apart from the walls comes across as one extended and enigmatic series.

Kara Walker's Fall frum Grace, Miss Pipi's Blue Tale (Lehmann Maupin, 2011)Also titled Spirits or Visitation, it shows ghostly presences in black and white. They stand in pairs, like one another’s shadows, or cluster, whether on a street or the way to hell. They haunt one another, stalk one another, find solace in one another, and seek companionship in one another. They become flowers, as Metamorphic Gestation. Here Walker works primarily in charcoal, but with additions and with further transformations into prints. He suggests a longing for something greater interrupted briefly by the walls.

Both visions may have changed his daughter, on her way to something different and new. I can only imagine what she felt at age thirteen, moving from a segregated academic community in California to a city with Klan meetings and a memorial to the Confederacy patterned after Mount Rushmore. Maybe she had to feel Southern history as a fiction that others refuse to set aside, and so began her black silhouettes (seen here) of plantation stereotypes. Then, too, her father’s ghosts approach silhouettes, and hers affix directly to a wall. Only hers has no trace of sentiment, but only his run up against the wall.

7.13.16 — The Strangeness of Degas

As a follow-up to my review from last time of Edgar Degas monoprints at MoMA, I sat on May 25 for an interview with TRT World–Istanbul, Turkey’s new English language broadcaster. In practice, the interview started late and ran shorter, but allow me to share with you as well what we had to leave out.

• Studies of urban life.A Strange New Beauty” is his portrayal of Parisian life, in which we find modern landscapes, cafés, and ballet performers among many other portraits. What stands out most?

Thanks so much for having me, and you’re absolutely right that for Edgar Degas the overriding question is modern life. Ironically for a man who set out to become a history painter, no one else did more to make this a respectable subject for art—and no one did more to create an image of Paris and of modern life that is with us to this day. That said, what is so startling about his monoprints is their variety.

It turns out that Degas, who worked in Paris and hated the label Impressionist, also depicted mountain landscapes of formidable heights and apocalyptic bursts of color. It turns out that he could pull off entirely credible port scenes in a style after Rembrandt. Yet he could also look ahead to twentieth-century realism, like the underside of New York for the Ashcan School, or even abstraction. He penetrated not just cafés and the ballet, but also a brothel, where hookers were throwing a surprise party for their madam. You leave the show wondering: is there nowhere he would not go for his art?

• The strangeness of monoprints. Why is the exhibition called “A Strange New Beauty”? What makes it distinct from his other collections?

Actually, MoMA would like you to see Degas monoprints in the broader context of his art. It opens with other print media, so that you can see why he turned to monoprints—with an assist from a friend, Ludovic Lepic. It concludes with paintings, to make the case for the influence of his monoprints on his best-known work. It may even have a point. Yet the show’s title is excellent, and the strangeness only grows over the course of the exhibition.

There is no getting around the medium’s strangeness. You add ink to a plate, run it through a press, and take your chances. No wonder monoprints often appeal to artists who lurk in the shadows, even today. They appeal to Jasper Johns, the American artist, whose one real subject is his studio but who appears in his work only as plaster casts and shadows. They appeal to David Hammons, the African American artist notorious for being hard to interview, hard to photograph, and hard to control. They follow Degas himself behind the scenes and into the shadows.

Degas takes you backstage, with the theater director a harsh master, and back to the brothel along with clients. You have to question who is observing whom and who is exploiting whom. You have to question, too, what he is doing there in the first place—and what are you.

• The dark field. Degas successfully used the “dark field” method. How does this add to his works? Has anybody else used this method as auspiciously as he did?

So let’s talk technique. There are two ways to go about making a monoprint. One is to transfer ink to a plate, using a fine brush or perhaps the very object that you wish to represent. When you are satisfied, you can then run it through a press. The other is to cover a plate with ink, then rub or scrape it away, again till you are satisfied—using a needle, a rag, or even your bare hands. And Degas used them all.

The first method is said to be additive, the second subtractive or dark field, because it leaves a broader darkness. Degas was by no means the first to use it either. In fact, the very first stand-alone monoprints are subtractive—in Genoa by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, a contemporary of Rembrandt. Rather, his innovation was all but to eradicate the distinction. He ventures into private rooms of strange goings-on, more and more impenetrable darkness, and more and more fiery lights.

• The body in motion. Degas is known for producing multiple iterations from a single subject. Sometimes this way he portrays a single body in movement. Tell us about work in which this is particularly evident.

Monoprints deserve their name, because of their uniqueness. Once you run a plate through the press, much if not all the ink is gone from the plate for good. You cannot add ink for a second impression and expect it to be like the first, because nothing controls where the ink will fall but the artist’s hand. There are no grooves to capture the ink, as with an etching or engraving. There is no grease to repel ink, as with a lithograph. Once you run a plate through the press, much if not all the ink is gone from the plate for good. No wonder you may hear a monoprint described as a “variable etching.”

None of that discouraged Degas. Once he had a print, he had no qualms about adding to it with pen or white chalk. And once he had a used plate, he had no qualms about adding more ink and trying again. He could print successive images side by side, in the manner of stop-action photography, much like his multiple studies of the dance or of his friend Ludovic. He could also use successive images from slightly different angles to focus attention on the observer’s shifting point of view—or to underscore a ballerina’s awkwardness.

He could use the contrast between prints to create emotional resonance as well. In the first, you might see all his refinement and all his skill. And then the second image lands on paper with gaps everywhere and a splat. To return where we began, they are like alternate sides of Paris and modern life.

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

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