7.25.14 — A Patch of Greenery

Sculpture in the parks is one of New York’s delights—and one more reason to look forward to summer. Just when many are leaving town, it invites one to explore the breadth of the city. Besides, you already wanted to leave midtown to tourists—where, if they look up, they even might catch a rendition of clouds on Fifth Avenue by the Plaza Hotel, by Olaf Breuning through August 24.

Only watch out: an outdoor group show can also become either a treasure hunt or a nuisance, sometimes both at once. Did you finally stumble on everything and identify everyone, and did a patch of urban greenery remain just for you? Zilvinas Kempinas's Scarecrow (Socrates Sculpture Park, 2014)

This summer Socrates Sculpture Park sticks to just four large works, through August 3, with plenty of room to climb right in or to lie in the sun. Take your pick. You can safely ignore, scorn, or marvel at the waterfront park’s permanent residents—the dreary urban stereotypes of statues by Tim Rollins and K.O.S and, behind a fence, the abstract giants of Mark di Suvero, a park founder.

You will find instead art tailored to the site and holding out a welcome. It includes a reminder of the city’s survival and a tribute to a dedicated New Yorker. It also includes ripples in the grass and sky. On Memorial Day weekend dandelion tufts blew past in the light.

One expects a welcome from the “Broadway billboard” above the entrance gate, and Meschac Gaba does his best, with colors that radiate out from a central point. One might mistake them for a park logo rather than a work of art, and in fact each narrow triangle elongates a nation’s flag. The Beninese artist thinks of his painting as a vision of a more harmonious world. Citoyens du Monde refers to the internationalism of a group that, starting after World War II, proclaimed its members citizens of the world. It also introduces an unusually international summer group show. My first guess, though, was that it named the heady idealism of the French revolution, and I was worried for my head.

I might have worried, too, for the ark nearby, in vinyl siding that appears to have washed up far from the shore. Austin+Mergold call it SuralArk, as a cross between suburbia and Surrealism, but it seems reasonably urban and down to earth. Its two rows of upright two-by-fours converge at the top, where a horizontal stabilizer seems only good sense, give or take that the ship is upside-down. If thoughts of Hurricane Sandy spring to mind, the curved beams elevate the ark several feet above ground, . The Philadelphia architects have painted the bottom few feet black, a projection of rising sea levels or the next Biblical flood. The vinyl canopy also suggests a refuge, although it looks bare-bones from inside.

So what's NEW!One expects Paweł Althamer to be at least as virtuous, less than challenging, and a lot sloppier, and the Polish artist delivers. The huge assemblage of spare parts and rags represents a crowned woman lying down, one droopy arm spread out at her side. Queen Mother of Reality honors Delois Blakely, a former nun who founded the New Future Foundation, to support a student exchange program with Africa and to promote multi-ethnic understanding. She holds the honorary title of community mayor of Harlem as well, and this is Astoria, but who expects Althamer to look beyond virtues to specifics? He also has the unfortunate result of making her look like an oversized bag lady sleeping in the park. One can enter the construction for more, including Chinese lanterns and airplane seats, but do not come looking for illumination or a wild ride.

Zilvinas Kempinas, who brought (ouch) a disco floor for Governor’s Island in 2011, has the largest work, but also the most free to sunbathers and the imagination. Like the ark, Scarecrow banks on two rows, only of upright poles in stainless steel, and their curves lay out an arc in the grass rather than the sky. Mylar runs overhead between the rows, like more flags for citizens of Queens or the world.

Sunlight dances along the tape as it moves with the wind, all the more dazzling when the breeze dies down and the motion seems to belong to the light alone. The Lithuanian artist keeps the poles far enough apart that one can easily pass into the central meadow, where the rippling of thin shadow lines in the grass can grow downright disorienting. Still, one can look up to find a welcome—and a New York summer.

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

7.23.14 — But Is It Sculpture?

Not every summer group show trots out the usual suspects. “There are too many painting shows,” begins one press release. “There aren’t enough sculpture shows. / We are fixing that.” If that sounds like boasting, it has nothing on the show’s title: “This Is What Sculpture Looks Like,” at Postmasters through August 2. Diana Cooper's Skylight 1 (Postmasters, 2012-2013)

Not convinced? Surely sculpture is everywhere and on an ever-increasing scale—with Urs Fischer, Richard Serra, Oscar Murillo, Tara Donovan, Paul McCarthy, and Sterling Ruby recently trashing the largest New York galleries. Ruby also held center stage in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. What could be hotter, too, than the everyday objects, broken symmetries, and architectural presence of today’s Neo-Minimalism? Of the sixteen summer artists, Rachel Beach’s totems of found wood and stacked triangles offer a perfect example, just as in the 2012 art fairs. So do Esperanza Mayobre’s blond wood and black rods, like a miniature lightning field by Walter de Maria.

Diana Cooper, who has brought an expanded skylight to this very gallery, stacks tables in a crumbling “cubicle,” while Natalie Jeremijenko, who has communed with birds, translates live mussels into sound art. Not even they know the formula.

Joanna Malinowska has her monumental life forms, with tusks emerging from stuffed vinyl. A futon has never had it so primeval. Shinique Smith bundles stuffed fabric as well, as she has at the Studio Museum in Harlem, while another African American, Caitlin Cherry, has shown at the Whitney. Smith’s blob hangs down like a dress form or a mafia hit.

You may not recognize Monica Cook, but you will probably know the crystalline crust and torn skin of her couple making love from David Altmejd. (This once, the woman is on top.) The same rawness animates Saeri Kiritani’s standing nude entirely of rice. MutualArtHer pale surface and small stature, at a mere hundred pounds, may embody female stereotypes or defy them. So might Rachael Mason’s dolls up on the walls, clothed in shattered mirrors. Her role models include Laurie Anderson, P. J. Harvey, Eva Hesse, and Frida Kahlo.

You might have another objection, too: this is not what sculpture looks like, at least not for the history books. It has little debt to tradition, unless Smith’s bulges draw on Constantin Brancusi or Brenna Murphy’s Lego colors on Celtic patterns. Abstraction and figuration alike hardly intrude. Even Pop Art and Minimalism remain largely at a distance, although Michelle Matson simulates Dow insulation with silkscreens, like Andy Warhol in his Brillo boxes.

Much, one might add, is not even sculpture. Yet that has an upside, too, in extending the boundaries. Cherry’s abstraction tiles the bottom of an actual swimming pool, and Kate Ostler’s ceramics pick up on folk art, while bearing protest slogans on behalf of adjunct college faculty. Daria Irincheeva’s suspension of wood pulp and paper functions much like painting, while Katie Torn offers only the illusion of sculpture with a print.

Molly Crabapple’s Portrait of Myself actually is painting, on a two-sided panel cut in the shape of her head. “Another ‘narcissistic’ artist,” her thoughts read, “utterly subversive” but “seriously psychotic,” to the point that “you should be ashamed.” Just three years after coordinated summer group shows helped revive abstract painting, the shame of yet another medium may be losing its sway.

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

7.22.14 — On My Way!

(The way to Dia:Beacon, photo by John Haber, 2014)

Actually this past Friday. The route to Dia:Beacon, on my way to see the amazing place again, plus an amazing retrosective of Carl Andre.

7.21.14 — Primarily Global

Was Minimalism quintessentially American? One could argue for something starkly American in the efficiency of repetitive geometries, the can-do spirit of materials from the hardware store, and the “in your face” daring of flung lead and near empty rooms. Minimalism even sounds Puritan.

Spareness also got a boost in painting from a MoMA exhibition called “Sixteen Americans”—and in sculpture from the Jewish Museum in 1966, with “Primary Structures.” What, though, counts as primary, in an art that returns to its elements, and who deserves primacy? Now at that same museum, “Other Primary Structures” sees an art that was, literally, all over the map. To pick up the story from last time, it also goes well with a recent show of a little-known French movement, Support/Structures. Together, they are the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload. Lee Ufan's Relatum (photo by the artist, National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, 1969)

Sure, Minimalism came in a great wave of postwar American movements—and as a clean break with one them, Abstract Expressionist New York. It brought to prominence some of the most recognizable names in American art, from the accumulated weight of Donald Judd and Carl Andre to the “light and space” of Dan Flavin or such Californians as Larry Bell, James Turrell, Douglas Wheeler, Anne Truitt, and Mary Corse. Yet this time the Jewish Museum looks well beyond America.

In fact, it looks twice, with a first part through May 18 covering the years before “Primary Structures,” as a direct challenge to its priority. It points to Neo-Concretism in Brazil, with Lygia Clark and Hélio Oitaca, as well as Gego’s metal grates and black tiling from Venezuela, but also artists from Pakistan, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe. The second part, through August 3, picks up the story and carries it to Africa, East Asia, and the Middle East.

Wall-sized photos of the original exhibition provide a backdrop—and a nemesis. So does a model of the museum as it looked then, with the works visible in a courtyard and inside. (Maybe every museum should be available as a doll house, with MoMA offering little kids a handy lesson in real estate.) And much of “Other Primary Structures” has a clear parallel in American art. Rasheed Araeen’s open blue cube recalls Sol LeWitt and his rusted I-bars Richard Serra, while Noemi Escandell’s X or Norberto Puzzolo’s inverted V‘s might pass for work of Ronald Bladen. Later work parallels a more organic Post-Minimalism as well, like Yoshida Katsurō’s black pipe bursting with white cotton.

Others go very much their own way—or, when it comes to the minimal, lighten up. Clark’s shiny tabletop “critters” in angled metal adapt David Smith, but visitors can fold and refold them to make them their own. Alejandro Puente leans a plank against a wall, like John McCracken, but as a colorful set of three. David Medella goes as far as a bubble machine for his Cloud Canyon. Sometimes, too, parallels run not to America but across other continents. While Susumu Koshimizu in Japan nestled stone in a white paper box, Benni Efrat in Israel encased a steel plate in white foam.

One can also argue for local histories, in contrast to America’s abstracted time and space. Mono-ha, the “school of things” in Japan, bridges western concreteness and an eastern stillness. Nobuo Sekine’s black tanks of seemingly black water bring heavy industry to the garden—and some have detected a Zen influence on Minimalism all along.

The curator, Jens Hoffmann, speaks of those marginalized by the hegemony of the Western canon, but the artists have a few local hegemonies on their mind as well. Branko Vlahović’s plaster relief, from Zagreb, has the brutal look of Soviet-era architecture. When Edward Krasinski’s spindly metal rod breaks off into fragmented cylinders, one can imagine the Polish system coming apart.

Hoffman notes a global opening of art to fashion and food, although Minimalism in America was very much about a broadening of materials, too. Think of Serra’s torn rubber or of earthworks. The entire show comes a little late in the game as well, after museum retrospectives of Clark and Lee Ufan.

It also lacks in ambition. Where once art took over the entire building, with the majestic Upper East Side mansion as their playground, these primary structures have to settle for half an exhibition at a time, on the second floor. Amir Nour’s polished metal arches could almost be wiggling across the floor, and I only wish they had further to go.

Maybe other nations had to have their own paths, because American art had something to say that they could not. The scale model serves as a reminder of how Minimalism once opened art to its surroundings. Oscar Bony’s yellow “sinusoid” and Antonieta Sosa’s stairs run up against the wall before trailing away, but much of the art on hand does not. Kishio Suga’s wood plane and beam, held in place by stones at each end, boldly threatens to collapse, but much else stays put. It tends to focus on the sculptural object, whereas the wall photos show an art that engages the viewer well beyond structure. Somehow the global art scene is still struggling with hegemonies of its own.

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

7.18.14 — France on the Surface

Probably every curator and every dealer dreams of a rediscovery—that overlooked or forgotten artist who now seems central to the past and newly relevant today. This is not the search for a folk artist or an outsider art, but for someone who can turn recent history inside-out. Not everyone, though, imagines stumbling on an entire movement. Bernard Pagès's Fagot (Canada gallery, 1968)

Supports/Surfaces, a loose and short-lived group in France, does not appear in the effort to extend Minimalism globally of “Other Primary Structures,” at the Jewish Museum. It does not, when last I looked, even have a Wikipedia page in English, and I, for one, could not recognize a single name. At Canada through July 20, it looks eminently familiar all the same.

France already had a Minimalism in painting, best known from Daniel Buren and Olivier Moesset, the first two letters of what now and again billed itself as BMPT. Yet Pierre Soulages had not shifted entirely to black when more than a dozen artists, almost uniformly male, staked out their own ambivalent relationship to the mainstream.

They started in the south of France, but they had their signature exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris in 1969. They cited Clement Greenberg as an influence, but also Chairman Mao. They denied a basis for art in biography or the personality of the artist, but they were immersed in politics—and many, the gallery observes, were veterans of the war in Algeria that redefined the left much like Vietnam for the United States. They denied a basis for art in history as well, but they worked right in Henri Matisse territory, and it shows.

“The subject of painting is painting itself,” they wrote in the closest they came to a manifesto, and yet “it is neither a return to basics nor the search for an original purity.” They embraced not just bare supports and surfaces, but also color and an assault on painting. Most of the art hangs by only nails at the upper corners, like the pink and yellow vinyl of Jean-Michel Meurice, as surfaces without support. Some amounts to dyed and knotted rope descending to the floor, like that of Claude Viallat, without a surface to support. Much looks more like banners than paintings, like Patrick Saytour’s violet folds draped from slim white poles and spanning an entire wall. He is not saying what they are cheering on or protesting against, but the catalogue’s cover does take its colors from a soccer team.

In other words, it is art at play, although often wrapped in the soft materials and bodily associations of Eva Hesse, Richard Tuttle, and Post-Minimalism. Saytour also bundles material like sandbags, but stained with red and blue lips. Daniel Dezeuze’s rolling ladder of soft wood looks pliable metal. It parallels Arte Povera as well, in its frequent strategy of cutting and folding. Louis Cane calls his bold arrangement of red, yellow, and blue Toile Découpée (or “cut-up canvas”), while André-Pierre Arnal titles his geometry in orange and green Pliage (or “folds”). Pierre Buraglio cuts, folds back, and then paints the center of a canvas, for a vertical of deep color against the simplicity of its background and the wall.

Compared to Arte Povera, they aspire neither to formal elegance on the one hand nor to violence on the other. Often a white wall or fabric serves as one color field among many, as for Jean-Pierre Pincemin beneath his parallel stripes or for Mark Devade below his red squares and chevrons. Only Noël Dolla approaches all-over painting, although sometimes on dishrags. The closest thing to an overt political gesture came early, in 1968, when Bernard Pagés lay sticks in coiled metal fencing, like a homemade bomb. And the closest thing to irony comes when Cane stencils his name repeatedly, along with his identity as artiste and peintre, both right-side up and upside-down.

With the explosion of markets, the pressure to make discoveries keeps building. And with the turn these days from irony to eclecticism, it makes sense that some of the best discoveries skip back a generation or two to Minimalism, as with Charles Hinman or Phyllida Barlow. Other movements have received fresh attention as well, such as Neo-Concretism in Brazil, Mono-ha in Japan, and the whole of “Other Primary Structures.”

Supports/Surfaces comes across as very much a movement, to the point that one artist all but blends into another. And the Lower East Side exhibition, in conjunction with the French gallery of the group’s consistent champion, Bernard Ceysson, insists on its persistence past the turmoil of the 1960s, with Buraglio’s works from the early 1980s and almost everything else from the early 1970s. There is no mistaking a continuity not just from Minimalism before them, but also through Neo-Geo and what has become a Neo-Minimalism for today.

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

7.16.14 — Do You Believe in Magic?

Scott Alario believes in magic, the kind in a little girl’s bedroom or his own backyard. He had always believed that his family belonged not so much to him as to the universe, ever since he became a father. One past series of photographs relied on a UV sensor meant to track game, lending eyes the beady shine of extraterrestrial beings. They have the characteristic optimism of much American Surrealism, but they belong to something wilder and the night. Another series stared directly at the sun, and a third sums up Alario’s world in its very title, Our Fable. Scott Alario's Eternity til Sleep (Kristen Lorello gallery, 2011)

He is still after that shared fable and a shared magic, in “What We Conjure,” at Kristen Lorello through July 18. Visitors enter their private world just in stumbling on the gallery—up a back elevator on an otherwise active Lower East Side block, but with minimal street signage hastily thrown together. The show contains just ten large-format prints (although the full series runs longer), presumably because conjuring takes care and attention. It, too, belongs largely to the night, even in a hazy sunshine.

The title could be a pun, leaving open who is playing tricks—the subject or the photographer. Yet the magic lies just as much in their intimacy and collaboration.

They go about their daily routine, napping or hanging out by the clothesline. The father does the dishes, back to the camera, the child on his shoulders raising her arms to the window and loving every minute.

Another past series conjured up a deeper history, dropping children into vintage prints of arctic and lake explorers, as Frontier Fathers. This one requires less irony and less special pleading. The masks are all dime-store plastic and, as the saying goes, seriously funny. Their wearers keep all hours all the same.

Photography has always veered between powerful impulses—toward magic and toward the truth. Think of the gleam of a photogram and the testimony of street photography. Yet the two impulses have a way of spilling into one another as much as Postmodernism might wish. Which comes forward most when Robert Mapplethorpe confronts death? Has Photoshop dispelled the magic once and for all, or is it just another tool in the service of the imagination? Alario’s twist is to perform his magic on the cheap and to make it as familiar as home.

The mother kneels, eye clothed, while holding above her head a white disk to catch the moonlight, like a moon itself. The father stands with his face covered by clothing on the line and a still brighter light. The child climbs a box wrapped in a tarp, on her way to the sky, and rests in freshly fallen leaves, on her way to the earth. A dog paws in “moon mud.” I have no idea how far the family lived from civilization as we know it, in the course of two years in Rhode Island and Maine, but it can claim the proximity of a backyard and the depth of the woods. Toy boats float in an outdoor wooden hot tub, as if on the edge of the wilderness.

The photographer’s side of the magic act amounts to long and multiple exposures. They pick out the texture of the leaves—or of the fur that the girl holds out like a magician’s cape. They cover her with the stars and leave her transparent to the night. They allow Alario five copies of himself at the clothesline.

He is up to his old tricks in a digital age, but he is not looking back. Children grow up quickly, and the old magic may soon be gone.

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