7.21.17 — Fairs Without Tourists

Summer group shows are like art fairs without the tourists and collectors. They carry the same promises and the same dreadful sense of obligation, even as the crowds have left town—perhaps for another art fair.

The summer of 2017 brings little in the way of a trend, but then a trend is hard to find anywhere now apart from anything goes. To add to the confusion, a dozen galleries even mimic art fairs by hosting artists from galleries from out of town and abroad. This year does, though, bring some more than halfway creative shows. How about a quick tour? I have also wrapped this in with an earlier report on abstraction in summer and Ellen Berkenblit, as a longer review and my latest upload. Barbara Chase-Riboud's Matisse's Back in Twins (Michael Rosenfeld gallery, 1967/1994)

Art fairs without gawkers and buyers must sound like galleries without artists or a future—but I would not rule that out either, alas. It might be the last remaining avant-garde. Yet summer shows do make me think of fair week. They, too, offer the chance to take stock or to catch up. Bitforms even calls its show a fall preview (through July 30), including video as sculpture in, he explains, four dimensions by Gary Hill and swirling video colors by Sara Ludy. Like fairs again, they also tempt me to sit them out.

Who needs yet another forced theme or unthemed sprawl? Not that recaps of old and new friends are all bad. Canada gallery makes clear that it has some shocks left (through July 21), with a full room of streaming black cords by Heather Watkins approaching life forms—and with art between torn clothing and posters by Kristan Kennedy visible on the back wall. Lennon, Weinberg allows gallery artists like Jill Moser and Melissa Meyer to choose counterparts and influences (through September 16) that, often as not, blend right in. A stalwart defender of abstraction like McKenzie can approach routine, but several artists there go big (through August 12), including Plexiglas triangles high on the wall by Doreen McCarthy and wide brushstrokes by Andrea Belag. Don Voisine shows that he need not use black to add translucency or to unsettle his symmetry.

Not all themes are forced either. At their best, they may even sound routine. In the case of women artists, make that overdue to sound routine, and Michael Rosenfeld makes the point in its exhibition’s title, “The Time Is Now.” It also has the commitment and resources for a credible history (through August 4). It outdid the Studio Museum in Harlem with its survey of Alma Thomas, who again appears. So do the likes of Magdalena Abakanowicz, Grace Hartigan, Louise Nevelson, Lee Krasner, and Joan Mitchell.

Not everything, though, is a textbook history of the late twentieth century. In accord with its program, the gallery includes such black artists as Thomas, Betye Saar, and Barbara Chase-Riboud. It also reaches back to Surrealism by Dorothea Tanning, Kay Sage, and Irene Rice Pereira, along with early fabric art by Lenore Tawney. Lee Lozano looks unusually sleek in her machine-inspired abstraction. Perhaps the first drip painter gets her due as well. Janet Sobel was not just an outsider artist.

So what's NEW!Galerie Lelong, too, has a shot at what is becoming the usual (through August 5). After retrospectives of Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, plus one coming up for Hélio Oiticica, it must seem that museums can no longer get enough of Latin American art or Neo-Concretism. Yet one can almost forget that Grupo Frente in Brazil was indeed a movement—one that could make the elements of geometric abstraction pop. “Brushless” at Morgan Lehman (through July 28) has to sound like more business as usual. A roller, a rubbing, or a palette knife should not come as a surprise, not even in such capable hands. Still, poured paint from Carolanna Parlato, shaped by tilting the canvas, and hard edges by Halsey Hathaway, made with an atomizer, had me wondering that they pulled it off.

The most ambitious theme may well be the simplest, with two full floors of “White Heat” at Marc Straus (through July 30), for all its limits. It cannot offer white painting by Alberto Burri, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Valerie Jaudon, or Robert Ryman—or lattices of white cubes by Sol LeWitt. It includes sculpture, where a patina of white is more an option than a reduction, even with deadly nightshade covered in frost by Jeanne Silverthorne or a brutal torso by Nicole Eisenman, like a horse by Raymond Duchamp-Villon as a frat boy. Mostly, it eschews color in favor of a textured surface, with Europeans more concerned for elegance than a revolution. Yet it, too, reminds me of summer. Even in off season for galleries, the heat is on.

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

7.19.17 — The Culture of Clutter

To pick up on Dia:Chelsea from last time, Hanne Darboven left behind an impressive collection, but what exactly was she collecting? Did she herself even know?

Her house near Hamburg preserves its contents, and I can only imagine the clutter. It could not possibly have the obsessive organization of her best work, but that, too, is fiendishly elusive. Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983, back after nearly twenty years, fills nearly sixteen hundred sheets—and every wall, through July 29, and then some. MutualArtIt is always willing to start over and never willing to stop.

It rests on sheets of uniform dimensions, many with identical off-red borders from typing paper or the covers of a newsweekly. Yet it may shift in a moment from fine art to clips from popular culture—framed at times only by the blackness of a stage curtain and the triangle of a spotlight. It has sums that add up while accounting for nothing, street scenes without a map, calendar pages that come and go as they please, and music based on nothing more than her number schemes. Even her start and end dates are arbitrary. Darboven surely did not set to work in 1880, and her images include European cities from long, long ago. And then she left off well before her death in her late sixties, in 2009.

She could deliver the “cultural history” of her title, if only one could pin it down. Her found or rephotographed images range from Marlene Dietrich and Casablanca to the Beatles and Frank Stella, with stops for political events along the way. She labels one set Wende, or turning point—a term that, perhaps by coincidence, often applies to Eastern Europe after Communism, although the Berlin Wall had not fallen in 1983. She may also imply a personal history, in the hours spent collecting and her tastes as a collector, although Darboven did not select covers for Der Spiegel. Some sheets contain letterhead from the family business, but with no clues to what it was. Her Opus 17A for double bass plays in the background, like a figure from classical music that refuses to quit.

The whole work occupies a moment in time about to slip away. If Darboven fits with Minimalism and conceptual art, she fell into them naturally during an extended stay in New York in the 1960s. She ends well before the Internet, with images now available at the swipe of a finger. Hanne Darboven's Konstruktion (Dia Arts Center, 1998)When I first caught her work, I thought of it as quaint as book art, although many of its pages rest too high on the wall to turn or even to see. Devices like postcards are familiar enough now from younger artists—and date paintings from On Kawara. It is chastening to recall that she got there first.

Her collection could have fit comfortably in “The Keeper” last summer, if only the New Museum had found room (and I have wrapped this review into my earlier report for my latest upload). It even includes a teddy bear, along with a rocking chair, some kitschy mannequins, a crescent moon in wood, a crucifix, and a Bible. The sculpture seems to have tumbled right out of the pasted images, and it helps give them a greater presence. It helps place her cultural history in space and time as well. It invokes a lost innocence and a settled guilt. If Darboven belongs to the beginnings of Postmodernism, she also belongs to the Germany she knew.

She lived in a culture that could still make Hitler the cover story, where an American news magazine never could, because there the weight of the past refuses to lift. Her images keep their distance, even when one spots old favorites. They also retain their immediacy, even when they threaten to lose any meaning at all. They are at ease in the old world, but without nostalgia, and uncomfortable in the new, but without an easy irony. A system, she insists, will never reach totality. Yet she cannot quit searching for either one.

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

7.17.17 — Minimalism as Lightweight

As Minimalism goes, Kishio Suga is a lightweight. Not that his largest and latest work at Dia:Chelsea, through July 29, lacks heft. Its cracked timbers rise nearly to human height, with a thickness that would embarrass a human waistline. Slim metal beams lie across them as well. Together, they construct a monumental architecture, with the plinths as ancient columns and the metal a modern steel frame. If they lack for walls, unlike Richard Serra, so does the Parthenon.

Like architecture, too, or for that matter like Serra, they are both welcoming and confining. Feel free to explore, but on their terms. In the course of exploration, you may see them at any given moment as a game, a comfort, or a threat. You may wish to be careful so as not to knock them down, lest you injure a work of art, another human being, or yourself. Serra’s rusted steel can seem precarious, too, even at its weightiest. Still, for all his ambition, Suga’s obstacle course is far lighter, more open, and deliciously random.

Suga is like that, and so is Mono-ha, the Japanese counterpart to Minimalism. Where Minimalism works between sculpture and industry, the Japanese movement works between architecture and landscape. It often rises vertically, where an American like Carl Andre would hesitate to defy gravity, but with open sight lines. It also both accepts accident and human intervention. Additional steel plates stack between many of Suga’s beams, to level them. The weathered materials seem more natural than impersonal.

Like a Japanese garden, they also come with spiritual pretensions that an American would shun. Suga calls them Law of Halted Space, while other titles speak of phases and transformation. Together, the six works amount to a modest retrospective, from 1968 to the present. A stone looks left over from the building’s infrastructure, perhaps as a door, with the artist’s doodlings in vinyl. Others stick to wood, metal, paint, stone, and earth. More than Lee Ufan, Suga has to get back to the garden.

More than others, too, he is not above muss and fuss. It weakens the smaller works while heightening the larger ones. The second largest connects its stones by wrapping them in thick wire. Another depends on Suga to hold it up. Where John McCracken would simply lean a plank against the wall, he leans two against each other—and even that does not promise a firm balance. He has to place stones at the feet of each one.

The fuss can get in the way of what Minimalism and Mono-ha share most. At their best, both oblige one to focus not just on objects, but also on oneself and one’s environment. When human perception does play a role, it does not always play to the work’s benefit either. Friends swore that the wood smelled like puke. (Maybe they should have reflected on what that says about the normal treatment of materials or about themselves.) As a sculpture garden, the installation may appear at its most enticing as one looks from one work to another.

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

7.14.17 — Happening on Concrete

Lygia Pape was working away on modern art when something remarkable happened: she stumbled onto the 1960s. In the face of dictatorship, in fact, she helped to bring the decade alive.

Coming into the Met Breuer through July 23, you, too, can stumble onto a happening. A photo covers the entire wall across from the elevators, with dozens of heads popping out of a rippling white sheet. Lygia Pape's Divisor (Divided) (photo by Paula Pape, Projeto Lygia Pape, 1968/1990)Who knows what it hides—and who knows how many more children of the favelas extend beyond the photo’s edges? Like any happening, it brings people together in the name of chaos, protest, or play. Pape first staged it in 1968 and called it Divisor (or “divided”) rather than assembly, but then the decade that inaugurated the culture wars was notoriously divided. Her retrospective ends with bursts of color, including a red table and chairs covered with parrot feathers, like her very own strawberry fields.

Pape was not at the center of a mod London, and she was too old for a baby boomer. She was bringing a changing century to the Americas. Modernism had arrived before, with Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola in their travels from the Bauhaus, and yet abstraction was still something of a novelty in Rio when Pape, born in 1927, joined with others in founding Grupo Frente in 1954. Frente means the front, as in the vanguard, but this avant-garde looked way back to Piet Mondrian in the Netherlands and what Theo van Doesburg back then called Art Concrete. It had a lot of catching up to do. Five years later she and others, including Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, issued a Neo-Concrete manifesto.

Her work keeps moving back and forth between book art and, on film, performance. She traces parallel lines in ink and woodcuts, but with gaps that transform the image into overlapping triangles and circles. She cuts and peels paper so that it becomes an object in three dimensions or a frame for whatever lies before her. Even when she works in wood blocks or paint, she sticks to small dimensions, and she spoke of her most ambitious projects as books. They include the books of time, night and day, architecture, and creation—each suggesting art or a woman’s life as a coming to be. The first, or Livro do Tempo, cuts into and layers onto small squares, one for each colorful day of the year.

Art itself, then, has become a happening. It has the desultory pace of the crowd that gathered into a circle, as Espaços imantados (or “magnetized spaces”) in 1995. It has the intimations of violence of her woman with a stabbed tongue—like the woman shot in the eye in Sergei Einstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Pape knew about violence at first hand, too, for she lived through a military coup in 1964, soon after the Neo-Concrete movement disbanded, and chose to remain in Brazil at the cost of imprisonment. She retains, though, the optimism of her tales of creation and change, with her Objects of Seduction from 1968 and Wheel of Pleasures from 1976. The first involves false eyelashes and make-up mirrors, the second white bowls of colored water.

The water makes use of food coloring and flavoring, including such native ingredients as banana, coffee, and coconut. And Pape keeps returning to her nation’s poverty and indigenous people along with her Modernism and sophistication. Barely clothed men play tribal percussion in one video, and they hang out near a house on stilts by the water in another. Pape obtained her BA and MA only in her forties, and she taught architecture at a time when Roberto Burle Marx and Latin American architecture were thriving. Her layered paintings and books could pass for architectural models as well, much like those of Mateo López later in Colombia. Yet they keep looking for a culture present for her at the creation.

A Multitude of Forms,” curated by Iria Candela with the Projeto Lygia Pape, keeps up well with her shifting interests until her death in 2004. Yet a decade’s tale of becoming is present all along. At first her vocabulary is right out of Mondrian, as is the matte white of her gouache on board—but the lines and squares land with the spontaneity of the I Ching. The parallel traces from 1956 cohere all at once into black stripes exactly like those of Frank Stella three years later. Years later, with Ttéia (or “web” with an extra T), much the same parallels become shimmering masses in metallic thread, like rising beams or falling water. A new concrete is finally happening.

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

7.12.17 — The Tropics of Soho

The Met has the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas and the American Museum of Natural History its special collections. Only the Drawing Center, though, has a department of tropical research.

At least it does through July 16, and its exhibition is an act of the imagination, but the department and the research are real. William Beebe directed them for over thirty years, on behalf of the New York Zoological Society—now the Wildlife Conservation Society. As the Center puts it, he “took the lab into the jungle, rather than the jungle to the lab.” Isabel Cooper's Margay Tigrina Vigens Head (photo by Martin Parsekian, Wildlife Conservation Society, 1922)And now, more than fifty years after his death, he has taken it to Soho. It has taken in some artifice by Mark Dion along the way.

Exploratory Works” lays out its history, with maps, documents, and period equipment. As curators, Dion, Katherine McLeod, and Madeleine Thompson bring these and more together in a tall cabinet and a recreation of its field station. They include a film of the research team poised to take their floating laboratory to the rivers and sea—in a bathysphere and along the coast of South America. Most of all, they set out the product of its research, in the form of watercolors of tropical life. The show gains relevance today thanks to global warming and Donald J. Trump, as scientists march for their and the planet’s future. It has added punch, too, because women did so much of the drawing.

Some of the names are lost, including both artists and species, but Isabel Cooper helped get things moving when she joined Beebe in 1919. They show the world less as “dog eat dog” than as animal life struts its stuff. A tiger for Cooper, as for William Blake, is burning bright, while ocean sunfish for Else Bostelmann appear to smile or to cower—even as a viper fish swoops in with its saber-toothed jaws. The stomach contents of another deep-sea fish, notoriously larger than the fish itself at rest, seem to be getting along just fine. Plants or invertebrates make an appearance only as a backdrop to the exotic display of color and motion. An insect for George Swanson Carpito may be feeding on a leaf, but the leaf seems to be deepening its pink and purple on behalf of the bug.

Then, too, there is another element of their symbiosis and the ecosystem, in Dion. The field station looks more convincing than many of the drawings, but he has pretty much made it up. It has a full wall where one can linger but not enter. It also has the clutter and quaintness of his Curiosity Shop, again at the intersection of art and science. Like Beebe, he has made art from the space between sea and shore, with his Thames Dig, and he has gone deep with his Rescue Archaeology. He has to like a project in which the same individuals served as lead scientists and field artists.

The entire exhibition may have one wondering what counts as science or art. Is the Drawing Center taking on the job of a natural history museum for a change? And is it doing so because that, too, is an aspect of drawing—or because the drawings are so vivid as art? (Cooper took pride in her Japanese brushes and spoke of a “tapestried” lizard.) Or is it doing so because they have become part of an installation by a living artist? One may wonder whether watercolors can do the job of science at all.

Of course, Beebe could not rely on color photography back then, especially in the field. And scientific drawings have a long history, including Leonardo when he had given up painting and Albrecht Dürer when he saw his work as art. Art and science, I have argued, can meet in more than one way. Art can take science as its subject, as with science fiction, or as the tools of its trade, as with color charts and Post-Impressionism. It can aspire to the study of nature, like science, or explore science as itself a mode of representation. The best side of “Exploratory Works” lies, like its title, in the plural.

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

7.10.17 — The Farthest North

In 1848, in his mid-forties, Peder Balke traveled to what was thought to be the northernmost point in Europe. He did not have far to go.

The son of landless peasants, he had fallen in love with the land. The North Cape was only the latest in his meanderings through Norway in search of his art. Even when he made it as far as Dresden in 1835, he studied with a countryman who had settled there, Johan Christian Dahl. When the Met calls him a “painter of northern light,” through (oops, my apologies) July 9, he could only approve. Peder Balke's North Cape by Moonlight (Private collection, Oslo, 1848)

He did not have far to go as an artist either. He had also met a far greater exponent of Northern Romanticism, in Caspar David Friedrich, and drenched himself in its tenets. He keeps returning to moonlight and cold grays—as well as to sky, rocks, and coastlines. On an earlier trip to Stockholm, his rare cityscape pushes the skyline into the distance, with steeples as bare as masts against a stormy sea. Moonlight only hardens the crests of the waves. “Human beings,” he wrote, “the children of nature, take a secondary role.”

With the North Cape, Balke settled at last on his formula. A broad arc of clouds tops an otherwise empty sky, with the moon at its center, like the savior in a painting from Baroque Italy. The broken rhythms of a rocky shore define the scale—much as, a few years later, nearly abstract waves will define the horizon. The painting’s most prominent feature, a sheer cliff, could pass for arctic ice. A small boat makes its way into the distance, with a man standing above its crew like Washington crossing the Delaware. Wherever the painter now goes, mountains or even a waterfall will appear to be rising, and the boat will be making its way.

People, then, have a role after all, even an active role, but nowhere near so much as in his predecessors. He does not treat ports as the site of boundless activity, like J. M. W. Turner. He does not transform the sky, again like Turner, into an apocalypse—or, like John Constable, into a singular record of changing weather. When the Met turns from him to Dahl, the scene seems to plunge all at once into depth, color, and vegetation. For Balke, only a near absence of human transformation approaches the sublime. As he also wrote, he is interested not in what the mind brings to nature, but the “impression made on the eye and mind.”

That concern for the impression may explain his increasing turn inward. Unlike Dahl, he did not paint on the spot but rather in his studio in Oslo, where he settled in the 1850s. Maybe he preferred the filters artifice and memory, or maybe he just could not bear company. He gave up painting for others altogether in 1879, leaving him all but forgotten at his death eight years later. By the 1850s he already works small, in oil on paper mounted on panel, and by the end he works smaller still. With just seventeen paintings of his, this is also a small exhibition.

Maybe the Met never can decide whether to mount a retrospective. It uses its room for “focus exhibitions” of just one or paintings in context, like Turner’s whaling pictures or an altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, but here it aspires to more. Still, the show does not run chronologically, and it intersperses work by Dahl even before a concluding section for contemporaries. It does, though, conform well to that inward turn—and, in the process, a final break from passivity. In its last and smallest panels, paint thins out and color vanishes entirely, almost like ink or a photographic negative. The spare points of black serve for clouds, trees, the northern lights, or a foretaste of abstraction. Balke has reached his extreme point and discovered ghosts.

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

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