7.24.17 — A Matter of Style

Irving Penn was not just a fashion photographer. The Met insists on it, by opening and closing an abundant survey of his work with still life, like the remains of a meal. It catches a man lighting a woman’s cigarette, a girl drinking, and a woman resting her chin on the bridge of a man’s nose. Yet there, too, Penn takes pains to compose the apparent artlessness—and I have added this to an earlier report on his photography as a longer review and my latest upload.

The show celebrates the centennial of his birth and a massive gift from the Irving Penn Foundation, filled out with work from the Met’s existing collection, through July 30. It includes the peoples of the Andes, Africa, and the South Pacific along with celebrities. It includes workers in London, Paris, and New York—along with cigarette butts that they might well have thrown away. It includes storefronts that are anything but this year’s model. It includes nudes in contortions that preclude dressing for a ball. Still, they are all posing, and together with the photographer they are all putting on a show. Irving Penn's The Bath (A) (Dancers Workshop of San Francisco) (Irving Penn Foundation/Pace gallery, 1967)

To be sure, Penn did not just work for Alexander Liberman at Vogue. He bought his first Rolleiflex Twin-Lens Reflex camera in 1938, while a young assistant to Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar, and the Met sets a later purchase out front. He continued working in advertising while at Vogue, and he would probably have made much the same choices even if they were not to appear in print. The headless and legless nudes did not go over all that well at first, the cigarettes even less so. A show last year called them his personal work, and their grainy prints foretell the dark totems and darker cavities in sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. Yet they, too, pose upright for the camera, and still later cigarette packages and flowers look like modern dancers.

The curators, Maria Morris Hambourg and Jeff L. Rosenheim, speak of “face and figure, attitude and demeanor, adornment and artifact.” Even early street photography sticks to surfaces, with shop signs and shadows. Still life may come with titles like Theatre Accident and Salad Ingredients, but anyone at the scene of the accident or the kitchen has vanished for good. Portraits from the 1950s warmed up his sitters with coffee, to present them “honestly,” but Richard Burton seated at a table, his arms commandingly in front, will never let his hair down. That “personal work” already included Pablo Picasso dressed as a matador, only even more stylish.

The photographer has much in common with Picasso at that. He, too, changed subjects and styles again and again—and he, too, kept returning to both, like an aging Picasso to his lovers. Penn sets his “existential portraits” from the late 1940s in a corner, for the physical presence of a confined dancer, like Jerome Robbins, or the emotional presence of a confined artist, like Marcel Duchamp. And then he repeats the device for sitter after sitter. Like any a commercial photographer, he is packaging fashion as sex and high style. Yet he is also stylizing sex as high fashion.

The nudes make that stylization obvious, with their reference to the Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf. Readers found their sexuality as disturbing in a fashion magazine as their fallen breasts. Yet his travels, too, were a matter of style. A butcher or a knife grander carries off his costume and the tools of his trade very much like a model with hers. The people of Peru, New Guinea, or Dahomey flaunt their native dress and adornment. Editors at Vogue delighted in their concern for clothes, makeup, jewelry, and theater, just as in the West.

So what's NEW!Amazingly, Penn packed all that into just a few years around 1950, although he continued working almost to his death in 2009. (He joined Vogue in 1943.) He preferred his studio to the street, even with those workers, and he took a soiled stage curtain with him as a backdrop. Its shades of gray enrich the prints, setting off the contrasts of dark and light, suits and gloves, or lipstick and flesh. He favored black and white, although the magazine more often ran his work in color, just as he favored platinum palladium prints for their tonal richness and glamour. Even among writers and artists, he preferred sitters with a sense of style—like Salvador Dalí, Tom Wolfe, or Saul Steinberg with his nose sticking out of a paper mask.

Was he bringing fashion to the detritus of ordinary life or subverting fashion all along? The Met puts him firmly in the commercial mainstream, while arguing for the diversity of his achievement. Yet it raises questions, too, only starting the heavy gloss of his fashion shoots. Is Penn alive to native cultures—or indulging in primitivism and cultural appropriation on behalf of a very western industry? What would I think if his rag and bone man in London then were a homeless person in New York now? And what if he is right, and nothing lies behind the curtain, not even a magician or (for William Butler Yeats) “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”?

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

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. MutualArtThis 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.

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.” Barbara Chase-Riboud's Matisse's Back in Twins (Michael Rosenfeld gallery, 1967/1994)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.

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. Hanne Darboven's Konstruktion (Dia Arts Center, 1998)It 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. 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.

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