9.1.14 — Modernism on Speed

Can a movement devoted to speed have stumbled so slowly to an ending? One can see Futurism as a sudden and all too transient burst of speed. In just three years, starting in 1910, Italian art found its way from Post-Impressionism to a new style—a tribute to motion itself and modernity. And then it was gone, or at least its great work was over. Umberto Boccioni's The City Rises (Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, Museum of Modern Art, 1910-1911)

The title of a 1922 work by perhaps its finest painter, Giacomo Balla, tells of its fate: The Spell Is Broken, but even that may sound like a belated confession. Futurism had already lost much of what Umberto Boccioni called in another title its Muscular Dynamism, a victim of war and of a movement’s growing cold. Boccioni himself died in World War I, and the group’s nominal leader, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, lay among the wounded. Their ideology and style alike had hardened as well, but then that happens to “isms.” On the scale of the twentieth century, even Cubism passed in the blink of an eye.

The Guggenheim has other ideas, through September 1 (today)—and they are the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload. It follows a loose circle from 1909, the year of the first Futurist Manifesto, to 1944. At every step, it proclaims Futurism’s staying power and influence. It argues for a second birth in the mid-1920s, with new artists, new subjects, and media well beyond painting and sculpture. In commercial design, the movement anticipates the elevation of craft and popular culture alongside painting and sculpture today. The lengthy survey may end up only reducing Futurism’s stature, but it recovers quite a history.

With Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Cubism, Modernism went beyond the visual, to evoke every one of five senses. With Marcel Duchamp, Dada, and Surrealism, it took art into the realm of ideas, found objects, and dark dreams. In inventing abstraction, it left representation behind altogether. For them all, anything was fair game—text or a musical score, the rhythms of color or of line, the texture of sand or the simulated texture of wallpaper. Futurism saw simply a representation of space and time more suited to modernity. Faced with ambiguity, it took Modernism literally.

Was it simple-minded—or simply truer to modern life? The Guggenheim’s curator, Vivien Greene, sees an art of the machine, the industrial city, and speed, and she likes what she sees. She sees a movement aspiring to what Richard Wagner in German opera had called the total work of art. And she sees it as needing thirty-five years and a litany of unfamiliar names to achieve that totality. She also sees contradictions easily papered over in its early years, but contradictions that might almost save it from criticism as a tool of Fascism. And yet it grew further from invention and closer to collaboration with political oppression the longer it lived.

So what's NEW!One can see the contradictions coming in a close look at that first manifesto. Marinetti, its author, called for “militarism” and “patriotism,” but he first published the manifesto in Le Figaro in French. He rooted Futurism in a nation, but it aspired to the universal. It reached out in journals, poetry, theater, public readings, and manifesto after manifesto, often in translation. Balla and another artist, Fortunato Depero, even titled a 1915 manifesto, “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe,” as a boast of its breadth. With “Reconstructing the Universe” as its subtitle, the exhibition plainly agrees.

The show’s most singular achievement may be to rescue Futurist home and theater design from oblivion or the footnotes. And, yes, the Guggenheim’s other important discovery is women—with an aerial photograph by Olga Biglieri (who styled herself Barbara), Giannina Censi in a mannered “Eurythmic dance,” Rùzena Zátková in a hideous portrait of Marinetti, and Benedetta Cappa. Known as Benedetta, she has the tower gallery beyond the ramps for five tall murals completed in 1934, as a playful but majestic “synthesis of communications” for a post office conference room in Palermo, Sicily.

At least Marinetti ended that first manifesto on a high note. Nous lançons encore une fois le défi insolent aux étoiles (“We launch once again an insolent, defiant challenge to the stars”), but one may remember more the defiance than the art or the stars.


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

8.29.14 — Taking Liberties

Staying in the city for the weekend? You can still head outdoors. Summer brings sculpture in the parks, and there is still time to catch one of the nicest parts of a New York summer before it is over. from Danh Vo's We the People (Brooklyn Bridge Park/City Hall Park, 2010-2014)

This summer also brings the opening of a museum at Ground Zero—and the opening of the National September 11 Memorial to all, without tickets or checkpoints. It brings a populist mayor to Gracie Mansion and the departure of the art fairs, for a while. While only the museum was behind schedule, the rest deserve at least as much the qualifier “at last.” So how about sculpture that aspires at once to be monumental, populist, contemporary, and distinctly American? How about, in fact, the Statue of Liberty?

Danh Vo has spent four years recreating its skin, bit by bit and to scale, in copper without the patina of oxidation and time. Now he brings some fifty pieces to New York, through December 6, at least one with a view of Liberty Island. And even those amount less than a fifth of the whole. We the People offers a populist slant right in its title, the opening words of the Constitution, while resting amid waterfront renewal—or, if you will, gentrification.

Is that a contradiction? The whole work takes the form of a puzzle—and, along with earlier review of the season’s outdoor sculpture, it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

Make that a jigsaw puzzle, with the challenge of guessing what goes where. A towering canopy in Brooklyn Bridge Park drapes the statue’s shoulder, and a piece nearby serves as its ear. Plaques for more in City Hall Park supply the answers, with shading out of a “paint by numbers” kit. They also note that the statue’s base echoes Minimalism, a movement that took sculpture off its pedestal. MutualArtA philosopher might call the work of disassembly, recreation, and dispersal an act of deconstruction. Where Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi sought classical models for a gift from France to America, Vo’s replica was “conceived in Germany, fabricated in Shanghai, supported by his French gallery, in collections and art institutions worldwide, and dispersed to exhibition venues in more than fifteen countries.”

Born in Vietnam, Vo considers himself Danish and adds flowers modeled after Victorian gardening. Is immigration, then, no more than a displacement? Is the work a critique of capitalism and the art world—or an affirmation of the American dream? It may never quite articulate either one, but it offers a leisurely recap of Western sculpture. A piece nestled under a tree could be a reclining nude or an airplane wing, while the canopy in Brooklyn could abstract away from the entire statue. So what if, like the green of the original, it is only skin deep?

Rachel Feinstein, too, is no stranger to another century. She calls her outdoor sculpture Folly, through September 7, after the faux medieval ruins in French and English gardens. The three follies in Madison Square Park use black lines on powdery white aluminum, like sketches that an unwitting assistant sent out for casting by mistake. A house perches on a cliff over a water wheel, in the style of a children’s book, and a ship flies into a tree. A stairwell leads up to a castle gate—or perhaps the proscenium arch of a stage. If everything here seems stagey, Feinstein likes it that way, lest fantasy gives way to function.

Alice Aycock combines monumentality with delicacy and dispersal, on the Park Avenue median through July 20, where she gave way in midsummer to the stainless steel “implosions” of Ewerdt Hilgemann, through November 7. One part of her Paper Chase spirals upward like a spinning top, and another blossoms outward like a flower. The largest lounges horizontally like a public fountain, its scale matched to the Florentine architecture of the Racquet and Tennis Club facing it. It may not nestle so easily into the plaza of the Seagram Building, with good reason: each shard of aluminum retains the lightness of cut paper. One can picture Aycock with her scissors at play.

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

8.28.14 — A Fluid Tradition

Is eastern art all about patience, in the enduring practices of copying and calligraphy, and western art all about impatience with the past, in the avant-garde? If you think so, Zhang Hongtu might ask you to consider two visionaries, some three hundred years and two continents apart. With two related shows in and out of the city, you can look for answers whatever your plans for the summer’s last long weekend.

That artist’s 2004 tribute in oil borrows its towering landscape from Shi Tao (a name that means, appropriately enough, “Stone Wave”), its impasto colors from Vincent van Gogh, and its turbulence from both—but with a zest all his own. Three years later, he had advanced as far as blue mountains out of Paul Cézanne. He will not, however, let go of Asia, and neither will “Oil and Water: Reinterpreting Ink.” Wei Jia's No. 09104 (Cheryl McGinnis gallery, 2010)Through September 14, the Museum of Chinese in America brings Zhang together with Qiu Deshu and Wei Jia, three contemporary artists born in China and with a restless eye on eastern and western art (and, together with more on art and poetry, it is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload).

The exhibition may sound rooted in the fluid brush of artists centuries ago, until one notices that its title mentions three different liquids. For all three artists, media are not always what they appear. For Zhang, an inscription or seal shares space with plain vertical bands and a stormy seascape in oil, out of Romanticism or Modernism. For Qiu, ink on paper may be just the first step in a process of folding and transfer to canvas. Wei Jia may look closest to all-over abstraction, where pink may mingle with yellow and a tan gray. Yet his ink and gouache takes its form from letters, up close as if under a microscope.

All three have been at it well before Asian art found another cross-cultural influence in comic books, and all have a complex personal relationship to China as well. Zhang, born in 1943 to a Muslim family, moved from Beijing to America in 1982, taking part in an Overseas Artists Association with Ai Weiwei in New York. Qiu, born in 1948, is still based in Shanghai, while struggling in and outside of the official arts organizations. Wei Jia, born in 1957, took his MFA in America but has since lived and taught in Beijing as well.

The curator, Michelle Y. Loh, has also organized “Tales of Two Cities,” meaning New York and Beijing, at the Bruce Museum in Connecticut through August 31—to multiply the correspondences between cultures, Wei Jia there paired with Joan Snyder. After his gorgeous single letter and in shades of white alone, I might have paired him with Robert Ryman or Robert Rauschenberg as well.

Loh speaks of uniting the “three perfections” of calligraphy, poetry, and painting—long sought as revelations of an individual’s spirit as well as tradition. And in fact Wei Jia first emulated calligraphy before studying western realism. In his return to a kind of poetry, in bold characters on fragments of fine Chinese paper, he abstracts firmly away from its sense as well as from the traditional major styles. For Qiu, too, paper and collage provide as much of the layering as color, but he calls it fissuring—in Chinese, a word with overtones of both splitting and change. With another nod to older philosophies, he calls a titles from the early 1980s Objectivity, Instincts, Consciousness. He also considers an image a “self-portrait,” while slipping in a thin body with a childlike head out of Jean Dubuffet.

Qiu and Zhang share a fascination with landscape, but not a land untouched by urbanization. For Qiu, clouds float on a black sea or sky, like icebergs. Elsewhere, he takes what looks like a geologic rift from his observation of cracks in the ground while walking in the city, and a similar patterning on four sheets is continuous across the breaks. In Zhang’s most recent work, from 2013, faceless high-rises hover over cliffs, mists, and dead tree trunks disturbingly like the cones of a nuclear reactor. If they both see mostly tall peaks and dark oceans, the very term for landscape, shan shui, means mountain water. If you think that you have seen it all somewhere before, Zhang calls his most western landscape, from 2008, Remake of Ma Yuan’s Water Album (780 Years Later).

Art since Modernism has had a spiky relationship to the past anyway. (Appropriation anyone?) And the idea of contemporary Chinese art as “reinterpreting” its ancestors is hardly new, as with a recent exhibition at the Met. This is also a small show, even with room for an accordion book by Qiu and documentary video. Yet it does its job well, because the slipperiness between places and generations has a mirror in the fluid pairings between artists. It allows them to look good together while retaining dual identity.

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

8.27.14 — Back!

Yes, I’m back. And you’ll hear lots more, but of course I shall have first to write about it, and also a lot urgently to report in the next few weeks about shows closing and opening in New York.

But yes! Back from Detroit. Had almost four hours in the museum (huge) and a lot of walking. Little spaces this time of year often closed, but that was enough. A while this morning in a four-story used book store and a great BBQ place last evening that no doubt everyone knows about. Hope to describe it more, but still an achingly suffering city.

8.24.14 — A Working Vacation?

Does it seem as if I have been posting a lot? Well, I have.

It’s not just to help say good-bye to summer and to two more interesting summer group shows, “Multiplicity” at three galleries in two boroughs and “Itself Not So” at Lisa Cooley. It’s mostly that I’m heading off to Detroit and leaving my computer behind. Andrew Moore's The Aurora, Brush Park Neighborhood (Queens Museum of Art, 2008)Another summer group, of contemporary art from Detroit was just one prompt. It reminded me how much I had been meaning to visit, ever since the Detroit Institute of Arts faced threats from the city’s near bankruptcy. Would it be forced to sell its collection—or the museum itself?

Probably not, so I guess I can’t call this a shopping trip, but its still one of the few major museums I have somehow never got around to visiting. I’m looking forward to it and its neighbors. I can almost call the visit part of my job of sharing the experience of art with you. Not having a computer to lug around will put a different spin on a working vacation. I deserve one.

So it’s true: I almost never post a review on a weekend, and here I have had one Saturday and one again today (and five of the last seven days). I’ll return to my usual schedule (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday posts first thing in the morning) later in the week. Meanwhile, if you missed the latest activity, do scroll down! And wish me luck.

Divine Aphasia

For once, text art may leave you at a loss for words. An entire show is about the loss of speech or language, or aphasia. “Itself Not So,” at Lisa Cooley through August 29, opposes text, as unfolding in time, and art, as unfolding in space. Only here both time and space are on the verge of breaking down.

This is not just one thing after another. As the show’s physical centerpiece, Michael Dean sets a chair, but it does not offer seating to commune with the art. Stiff and plain to begin with, it maintains its improbable balance with a slab glued to one corner, where a leg has fallen to the ground. Michael Dean's Analogue Series (Tongue), On the Pronunciation of the Letter L (Herald St/Supportico Lopez, 2014)The rough, dark slab seems itself to be drooping under its own weight. It provides the tongue of the work’s title, Analogue Series (Tongue), while the work’s geometric clarity provides the subtitle, On the Pronunciation of the Letter L. Here existence depends on speech, speech depends on language, and language depends on a falling away.

The curator, Rachel Valinsky, quotes Roman Jakobson on “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances.” You may know the Russian linguist from the heyday of Structuralism and literary theory. You may know, too, his distinction between two figures of speech—metaphor, or one thing in place of another, and metonymy, or one thing connected to another, like the blues for sadness and the blue for the sky. You may find echoes in the opposition of drawing and reading in text art, as in “Drawing Time, Reading Time” at the Drawing Center in 2013. You may even know that Jakobson saw those principles, of selection and connection, as the bases of meaning in all language. Maybe you had forgotten that he discovered those principles in their loss, in actual patients with brain damage.

The show includes one such patient, in a video by Imogen Stidworthy. I Hate encounters Edward Woodman, a photographer who has lost the power of speech but keeps working. (Speaking of the loss of speech, the gallery’s explanations are notably lacking.) He is driven to document what he can no longer articulate. One sees his lips, ears, and eyes in close-up as he counts to ten. One listens as a speech therapist pushes him to say, “I hate.”

The show keeps mixing images of speech and silence, as in an invitation from the so-called Research Services to submit one’s phone number for a call that may never come, and it keeps returning to the edge between love and hate. It takes its title from a poem by Susan Howe, whose prints reproduce the fonts, spacing, and rhythms of found media, but little else. Archives, she says, are “all we have to connect to the dead,” but you know how little the dead have to say.

Writers used to speak of “concrete poetry,” taking its shape from patterns and not sentences, and Howe’s “rectilinear poems” are concrete poetry twice over—as invitations to read and as the impression of an old-fashioned letterpress. Sue Tompkins and Christopher Knowles achieve something of the same weight with a typewriter. The latter’s Butterfly Blocks recall Carl Andre, for whom poetry was also sculpture.

In their own way, each breaches the silence. So do Ben Vida and Rick Myers, who first turn text into performance—and then turn the sound waves into images. James Hoff treats the Stuxnet virus, which Israeli intelligence used to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, as a musical score, which he then renders as Chromaluxe transfers. These high-resolution prints infuse colored dye into aluminum, for a fine cacophany of optical activity. With Ryan Gander and Fia Backström, the “social life of media” become sculpture, while Julien Bismuth permutes four painted sticks like those of Cordy Ryman, but as the elements of a language. With Aram Saroyan, a single word stretches into poetry, as Lighght.

Sophia Le Fraga even holds a conversation or two, if only with herself. In one video, a multitasker gets more and more wrapped up in a chat room with someone who may turn out to be a chance encounter, an old acquaintance, or a double. (La Fraga titles it after The Bald Soprano, Eugène Ionesco’s joyful theater of nonsense.) In another, W8ING, text messages fly across an iPhone, with no visible thumbs. They sound like Waiting for Godot as performed by teenage girls.

And indeed it is Lucky, the otherwise silent character in Samuel Beckett, who bursts into a long speech that approaches “the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia.” Jakobson’s patient sounds no less fallen, no less beyond feeling, and no less in the immediacy of the present. “But I am here below, well if I have been I know not, who that, not if I, if that now but, still, yes.”

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