10.12.15 — Body Double

Maybe the arbiters of Pop Art never fully embraced Tom Wesselman, who has escaped a museum retrospective, but then Wesselman never fully embraced Pop Art. Oh, collectors snapped him up, then as now, and his women still look like advertising spreads. Yet he often shied away from the label, just as he shied away from the irony. Forget the brute force of received imagery for Andy Warhol or an automobile for James Rosenquist. He really meant it: he was painting The Great American Nude.

Unless, that is, he never was. Maybe the real great American nude was the artist. For David Hammons, a body print evoked white fears, unrecognized black needs, and his own carefully nurtured invisibility. For Yves Klein, it meant his just as carefully managed stage presence, along with a dig at the heroics of Abstract Expressionism. This once, unlike for Jackson Pollock, an artist did not have to lean too far over an unstretched canvas to take a fall. And now the body is back without the macho overtones, thanks to a younger man and a woman.

So what's NEW!In truth, Keltie Ferris seems at her shyest in her body prints. She all but fades into the sheet of paper, abetted by bright red strokes marking the surface. Her works on paper also fade easily into the background next to a dozen large canvases, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash through October 17. There she uses jagged stacks of near squares, here and there amid airbrushing, to virtuoso effect. Again the entire image is elusive, but not for lack of showing off. To top it off, the same gallery will soon take up Wesselman.

Both pixels and an airbrush allude to impersonal media. Ferris could almost be presenting screen captures from burnt-out picture tubes, in fluorescent color. Coincidence or not, the Brooklyn artist completed the series in acrylic and oil while on a trip to la-la-land. Titles, too, combine the mythic proportions of postwar art with high-tech convention, often with characters from Greek myth in full caps joined by punctuation. Other titles, W(A(V)E)S and WoVeN, hint at a woman’s traditional identification with passivity, the sea, and textiles, but she is painting all the same. Maybe abstraction is, after a break, too easy these days, but these earn their scale.

McArthur Binion lingers even more surreptitiously beneath his paintings, but also more insistently. He calls them his “personal DNA,” redundancy duly noted, and he calls the show “Re:Mine,” at Galerie Lelong also through October 17.

It, too, looks like a throwback to late Modernism, when painting meant something, but more to Minimalism, when it meant only itself. The grids consist of modest squares, each of parallel marks, the marks alternating between vertical and horizontal from square to square. They also have an insistent dark gray, as if to look as dreary as possible. More often than he might like, they succeed.

Still, they are well worth a second look. They incorporate fragmentary illegible handwriting, which adds the sole touch of color. Is this still another postwar mark of the artist, as confession? Not exactly, although they are his narrative and hearken back to an earlier point in time. A square’s top border, in more impersonal lettering, repeats the state of Mississippi, where he was born a black male and an American nude, and these excerpt his birth certificate. Surface and gesture emerge from the cumulative impact of letters and a life.

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

10.9.15 — Skin and Bones

Doris Salcedo begins her retrospective as casually as a yard sale. Commonplace objects lie exposed, stripped of everything but dust. It takes only a moment, though, to realize their true cost in the lives that they once knew. Clothes, sewing needles, household furniture—they all once belonged to presences that survive only as skin and bones, human hair, and terrifying memories. She knows how hard it is to let go (and I have wrapped this into an earlier report on Latin American art today as a longer review and my latest upload). Doris Salcedo's Plegaria Muda (Alexander and Bonin, 2008-2010)

One enters off the ramp at the Guggenheim, through October 12, as if wandering off the main road and onto territory both private and secure. Identical wooden tables lie in pairs, one inverted atop another, as many as the room will hold. Grass sprouts here and there from their surfaces. Maybe this really is a yard, and maybe the earth can still claim it as its own. The work is Plegaria Muda, or silent prayer. Here even silence is a step toward recovery—or is it?

What finally begins to take shape as nearly regular rows has gaps, too, so that one can penetrate. It is not so easy, though, to leave. What had seemed so casually tossed aside becomes a maze, and the long dark wood seems as confining as coffins. Maybe this is not a yard sale after all, but a graveyard. For some thirty years, Salcedo has made art about lives prey to death squads and drug lords in Colombia. It asks where objects leave off and memories begin.

Salcedo thrives on everyday things and excruciating memories, but whose? In her bare furniture, sometimes shoved into the wall, should one think of Robert Gober in America and the cost of AIDS? Not really, but she calls other tables Unland, after Paul Celan’s poem about the Holocaust. Their subtitles, including Irreversible Witness and The Orphan’s Tunic, quote Celan again, but on behalf of orphans and witnesses closer to home. MutualArtStill other work crosses continents, from the intimacy of the Guggenheim’s tower galleries to more than fifteen hundred chairs piled high between buildings in Istanbul—or to cracked concrete running the length of Tate Modern. Salcedo keeps returning to death and displacement in Colombia as if they belonged to everyone as well, but how?

For starters, she proceeds by indirection. The number of tables stands for the numbers of los desaparecidos, or “the disappeared,” where mere representation risks reducing atrocities to statistics. Doors bent slightly off their rise become La Casa Viuda, or “the empty house.” Another sculpture preserves wood grain in stainless steel, but for chairs thrust together and splitting apart like bodies. Humanity appears yet again as men’s dress shirts, in starched white stacks pieced by rebar, and as women’s blouses of silk thread and needles. Who knew that it takes twelve thousand of them to assume so human a scale?

She also proceeds by repetition and variation, both within a work and throughout her career. Early work appropriates shelves and hospital beds, while more recent sculpture accumulates much the same furniture, encased in concrete and steel. Where human hair covers roughly half the tables in Unland, the blouses in silk and needles stand in for hair shirts. The retrospective originated at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by Madeleine Grynsztejn and Julie Rodrigues Widholm. It fits the Guggenheim so well, thanks to the artist and Katherine Brinson, that old work looks newly site specific—or what Robert Irwin, would call “site conditioned.” It is hard even to know when to call something an installation or a series.

Salcedo relies on words, too, to pierce the silence, much as a concurrent show of the museum’s collection relies on text. A Flor de Piel could mean “under one’s skin” or “on my sleeve,” like my heart—but of course flor is also flowers, and Salcedo has sewn a carpet of rose petals. She adopts a disused language to evoke another kind of absence, in Atrabiliarios, which she translates as “the defiant ones.” It sets women’s shoes in wall niches behind the stark translucency of animal skin, surgical stitches, and museum lighting. When she turns to English, for Disremembered, one had better attend to the pun on dismembered. She calls the tables case in steel Thou-less, attesting to absence but also to the power of art to address others intimately, as equals.

Like nearly everyone since Modernism, Salcedo also reflects on art. Born in 1958, she began just when others were developing their own local responses to Minimalism, like Joseph Zito with his own household furniture, Mono-ha in Japan, or Group Zero in Europe, and her early hospital bedsprings retain the grid. She left them untitled at that, like a proper formalist. She comes closer, though, to the pain of the body in Post-Minimalism, as with Eva Hesse, or in Surrealism long before that. In a room of bedroom cabinets, glass doors covered in black go back to Marcel Duchamp and his 1920 Fresh Widow. Pigeonhole this as Latin American art or political art at your peril.

Should you even try to pin it down? Are the hair shirts a sign of torture or grieving, and are the rose petals a blanket or a shroud? If Salcedo’s meanings threaten to slip away, like the lives they recall, it is paradoxically because she relies on common objects and concrete experience. In an art scene of overblown installations, she sticks to the everyday. Her list of materials, in the Guggenheim’s wall text, ends in dust. No doubt all art gathers dust, even in the best of circumstances, but not everyone remembers to look.

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

10.7.15 — Out of “WACK!”

I hardly expected to see Valerie Jaudon in a show of feminist art, but I left a show at MoMA PS1 some years back half-wondering where she had been. She, too, came of age in the 1970s, with a style quickly dubbed pattern and decoration. “WACK!” considered it very much a part of its “feminist revolution.”

Her work may not conform to anyone’s idea of woman’s work, not even that of its champions. Some of it may even reverse her own, with the background at times shifting from bare canvas to black. Yet it could hardly be more recognizably hers. Valerie Jaudon's Phrase (Von Lintel, 2007)

For Joyce Kozloff or Miriam Schapiro, “mere decoration” could borrow the materials of fashion or craft, offer a lyrical update of folk art, or explode into images from nature. Jaudon works in oil, prefers control to lyricism, and explodes only in the prepared mind. Like her 2005 show, a recap of decades of work at D. C. Moore centers on her favorite color, white, and on geometric abstraction. It may, wrongly, look impersonal in reproduction, where one cannot experience the scale, the brushwork, or especially all the bare linen. She might even do the rigor of her male predecessors one better. Where Sol LeWitt begins with a set of rules and ends with something unruly, Jaudon starts with marks that may run every which way and none, only to end with a grid.

Both involve a process of scaling up. Jaudon appears to use a fairly wide, loaded brush or a palette knife. The individual marks add up to well-defined lines or curves, perhaps twice again as wide. They could pass for doodles, except that they run only horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. They also have absolutely hard, unpainted edges, like a mitered maze by Frank Stella. In 2008, the doodles consistently divided the canvas into nine equal square sectors, like a tic-tac-toe board, but never quite interrupting her characteristic Byzantine patterning.

Here, too, one can hardly miss the grid, even in a thumbnail, but one has a hard time pinning it down up close. The doodles may stop abruptly after a few inches or wander across the grid, with or without a break. (That with or without is consistent within a painting.) At other times they abruptly change direction at a break as if in a mirror—or a Crosshatch painting by Jasper Johns. Just two years before Jaudon had her first solo show, Jasper Johns called one of his first in the series Weeping Women, in 1975. Try not to shed tears.

She could seem to have reversed course, as a strategic retreat after years of more obvious patterns in color. She could also seem to have ditched the very Islamic or Gothic echoes that made her famous, in favor of something more conceptual and respectable. She has, in sum, settled for (yikes) abstract painting. Jaudon does not share the anxiety of Johns’s broken symmetries. However, just when so many, including feminists, are complicating the story of painting after the death of painting, so is she. She does it by reasserting continuities, but also by an insistent sensuality.

In person the grid weaves in and out of consciousness like Op Art or like color for Ad Reinhardt—with Reinhardt’s approach to black. When the white slims down to thin curves against black, it becomes not so much starker as more luminous. When it returns to thicker curves against bare canvas, brushwork rules. She lacks the ambition, complexity, and influence of some overtly feminist art. She is not using canvas materials to break down the divisions between fine art and fashion. However, all that exposed fabric has a weave of its own.

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

10.6.15 — Portrait of the Artist

“The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” James Joyce’s conception of art is central to Modernism. The artist must stay out, and the rest of us, as T. S. Eliot wrote, must not waste time searching out his intention. Holly Zausner's Unsettled Matter (Postmsters, 2015)

What happens, then, when photography takes as its subject the artist? Allow me to bring together three recent posts on portrait photography and artist portraits, concluding last time, as a longer review and my latest upload.

The duo who went by the name Shunk-Kender kept themselves out of their work—to the point that few today will know them. They also helped create some of the biggest egos in art, but their staged photos of Yves Klein and others depend on their collaboration. Holly Zausner claims both sides of the camera for herself and a city without a community. Last, Duane Michals treats artists and friends as celebrities, while imposing a story in his own handwriting. But then Joyce’s quote does come from Portrait of the Artist based on his childhood, his hero in Stephen has a fragile but inescapable ego, and he compares himself to a god.

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

10.5.15 — Ego Boosters

Even an egotist needs to work with others. Well before big markets and celebrity artists, Yves Klein designated his ultramarine International Klein Blue—but he contributed no more to its manufacture than the idea. And that was before he took a big leap.

With his Saut dans le Vide (or “leap into the void”), he played at Superman, arms outstretched in midair while a cyclist continues his daily commute down the street, oblivious to the whole thing. John Baldessari's Hands Framing New York Harbor (photo by Shunk-Kender, Museum of Modern Art, 1971)But then a whole team had to catch him before he hit the pavement. Besides, someone had to construct the photomontage to hide them. If anyone was working without a net, it was the photographer.

Make that two photographers, Harry Shunk and János Kender, and that day in 1960 marked the start of their collaboration. With “Art on Camera,” which ran through October 4, the Museum of Modern Art hopes to give credit where credit is due. As it turns out, they went on to work with others as well. Shunk, from Germany, and Kender, from Hungary, worked as Shunk-Kender, first in Paris and then in New York. To believe the curator, Lucy Gallun, they may well have helped to mold the artistic identity of more than two dozen others. Who knew?

I had never heard of the pair, but then collaborations and the avant-garde are messy things. One could just as well credit for Klein for creating them. Then, too, the one-room exhibition boils down to just two other projects. In 1968, the photographers assisted Yayoi Kusama in performance. She had nudes join her on the steps of the stock exchange, in the first true “occupy Wall Street.” Then they covered one another with polka dots, much like her room in a clapboard house in Chelsea just this year, at David Zwirner through June 13.

Along with Kusama, Shunk-Kender were connecting the dots between “happenings” and art. They were also defining her gesture as political, rather than an overgrown child’s birthday party. They did so by juxtaposing the two scenes, in the sobriety of black and white. The same devices go into a more extended project from 1971, conceived and organized by Willoughby Sharp, in which twenty-seven artists in their turn took over a pier in lower Manhattan. Here the emphasis lies on performance’s ties to Minimalism and conceptual art. Together, the three projects draw on six hundred photos from the Shunk-Kender Foundation that have entered MoMA’s permanent collection.

Museums usually credit each image to the more familiar artist, who may well hold the copyright, adding only “photograph by Shunk-Kender,” but who came up with what? Mario Merz, for one, allowed the photographers free rein, although in images of him and his work. They do so progressively, in stills arranged like contact sheets, so that his signature dome structure is just be coming to be. Yet the arrangement also suggests a collage—and so an independent work. Other photos, perhaps, belong more obviously to the performer, but there, too, Shunk-Kender have their say. Pier 18 could be a staged textbook of that decade’s art.

John Baldessari, ever the conceptualist, frames the pier with his fingers, while Richard Serra, Dan Graham, Vito Acconci, and Keith Sonnier give it geometric form with their arrangements of materials and “negative spaces.” A comedian at heart, William Wegman uses it as a bowling alley, while Jan Dibbets, known for a memorial to a French astronomer, adds it to his “progression of the future.” Mel Bochner measures the river, while Gordon Matta-Clark dredges it. In truth, celebrity artists nowadays need whole factories of collaborators to keep up with the market, and critics tie themselves in knots to to treat a fishtank of basketballs by Jeff Koons as an original engineering feat. Anyway Shunk, who died in 2006, and Kender, who died in 2009, are no longer around to document it.

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

10.2.15 — Labyrinths

Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola pursued different paths and, at times, different media, sharing only eight years of marriage, photography, and a dream. MoMA calls their exhibition “From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires,” through October 4, but the connections run every which way.

It begins in Argentina and returns there via not just Germany but London. It moves between German and Spanish, formalism and Marxism, graphic design and film. The Argentinean called a film produced in Berlin Der Traum, while the German called a series produced in Argentina more than a decade after their divorce Sueños. Grete Stern's Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home (Museum of Modern Art, 1949)At least language was not a barrier to dreaming. Nor was it for Ellen Auerbach, whose photographs with Stern launched their careers. Along with an earlier brief report on Auerbach in Chelsea, they are all the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

Stern and Coppola met at the Bauhaus, where she introduced him to its director of photography, Walter Peterhaus. Together, they are just one node in the dizzying nexus of Modernism. The Modern has already asked how much Latin American architecture after World War II learned from Europe and how far it took off on its own. Apparently things were crazy all along. Yet their more than three hundred works are quite a discovery. Stern, born in 1904, was two years older, and the show’s subtitle puts her first, but the alternate rooms for each open with Coppola. He had a precocious start.

Imagine a man in his early twenties, walking the streets of Buenos Aires with Jorge Luis Borges, claiming it as his own. To judge by his photos between 1928 and 1931, Coppola found it intimately familiar, increasingly modern, and utterly strange. Influenced by Man Ray as well as László Moholy-Nagy, he subjects it to the whole Surrealist bag of tricks—including photograms, prisms, dizzying vantage points, and still-life that might have spilled out of the unconscious. In self-portraits, a shadow bisects his face while reflected light stands in for hair and eyes. In Der Traum from 1933, a mysterious encounter with a black hat leads to an attack and then to an escape. Surrealism for him may express fear, but it releases possibilities.

On Coppola’s return home with Stern in 1936, the city seems plainer and quieter, but also darker and brooding. His self-portrait gives way to eyes staring out from a billboard and lifeless mannequins posed for the latest fashion. Buildings in starkly converging perspective dwarf multitudes, except when people vanish entirely. The portico of a train station promises a journey that can never take place, and night scenes deny the light of day. The photos came on commission, to commemorate the city’s four hundredth anniversary, but they look none too celebratory. Another short film, of a monument under construction, attests to the city’s continued modernization, but the tower threatens to crush its workers.

No doubt he was always the contrarian, just as Surrealism for him exuded optimism. Then, too, he had been to Berlin, where he photographed Joan Miró as well as Stern, and he had fled with her from the Nazis. The twentieth century was not so much fun after all. He had also begun to take politics seriously. When he caught up with Stern in London after a detour east, he portrayed it as a civilization in denial—the site of empty turnstiles and abandoned realty, slaughterhouses and empty clothing, and crowds too wrapped up in casual entertainment to care. A blind man holds a sign reading Success.

Stern follows almost the reverse path, toward Surrealism, without once giving up her pride and her hopes. At the Bauhaus she met Auerbach, with whom she opened a studio. As ringl + pit, after their childhood nicknames, they worked in design and portraiture, which both photographers then continued on their own. If their advertising and book covers include severed heads along with vibrant typefaces and shuffling color fields, the heads dream of the full range of modern design. Portraits, including Coppola’s and Bertolt Brecht’s, allow for introspection, dignity, and rest. They also place women on a par with men.

Women come even more to the fore in the show’s last room, for Sueños, photomontage from 1948 through 1951. Produced for Idilio (or “idyll”), a fashion magazine, they appear anything but idyllic. A man with a lizard’s head threatens sexual assault, a tiny figure lies atop two ladders supported only by one another, a couple get in their last kiss in a graveyard, a woman faced with her own multiple reflections must ask, as the photo’s title has it, Who Will She Be? Still, she has the courage to ask and the privilege of answering, and only the men look foolish.

What happened to Stern and Coppola for the rest of the century, before her death in 1999 and his in 2012, and what happened to Auerbach period? The exhibition does not say, but then nothing within it runs in straight lines. Maybe, like short stories by Borges, the museum should have called it “Labyrinths.”

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

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