2.27.15 — Compartments of the Mind

It is easy enough to compartmentalize Louise Nevelson. She did it herself, in her art.

She was the woman, along with Jay DeFeo, among the men that MoMA anointed in 1959 with “Sixteen Americans“—the older woman, the Soviet Jew born in the previous century, the one in the scarf or a hat. She was dark, brooding, and totemic, much like her monumental art. She was the one clinging to eternal mysteries amid the presentness of Pop Art and formalism. Louise Nevelson's Mrs. N's Palace (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1964-1977)

For others then, as for Frank Stella, “what you see is what you see,” but for her what you see is what you fear to remember. And then she had her literal compartments, those wall units crammed with all manner of wooden objects in black or white. They came from everywhere, and sometimes they returned to city streets, too, as public sculpture.

Nevelson’s collage threatens to burst out of those compartments, at Pace in Chelsea through February 28. Not that it abandons sculptural presence. The show has room for a large wall piece from the 1980s, in pitch black, and before that for dowels and other carved wood. Even before that, a large swatch of crumpled metal expands outward as if filled by a deep breath. The earliest and flattest, in paper and cardboard on panel from between 1956 and 1959, has acquired box frames and protective glass that she almost surely never intended, but it seems to belong. Better still, it dares one to see her work as collage from the first.

One can see her roots in Cubism from her earliest collage, but also how she differs. She was almost old enough to have been a Cubist herself, but also old enough to have broken out of its compartments. I could swear that two gray samples have the shape of Picasso’s guitars. Sandpaper or a torn doily plays the texturing role of newsprint or the tassel from an armchair for Pablo Picasso. Her textures are kinkier, though, and her chair caning insists on its history as the back of a chair. Stain brings out the grain of the support, as with Georges Braque—only for real and not as a pattern printed on oil cloth.

She never quite fits into half a dozen other compartments as well. The scale of her major work, such as Mrs. N’s Palace (shown here), relates to Abstract Expressionism, but off the wall. Her boxes parallel Donald Judd and Carl Andre—like early Stella, in black. For her, though, the furniture is real. Collage depends on found objects, and Nevelson was foraging the city for spare parts just when Robert Rauschenberg was assembling his combine painting. Her finds also anticipate the Post-Minimalism of Eva Hesse and the overflow of trashy installations today.

So what's NEW!Her collage breaks out out of its compartments in space as well. A shovel shares a composition with tin ceiling tile. One might be staring upward while clearing the floor and clinging for dear life to the wall. In truth, her major work looms larger—maybe even too solemn and too large. Collage, though, brings out the humor and the chaos.

One could glimpse the alternatives in her 2007 retrospective at the Jewish Museum, and I have added this to my take back then as a longer review and my latest upload. Yet the path from off-white through messy furnishings to big black boxes helps to situate them all.

Collage shows Nevelson at work in that slippery space between domesticity and Surrealism. They appear in the coarseness of sandpaper or the black lace of a doily. They appear in the household furniture and its destruction. They speak again to her age, born well before Surrealism in 1899, and to her continued presence until her death in 1988. If there is a definitive feminist version of Nevelson, it is there as well. When she adds a broom and dustpan, she is just sweeping up.

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

2.25.15 — The Qualities of Space

Encountering Carl Andre is like entering a minefield. Watch every step, or you may stumble across something dangerous, like a work of art. You may even mistake it for solid ground. Almost all of Andre’s work rests beneath your feet, but it can explode upward to alter your experience. Together with an earlier review of Charles Gaines from much the same years, it is also the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload.

A retrospective, at Dia:Beacon through March 9, uses lumber, bricks, metal plates, and words to do just that. “Sculpture as Place” runs from 1958, the year after he reached New York, to 2010. Carl Andre's Tenth Aluminum Cardinal (Paula Cooper gallery, 1978)It presents just under fifty sculptures, plus text art and ephemera like exhibition posters and postcards—little enough that its elements of repetition belong to the art and not to the numbing volumes of a museum blockbuster. Display cabinets hint at how the work of cutting and chiseling gave way to the structuring of objects. (Who knew that Andre played with magnets?) They all serve as both space and sculpture.

To the unfamiliar, Carl Andre can seem dull, formidable, or not even art. They might not care either for his text art, its only tools a manual typewriter and language itself. Andre stirred his share of controversy when he appeared in “Primary Structures,” at the Jewish Museum in 1966. Michael Fried in “Art and Objecthood” dismissed Minimalism as theater. I myself got over his forbidding mass only when I discovered that I could walk on it, watch others walk on it, let it direct my attention to the world around me, and (if needed) even set it back to right. Maybe now, though, I can appreciate it as sculpture at last.

Passport, a scrapbook from the 1960s, includes an image from Constantin Brancusi. And Brancusi could almost have executed Andre’s double ziggurat in Eastern pine, but for the stacking that goes into it. Maybe the most impressive single work, though, has more in common with Isamu Noguchi. MutualArtNoguchi works between industry and nature, and so does Andre. The curator, Yasmil Raymond, writes that he wanted to “vacate the residues of the artist’s hand.” And yet his materials can be as impressive in their natural variety as red sandstone, quarried in southern Scotland—or the red cedar of Uncarved Blocks, from 1975.

The forty-seven units of Uncarved Blocks fall into just over a dozen groups of from two to four blocks each, set at right angles. They look solid, expansive, and weathered. They might have fallen from the artist’s hands, from a Lego set, or by chance. One can think of a single block as found object, a group as sculpture, and the entirety as the gallery. Which is the real work of art? All of them, where repetition changes everything. Weight gives way to what Andre has called “an open set.”

Redan, a zigzag of timbers from 1964, recalls fortifications in its title and rural New England in its materials and its shape. Bricks rest on the floor, like Brancusi’s endless column turned on its side. A half pyramid comes out of a wall like a stairway to nowhere. Aluminum ingots form smaller pyramids, like a treasury of gold with no value except as art. Sculpture for Andre could be ambitious but never monumental. He was interested not in hierarchies, he said, but qualities.

That means the qualities of things, but also of space. While the sculpture feels spare, the text art and ephemera crowd in. They show Andre concerned enough for his origins to type and retype Quincy, concerned enough for Modernism to type poetry by Hart Crane, concerned enough for the “particles of language” to type poetry of his own, and concerned enough for repetition to retype the alphabet. He was political enough to insert the name Richard Nixon in place of the king in the Declaration of Independence. His blocky letters match the blocky compositions. They are at once poetry, drawing, and sculpture.

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

2.23.15 — Double Negative

Sturtevant did not make copies. They just look that way.

Does that make them mere simulations of copies? And does that mean that a copy of a copy is an original? Does it matter that the artist is very much a part of her works, and does that make them all the more original? Sturtevant's Warhol Black Marilyn (photo by Anthony Reynolds Gallery, Ringier Collection, 2004)Or is Sturtevant then just copying another artist’s presence? A retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, through February 22, is filled with puzzles, and (along with an earlier review of copies after Las Meninas by Yasumasa Morimura) it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. And maybe the biggest is what puzzles have to say about modern art.

Actually, one must take Sturtevant at her word that she was not making copies, and one is free not to. She earned a reputation in the early 1960s as a copyist—the woman making Warhols. One will have seen it all before, even if one has never heard of her. Just in case one fails to identify the originals, her titles always do.

The show’s fifty works include flowers after Andy Warhol, numbers and a target after Jasper Johns, a crying women after Roy Lichtenstein, spaghetti after James Rosenquist, and image after image after Marcel Duchamp. They include, as one critic described it, “the worst Frank Stella I have ever seen.”

One must take her word about a lot of things. Born in 1924, she styled herself Sturtevant (her married name) because, she said, she liked its bluntness—but then that hid her (first name Elaine) behind a mask. She valued Pop Art for its immediacy, but then conservative critics like Robert Hughes have seen in Warhol’s generation the death of emotion in art. Artists then all had their own ways of surprising a viewer with a bold surface while keeping a certain distance. Johns likes to say that he cherishes his found imagery for its own sake, while Lichtenstein typically painted Ben-Day dots freehand, like his own copies after reproductions. Sturtevant began by slicing tubes of paint and turning them inside out.

The retrospective, “Double Trouble,” has no shortage of redoubled images and double negatives. That could equate with positives, but do not be too sure.

Her selections seem like a survey of their time, but she denied that as well. Rather, they reflect a shared engagement. Robert Rauschenberg encouraged (and posed naked with) her, and Warhol loaned her a silkscreen, as if welcoming her into his talent show. It would be great, he declared, if more artists took up his silkscreens so that no one would know who made them.

She also placed herself within the image. She is the nude in a motion study after Eadweard Muybridge and the nude descending a staircase after Duchamp. For a further puzzle over presence, there she is dressed after Duchamp. She is the one, too, dripping animal fat after Joseph Beuys. Another performance after Beuys turns her into John Dillinger, and a photo collage after Duchamp places her in a wanted poster. The artist is both here and at large.

Maybe she was right about not copying, for that privileges object over experience. Sturtevant refused to say that she did the best she could, because that would imply that the differences matter—and so, then, would the status of the original. Still, her claim leaves out far too much history. One can think of everything as already a duplicate, but on one condition: there is no unique sense of duplication. Artists all have their own use for the copy, as part of the continuing puzzle of modern art.

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

2.20.15 — Refractory Refractions

When we last left Jeffrey Beebe, he was navigating New York, the “city of sociopaths,” to find his way as an artist. And then things get really crazy.

It was a treacherous time, in a group show filled with sociopathology. Contributors fought over what kind of sociology and pathology makes art so strange and so familiar. They adapted the resources of outsider art and comic strips (the space of sorry clichés like “when we last left our hero”), to an art world in which everyone is an outsider—and, it often seems, everyone else is an insider. from Jeffrey Beebe's City of Sociopaths (BravinLee Programs, 2014)They made the vulnerable girls in a drawing by Amy Wilson seem downright normal (which, by the way, is a compliment to them both). But that was “Space Is the Place,” and this is now.

One year later, Beebe is back at the very same gallery, and the sociopathology has only sharpened. So too, though, has his global positioning system, at BravinLee Programs through February 21, and it is the story of a longer review, in my latest upload. Then he navigated my own New York—and a city that anyone, like me, not a struggling artist can be grateful never to know. Now his complaints extend to the entire universe. They include a map of malevolent constellations along with the “real” solar system, looking no less disturbed by myth.

Beebe calls the show “The Battle of the Invoked Impossibility” and its topology his “Refractoria.” If that makes you think of both personal and optical properties, in refractory and refraction, this is one stubborn artist.

Words come fast and furious, like the word polysemic. A typical drawing has not just labels, but then a host of further annotation and explication below. Still, the show is not just a novel hung on the walls. Visual puns are growing as important as verbal ones, including the varied styles of atlases. Colors lend fiery regions to planets and the sun. Besides, the scale of an artist’s book would make the text too hard to read.

Beebe’s light is clearly refracted by his vision. It has the persistent madness of outsider art, but the disillusionment of an insider who thinks that he has seen it all. It observes the comet Obsessive, in detail after detail from an obsessive draftsman. It ranges from the Stony Runts closest to the sun to the Frigid Behemoths lumbering far away. Both might find themselves at home among the closest thing he has to humans, a pageant in medieval costume that he calls his genealogy of blandness. They could describe as well the implicit humanity of the whole.

Not that life here is easy to come by. Nor, most emphatically, is love. The solar system numbers among its “infatuates” a planet very much like Saturn, give or take the moons Ire and Spit. A map of what might or might not be the South Seas includes the Cemetery of Kisses, where “your absence is my inspiration.” The artist means this as the narrative of his life, starting in Indianapolis, the “city of impasses.” A stop on the way to New York sounds downright idyllic, in Chicago, the “city of Rilke.”

In the words of the German poet, “Oh for an angel to stamp out this market of comforts.” Fellow travelers may become stuck in the Land of Temporary Novelty. The diagram of the solar system picks up one from MacDonald’s, with its own misunderstandings, and might work quite well as a place mat. Another work approaches a bestiary, but also product logos. The show must represent years of work, but will its novelty run dry, and is Beebe once again at an impasse? We shall just have to see where he navigates next.

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

2.18.15 — Keeping Busy

How busy does abstraction have to get before it becomes wallpaper? Why not ask Piet Mondrian? Painting, he might remind you, can be both serious and fun.

The very emblem of rigor, the Dutch artist created some surprisingly off-kilter geometries. After Fernand Léger and Futurism, he showed how Cubism’s refusal to stay put could fit quite well into the picture plane. Now that abstraction is back big time, can it still remember its origins? Gary Petersen and Gianna Commito are both keeping it busy. Gary Petersen's Far Away (Theodore:Art, 2014)

It is not easy to escape the legacy of postwar abstraction and formalism, and it is not even clear that one should try. Many still adopt loose brushwork, others just a few shapes and colors. Siri Berg, recently at Hionas through February 7, cuts off circles so that color seems to pass right through the edges of the plane. Early work by Duane Zaloudek, at Monitor through March 1, does much the same, give or take that his ovals sprout testicles. Kellyann Burns prefers rectilinear compositions, at McKenzie through February 8, but with rough boundaries that attest to their construction. It may be business as usual, but it is not altogether a bad business.

Petersen keeps things moving, but at least as dedicated to geometry. He stacks what one may remember as nested rectangles, like a kind of Bushwick academicism. Yet he compresses those elements into shifting quadrilaterals, crossed by black lines just off the grid that have a way of expanding or tapering as well. Talk about refusing to sit still. Two large paintings, at Theodore:Art through February 22, very much engage the wall, because he painted directly on it to the full height of the gallery. His surrounding canvases will never look the same again.

Commito does not so much expand outward as tunnel inward, at Rachel Uffner through February 22. Her casein colors compete with one another and the grid. Just when one thinks that one has pinned them down, one runs up against vertical chevrons at a painting’s center. They incorporate memories, she says, of “residential architecture, particularly nineteenth-century farmhouses in Maine.” And there they harken back to prewar America’s encounters with Cubism, in Charles Sheeler. Somehow the same man whom Ford hired to document its factories also owned a Pennsylvania farmhouse, and his paintings hone in on its stairwells and Shaker furnishings from dizzying angles.

Sure, artists keep making compromises. They can be creative compromises, between abstraction and representation. They can also be thoughtless compromises, between making a painting and making an impact. That can breed pretty pictures that do their best to pack in everything at once—what a critic has called “zombie abstraction.” And those on the margins may not have anything more to say on their own. Still, it helps to think about how painting found itself in this dilemma.

An ironic generation ago, with Neo-Geo, abstraction aimed for a comeback, but as a concept. With wallpaper for Philip Taaffe, prisons and circuit diagrams for Peter Halley, and picture frames for Meyer Vaisman, busy was itself a concept.

Even now, amid today’s eclecticism, it takes guts to drop the scare quotes. For now, Petersen and Commito manage to approach Pattern and Decoration while remaining visceral. Go ahead, if you like, and accuse them of painting stacked picture tubes and rural nostalgia, but they remember: Modernism was shaking things up all along.

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

2.16.15 — When Cubism Was News

Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque loved the news, and why not? They were making news every day.

“Almost every evening, either I went to Braque’s studio or he came to mine,” Picasso recalled. “Each of us had to see what the other had done during the day.” They shocked one another, Braque related. They even shocked themselves. It was just those repeated shocks and discoveries, Leonard A. Lauder says, that drove him to collect Cubism. The news still comes fast and furious in Lauder’s Cubist collection, through February 16, as a promised gift to the Met—and it is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload. Pablo Picasso's The Scallop Shell: Notre Avenir Est dans l'Air (Leonard A. Lauder Collection/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1912)

It is news of their years together and at their best, from 1908 to 1914. It is news of their greatest emulators and collaborators, Fernand Léger and Juan Gris, who helped carry Cubism past a world war, while adding primary colors and a raking light. In an unusually large and flat composition crossed by text, one can see Léger’s repertoire of tubular shapes taking shape. It is news, too, of the upheavals in art that brought them together—and the upheavals in Europe that tore them apart. It is news of the high and low culture, from classical music to the breakfast table, that kept them reading the headlines. Most of all, though, it is news of Picasso and Braque.

Could Braque’s 1907 tumble of houses nestled beneath an arch of trees at l’Estaque, a port near Marseilles, have been the first Cubist painting? Could his slip of pretend wood wallpaper from 1912 have been the first papier collé, or collage? Could Picasso’s Still Life with Fan from the year before have been the first to insert lettering with a brush? Maybe, or maybe at least the first question hardly even makes sense when Cubism had to reinvent itself every day. One thing for sure—Picasso took those letters from L’Indépendant, a local paper in the Pyrenees, where he and Fernande Olivier were enjoying a break and new possibilities. This art was employing signs of its possibilities to declare its independence.

Their love of news spilled over into newsprint. It survives in the letters of journal, or “newspaper,” clipped from the masthead or hand-lettered in cunning simulation of the real thing. It survives in stories literally ripped from the headlines along the run-up to war. One can imagine the discoveries coming alone at a bar where the remains of the day had been saved for regulars or cast aside. One can imagine them coming first thing over breakfast in the morning light. Braque called the plain letters their “certainties,” in a Modernism that would ever after traffic in the uncertain.

It could make do quite well with only a fragment of a certainty, like the letters jour, for “day.” Cubism thrived on the everyday, in familiar objects with barely a hint of the moralism that casts its shadows over Dutch still-life in the age of Rembrandt. For half a millennium, Western art had conveyed deep space in a single act of vision. Now that vantage point had a become a moment in time—the moment of the scent of a chocolate pot, the taste of a sugar cube, the heard melody from a guitar, the touch of the sound holes in a wind instrument or the knob of a drawer jutting forward into the viewer’s hand. Time could be present in the ticking of a metronome, even as single-point perspective was shattering to pieces from the motion of its hand. Notre Avenir Est dans l’Air reads part of a title from 1912, or “our future is in the air,” with Picasso nicknamed Orville to Braque’s Wilbur Wright.

It could and often did abridge still further, to urnal for a comic student’s thoughts of a urinal or simply to jou, or “play.” One plays music, like the music of all those guitars, mandolins, and violins. One plays a game, like dice for Braque or chess for Picasso, the pieces hard to discern and yet so very much at play. And then there is the more sordid game of amassing or seeking the gift of a collection. Still, while exhibitions have surveyed every aspect of Picasso’s career, gamesmanship, and rivalry with Matisse, they may never focus so single-mindedly again on just how he made news. With Cubism, art had come down to earth as never before, but its future was still up in the air.

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

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