9.22.17 — Friend or Faux

Florine Stettheimer had spectacular views from her living room. She did from her studio, too, overlooking the New York Public Library and Bryant Park—but nothing like the view in a painting from 1933 of her family at home. It opens a retrospective that presents her as always cosmopolitan and always at home—in New York, in Europe, and in modern art.

Florine Stettheimer's Family Portrait, II (photo by Scala/Art Resource, Museum of Modern Art, 1933)If you know her at all, you may think of her as halfway primitive and more than halfway mad, and frankly so do I. Not the Jewish Museum, through September 24. It shows a woman in command of her art and her place among artists. It shows her as not just a painter, but also a poet, a designer, and a choreographer, with stage sets to her credit on Broadway—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review as my latest upload. In that family portrait alone, she commands an entire city.

As so often for Stettheimer, the view goes beyond anything that she could ever see. It has her mother and sisters in the most elegant of furnishings and fashion. Yet it opens onto the Hudson River and Lady Liberty, adding untold square feet to their West 58th Street apartment. Flowers bloom in the foreground, large enough to eat them and their surroundings alive. And, wait, is that a second crystalline chandelier next to the first one? No, it is the Chrysler Building, bringing its Art Deco touches indoors.

It is funny and exultant, but also pure theater. (Does one sister pose next to a stage curtain or a domestic one?) It is also a woman’s world. Her father, a German Jewish banker, had deserted them long since, and they seem none the worse for it, whether emotionally or financially. It is also thoroughly up to date. The Chrysler Building had begun as recently as 1928, and it reigned as the world’s tallest building for eleven months, until the completion of the Empire State Building in 1931.

Stettheimer loved New York for its dry wit and sophisticated pleasures, and she says as much in poetry. “I like slippers gold,” she writes, and “oysters cold,” beneath a “sky full of towers.” She will be sending you out to tour the city as well. Family Portrait, II draws on the Museum of Modern Art, an earlier interior from the Brooklyn Museum, and costume designs from Columbia University, although not another floral river view in the Whitney. The show also includes an elaborate dollhouse with tiny paintings after artists she knew, a collaboration with a sister now based up Fifth Avenue at the Museum of the City of New York. You will have to continue to the American wing of the Met for her The Cathedrals—the cathedrals of art, Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Wall Street.

The show, then, comes as less a comprehensive survey than a correction. Stettheimer exhibited just once in her lifetime, at Knoedler, one of the city’s most elite and progressive galleries, and it bombed. She has gained new prominence from the recovery of women artists, the elevation of craft and design as art, and the dissolution of boundaries between outsider art and, well, everything else. Her most notorious paintings resemble folk art in their busy compositions, flattened perspective, and reduction of people to willowy wisps of paint. Their style made a sensation in a booth devoted to her at the 2017 Armory Show—and they have invited responses So what's NEW!from such contemporary artists as Rosson Crow. This exhibition, though, has quite another story to tell, of a worldly woman and a world-class education.

Hers is a world of family, friends, and contributors. Does it seem biting or complacent to present Marcel Duchamp, the founder of Dada, as a dandy? So most often did he, posing in a suit and tie or as his female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. The show ends with Stettheimer’s greatest contribution to theater and most notable collaboration, Four Saints in Three Acts. She was responsible for the designs for the 1934 opera by Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein. She did so, much as in a doll house, not with paintings or drawings but figurines.

Collaboration changes everyone. The rapid-fire comedy of Stein’s “Pigeons on the grass alas” takes on the slower grace of an African American cast in sultry white robes. One might hesitate to call anything to do with Stettheimer mass culture, although her poetic ode to New York includes Disney cartoons and colored balloons, but the performance took place not in an opera house, but on Broadway. Who knew that one would ever see Stein’s name on a marquee? For the artist, too, complicity meant both self-interest and reaching out. She may have welcomed so many into her home as a strategic alternative to public exhibitions, but it was still quite a party.

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

9.20.17 — Victims of Success


By this time, with galleries in full swing for the fall, you might be asking: how are they doing? How, for that matter, about the rest of us? For a partial answer, allow me a reply to the gossip this summer.

The New York Times makes it official: galleries are closing. At the very least, they are under pressure from wary collectors, rising rents, perpetual art fairs, and ever increasing competition.

MutualArtThat should come as no surprise. Galleries are a business, a bigger and bigger business, and anyone can see the turnover. I have already reported on a 2016 panel discussion that opened with an ominous slide, listing just some that have called it a day—and I have added this as a postscript to that longer review, for my latest upload.

No, the surprise is not that galleries die, and others hurry to fill their spaces—in real estate, if not always in one’s heart. The surprise is who. That panel included three of the most successful dealers over decades now, and now Andrea Rosen has shut its doors as well. Even The Times has to take notice. And the toll extends to more recent successes on the once gritty Lower East Side. As the June 25 headline put it, “Art Gallery Closures Grow for Small and Midsize Dealers.”

Are there lessons? I think I got this right a year ago, but consider the points again. First, the closings really do come less from artist collectives and others on the margins, who serve a smaller community, or from the very largest dealers with money to burn. That leaves midlevel dealers with every sign of growth and every fear of a market shake-up. I never cared for the splashy displays at Mike Weiss, but they had started to get reviews, even as the gallery aggressively expanded its roster. Lisa Cooley, Laurel Gitlen, and now On Stellar Rays had all moved into bigger and more prominent spaces—in the case of On Stellar Rays, a space that a still more upscale dealer, Sue Post, had abandoned as well.

Alix Pearlstein's Talent (On Stellar Rays, 2010)Second, they may grow sick of the struggle, but often as not they are not going away. The panelists touted a “hybrid model” of working behind the scenes, art fairs, and exhibitions in conjunction with surviving institutions. One of the three had cut back to handling an estate, and Rosen will do the same on behalf of Félix González-Torres, who died in 1996. The Times cites one dealer who will work with Paula Cooper, no spring chicken either. Lori Bookstein and Molly Krom are working the fairs. Others, like Hionas or Rooster, are taking stock, casing out other neighborhoods, and just plain wondering what comes next.

Third, the first two points are connected. Success breeds alternatives. That panel could afford to look ahead because it had the connections to do so—including clients, artists, estates, museums, and (yes) “brick and mortar galleries.” Others soldier along because they have no choice. Without exhibitions and reviews, artists and collectors alike may quickly defect. I have already reported on a dealer who cried for days after losing first a lease and then a prominent pop-up.

Last, the closings come at a cost—and not just to the dealers. Their former artists may now have a healthy CV and a deserved reputation, but others to come will go unnoticed. Rosen’s last exhibition introduced me to video, performance, and sculpture by Martha Friedman, but it will introduce me to living artists no more. Older dealers cannot serve the living forever anyway, not if they want to stay loyal to their artists, as they should. And that is why smaller midlevel dealers have an irreplaceable role, even in a ridiculously bloated art scene. Have they survived Hurricane Sandy only to become the victims of their success?

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

9.18.17 — A Cult of One

Alan Vega was always a cult figure. He was the front man for Suicide as early as 1970, shrieking and wailing with only Martin Rev behind him on keyboards or a drum kit, but few had yet heard of what they called punk music. They issued their first album in 1977, when CBGB’s was in its heyday, but he was more likely to perform at Max’s Kansas City or in a gallery.

Alan Vega's Stars (Invisible-Exports, 2016)He studied art, joined museum protests, and exhibited with one of Soho’s earliest and most influential dealers, O. K. Harris, but then he gave up his art for years. He found champions as powerful as Jeffrey Deitch, but at his death in 2016 he was not on the upscale dealer’s roster. As his wife put it, “He was never really part of the ‘art world.’ ”

Vega sought cult status not just in his music, but also in his art—and I have wrapped this in with a report on another who toyed with madness, Carol Rama, as longer review and my latest upload. Everything looks like a religious relic, but from a cult of one. A shadowy canvas could pass for a Byzantine icon, as seen just this summer at Invisible-Exports through July 29 (although, as you will see in a moment, you get a second chance to catch up with him). Scrap wood takes the shape of crosses. One assemblage incorporates Christmas lights. Titles speak of Prayer, Prophecy, Vision, and Screaming Jesus.

Vega had only recently returned to art, for portraits of what he called “old guys.” Are they saints or sinners? The gallery has a strong focus on conceptual art, gender, and the body. And it is hard not to encounter a room of men from the waist up and not think of all three. Many reduce to little more than empty clothing. They could be torn and stained fabric in its incarnations from Robert Rauschenberg and Magdalena Abakanowicz to Iva Gueorguieva and others today.

One can divide the work into portraits and light sculpture, but they come together as variations on a single installation. Additional lights train directly on the paintings. Seven portraits hung side by side, touching, could mark a shrine. Two works on paper from 1965 have the more crowded look of outsider art, but the same air of mystery. It is hard to know how is worshipping, who is worshipped, and why. It is hard, too, to know who is among the living.

Vega has entered self-abnegation territory, but then he did sing for Suicide. Art knows that territory well from bad boys like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, who loved the band. The lack of obvious humor takes Vega closer still to Andres Serrano and the latter’s “Piss Christ,” and the Jewish kid from Brooklyn did identify himself as Catholic. The installations, though, also suggest stage lighting. Does that make Vega’s subject only and always himself? At least he has the kindness to keep the viewer out of the spotlight.

Deitch may be late to the party, but he has helped a Lower East Side gallery get some serious press. A few weeks later, he also supplies some useful context. What counts as context for the spare insistence of punk rock? If you are thinking “more of the same,” Deitch Projects has still more lights and crosses, through September 30. A row on the mezzanine feels like a repeated pounding. So do images of a boxer.

The pounding might have crushed the faces in drawings from 2015 as well. It also translates into photographs and film. They show Vega as an art student and a rocker. They show him, too, reflecting on his critics, his cult, and his music. There as in life, he could claim a happy ending rather than a suicide. He died in his sleep at age seventy-eight.

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

9.15.17 — When Great Artists Borrow

Robert Rauschenberg did not traffic in stolen property. Yet few have taken more risks in the name of art.

Everything may seem, barely, above board. Rauschenberg bought the toilet paper of his black paintings over the counter, and he rescued the soiled bedding of a shocking combine painting from the trash. Yet no one else can bring art so close to criminal conduct. And no work comes as close to a defacement of private and public property as his Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953. Robert Rauschenberg's Canyon (Sonnabend Collection, gift to Museum of Modern Art, 1959)

At least critics at the time thought so, but Willem de Kooning handed over a drawing knowing full well what would become of it. The older artist did not just go along with the game either. He got into it, selecting a composition with several figures that he knew would be difficult to erase. In Rauschenberg’s recollections, the number of erasers and the time it took kept growing with each retelling. Jasper Johns got into the game, too, supplying a frame and a label as integral parts of the work. If Rauschenberg committed vandalism, he had partners in crime.

The Museum of Modern Art takes collaboration as its theme, for a mammoth retrospective—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review in my latest upload. It places the artist “Among Friends,” through September 17, including work with and by others along with the breadth of his career. It argues for his art as interdisciplinary, egalitarian, and open. It helps in understanding his frequent shifts in substance, style, media, and materials, as he kept up with friends and influenced them in turn. People like to say that good artists borrow, but great artists steal. MoMA sees Rauschenberg as not just borrowing, but repaying the loan with interest.

The line about stealing comes in several versions (sometimes with copy in place of borrow), and Pablo Picasso may or may not have coined it. That confusion only adds to its assault on the “originality of the avant-garde“—and who more than Rauschenberg led the assault? Robert Hughes long blamed Andy Warhol for ruining modern art, like the Huns descending on classical civilization, but Rauschenberg was the consummate vandal. He took the readymade from Dada, with all its refusal of art, and turned it into appropriation, with all its refusal of art apart from the world. It made him a founder of Pop Art and a leading influence on the turn away from painting with the “Pictures generation” after 1980. It allowed him to work, as he liked to say, in the gap between art and life.

For MoMA, it also makes him a natural collaborator. Right out front stand classics of Pop Art from the museum’s collection, like Warhol’s Marilyn and a soft telephone by Claes Oldenburg. Already Rauschenberg is among friends. The exhibition proper then opens in 1950 with ghostly blue photograms by him and his wife at the time, Susan Weil. They took turns posing and photographing the other. For one, she adjusted the light sources so that he appears twice in collaboration, as if holding his own hands.

Collaboration sounds ever so reasonable and cuddly. Maybe great artists do steal, and none more than Rauschenberg—and I was more cogent in reviews of the Rauschenberg retrospective twenty years ago and his combine paintings in 2006, so I hope that you will have time to read about them as well. Still, this show is overwhelming for good reason, because so is Rauschenberg. It may even overturn one version of him, along with its own theme. I had always written off the lightness of cardboard boxes from the 1960s and the seemingly endless late silkscreens to reliance on assistants, but maybe they represent a falling off in collaboration instead. Starting in 1962, he spent much of the year in Florida, to recover the “isolation needed for productivity.” He began delegating more than collaborating. By his death in 2008, he could steal from no one but himself.

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

9.13.17 — You Say You Want . . .

We Wanted a Revolution.” It sounds like an expression of failure or despair. It sounds, too, after John Lennon’s “Revolution” (or on the centennial of the Russian revolution), like a declaration of what no one should have wanted at all.

Instead, the exhibition celebrates twenty years of black women artists in context of their radicalism. It opens in 1965, when revolution was in the air, and ends with political art as the mainstream. In between, it hints at uncertainty as to where art or politics begins or ends. Beverly Buchanan's Untitled (Slab Works 1) photo from estate of the artist/Jane Briggs, private collection, c. 1978)

The Brooklyn Museum displays just forty artists, through September 17, few of them household names. Yet the show stretches in all directions from just outside The Dinner Party, by Judy Chicago, where a history of women seems all encompassing and all affirming, to the point of sentimental. It can because the names keep coming, including the names of collectives in art, in performance, and in protest. Spiral, AfriCOBRA, the Art Worker’s Collective, the Black Art Movement—it gets hard to remember them all. The first began with black males, but Romare Bearden, Normal Lewis, and Charles Alston invited Emma Amos to join them, and women assumed a greater and greater role. Ana Mendieta curated “an exhibition of Third World women artists of the United States” at A.I.R. in 1980, including broken columns by Beverly Buchanan, and Linda Goode Bryant founded her gallery, Just Above Midtown (or JAM).

At the center of the room outside The Dinner Party, Elizabeth Catlett combines curves and hollows out of Constantin Brancusi, an arm raised in a salute to black power, and the cedar of folk art and craft. Modern art, it says, can get along just fine with politics and community. Betye Saar says much the same with an assemblage akin to a Joseph Cornell box but mirrored, as Black Girl’s Window. So do Jae Jarrell’s fashion designs, paintings by Faith Ringgold that recall quilting, and Ringgold’s mural destined for the prison on Riker’s Island. So more obliquely does the show’s largest work—including a cloak of black bronze and wool by Barbara Chase-Riboud, black wire sheaves by Maren Hassinger, or (in a photo) hosiery sagging down from an open window as Rapunzel by Senga Nengudi. More often, though, artists seemed way too busy protesting to think of art.

They had a lot to protest, including the paucity of women in museums. Posters have the psychedelic colors of the 1960s and harsh edges closer to woodcuts. Jarrell’s husband depicts Angela Davis in the style of an album cover by Jimi Hendrix. A torrent of documents appears throughout. Whatever is near monochrome by Howardena Pindell doing here at all, for all the density of color and cut paper like crushed eggshells? Well, she did lead a protest against “The Nigger Paintings” by a white male at Artists Space in 1979.

Like “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” before it, the show works better as history than as art. It is also a narrow history. One might never know that a black male, Tony Whitfield, joined Pindell’s protest—as did Lucy Lippard, the white critic, and Ingrid Sischy, entering her term as the white editor of Artforum. One might never know, too, that art addressed poverty, apart from etchings by Kay Brown, or that Mendieta was Latino. Still, it is a lively history of race and gender. Catlett’s Target zeroes in on an African American male head, while a woman with her breasts swing open to reveal a red light, thanks to Alison Saar.

The curators, Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley, gain from the mix of media. Blondell Cummings treats the drudgery of housework as modern dance, before it induces a seizure. They also gain from the politics of the “Pictures generation“—although “Pictures,” the 1977 exhibition at Artists Space, had no black women at all. Three years later, Lorraine O’Grady subverts standards of beauty as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, while Coreen Simpson brings the glamour of fashion shoots to a Harlem church. Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems have their caustic encounters between photography and text. There is a lot to remember and, as Weems concludes, “Don’t you forget it!!!”

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

9.11.17 — Emissaries to a Common Culture

Ian Cheng and Maureen Gallace invite you on a journey through time and space. Cheng’s animations and Gallace’s paintings unfold in unfamiliar landscapes and disturbing times, or so they would like you to know—and I have grouped them with past reviews on landscapes with less than transparent meanings as a longer review and my latest upload.

His Emissaries took him just three years but covers untold millennia and the course of civilizations. “Clear Day” took her twenty-five years in search of “our common culture” and New England. Maureen Gallace's Summer House/Dunes (MoMA PS1, 2009)Robert Frank and The Americans have nothing on this project. Yet the real shocker is how little is going on.

Cheng’s leisurely pace is all the more surprising since he worked in a platform for the design of video games. He is also streaming the trilogy on Twitch, known for games that test a player’s reaction times, successively over the course of the exhibition. It plays out simultaneously at MoMA PS1 as well, through September 12. The LA artist has worked with Paul Chan and Pierre Huyghe, and he signals the work’s importance by its sheer size, with projections up to ten feet tall—two of them roughly as wide as The Last Supper. He signals it, too, with such evidently profound titles as In the Squat of Gods, At Perfection, and Sunsets the Self. If that sounds in need of translation from the original artspeak, they also come with enough wall text to occupy civilization for a long time to come.

They have something to do with the very idea of “cognitive evolution” in the face of “social and ecological forces.” In the first, life on the edge of a volcano suffers from brutal conquests while a duly cute heroine finds her way. In the second, the active volcano has given way to a more comforting crater lake, but the living destroy one another anyway. In the last, the life force has become oceanic, but not enough to stop further collapse. They involve leaders by the name of AI and Mother AI, presumably not the three-toed sloth native to South America and crossword puzzles. Artificial intelligence never quite lives up to its name in the present century either.

For all that, the look is welcoming and progress is glacial. People wiggle, fires burn, and something much like an uprooted shed or tree tumbles closer to earth. Birds fly past and dogs wander in, but no one seems to be going anywhere special. Snow-capped lands give way to gentle contrasts and warm colors. Cheng’s true gift may lie in creating a space for contemplation—more like Doug Wheeler and his Synthetic Desert than anime. Let me know when the emissaries arrive.

Gallace has a lot on her mind as well. She speaks of genre painting, although it looks nothing like the Mississippi for George Caleb Bingham in the nineteenth century. She speaks, too, of disturbances and disconnections in rural America—and a reflection of everything from a divided nation to the economics of home ownership and powerful financial institutions. In reality, she keeps returning to familiar territory, in the Connecticut suburbs and on Cape Cod, and nothing much seems to change over the years. A grouping by subject only heightens the similarities. The creamy textures, spare colors, bare geometries for shelters, and looser brushwork for vegetation are reasonably skilled but thoroughly conventional.

They stick to the daylight brightness of summer and snow, from shorelines and beach houses to barns and suburban homes. True, Gallace bars access, with no people, no clear roadways, and a near absence of doors or windows—but that simplification is common enough in Modernism or realism today. I could see it again recently with Sweden for Rita Lundqvist or with gallery exteriors haunted by pillars of light for Adam Gordon, at Chapter NY through April 23. Gallace’s most evocative landscape may well be MoMA PS1. More than fifty panels as small as notebook paper spread out across eight rooms, ceding space to the surrounding white walls. When it comes to the politics of art and real estate, “too big to fail” has nothing on the museum.

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

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