6.23.17 — May Showers

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Allow me to wrap up from last time, as part of a longer review of the art fairs and my latest upload. A dank weekend put the freeze in Frieze and gave new meaning to Fridge. Even in sunlight, can anyone feel at home at an art fair, much less Frieze?

It occupies an island in the East River—and a tent with two hundred exhibitors. Yet right off I spotted Blue Clock by Ugo Rondinone and two translucent planks by Anne Veronica Janssens, both at Esther Schipper of Berlin, playing off against slim neon by Keith Sonnier at Pace, as alternative visions of light and color. Barbara Chase-Riboud's Matisse's Back in Twins (Michael Rosenfeld gallery, 1967/1994)And then to the side I saw two favorite Lower East Side galleries within a stone’s throw of such blue chips as Victoria Miro and Hauser & Wirth. You know, I thought, I might actually enjoy this.

Frieze does its level best to set one at ease. It leans contemporary and welcomes younger galleries without reducing their Focus booths to closets—or setting them apart from the mainstream. And here “younger” means less than twelve years of age, an eternity in the changing art scene. Rochelle Feinstein at On Stellar Rays has an ample wall for her text, rendered all the more enigmatic by a partial covering. Frame galleries, less than eight years old, get more of a ghetto, but facing each other like a Silicon Valley open office. As for the blue chips, their booths approach what another fair would call lounges.

In a display of wealth like this fair, size matters. Hauser & Wirth has blue ink flowing over screen prints from Ebony and Jet by Lorna Simpson, for African American culture as a force of nature. A boulder surrounded by pipes by Lee Ufan at Lisson looks anything but cramped—and it still leaves space for Anish Kapoor gearing up this summer for Brooklyn Bridge Park. David Zwirner has plentiful selections of Carol Bove and William Eggleston, tied to their appearance at the Venice Biennale. Another Biennale participant, Anri Sala, makes the open area part of the show, as a bare setting for robotic drumming at Marion Goodman. Sheet metal spilling its irregular sheen onto the floor by Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga, a Kenyan artist now based in Texas, is just one among other works at October.

Like October, a London gallery, the fair hits all the right notes with global artists and women. That is only to be expected. So are the occasional projects apart from booths, although they are the least of the show’s concerns. The bows to political art rarely extend to the art or politics of the present. Does that, too, comport with lounges for BMW and Deutsche Bank Wealth Management? Still, Frieze reaches out now and then to nonprofits as well, including White Columns and SculptureCenter.

So what's NEW!Solo acts, too, come with a theme and a boast. They look back to “twentieth-century pioneers” in need of rediscovery. It takes some doing to think of Kenny Scharf at Honor Fraser of LA as neglected, rather than a product line. Still, Spotlight booths include galleries devoted to rediscovery, like Garth Greenan, Mitchell Algus, and Michael Rosenfield—here with rope and polished steel by Barbara Chase-Riboud, the African American sculptor. It also allows a fresh look at Alfred Leslie and his photorealism, at Bruce Silverstein. Here Leslie isolates not individuals in crisp light but rather groups in near darkness, for the psychological and social tensions of a death in the family or the working-class America of Youngstown, Ohio.

Maybe I had to feel at home, in a fair with cafés given over to New York staples. Roberta’s pizza beats a generic champagne bar any day. Maybe I just needed to feel at home, facing a long trip back in the storm. Maybe I was half afraid of home, after photographs of bus stops across America by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg at Gallery Luisotti of LA—as anonymous and ubiquitous as gas stations for Ed Ruscha. Or maybe this is home for all too much of the art world. Wealth, art, and politics make for perplexing but inescapable company.

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

6.21.17 — Out of Context

I was too busy making my way to the May art fairs to report on them that awful weekend, so allow me to catch up now. They still make a great story—and yet another excuse to assess money and the art world. Besides, as you may have noticed, there are more fairs going on, in Europe this time, right now.

I entered Frieze chilled to the bone and anything but eager for another mammoth art fair. I had sat half an hour in the ferry to Randall’s Island with my feet in puddles of water and the city’s looming just beyond windows curtained with a driving rain. MutualArtLooking back, I have to wonder that it ran at all. Inside, though, I could almost have found myself at home. Why? I have already reported on the March fairs, in all their more often overlooked variety. A longer article and my latest upload begins by wrapping up those reports. And now I pick up the story in May. Sure, blame Frieze for extending that season, but before I tell you more about that cold wet day, remember that it is hardly alone.

Miami New York would just as soon forget about Miami, but it has a long way to go. Divided and renamed last year for a double helping of New York, it still has no local galleries of note. Art New York promises the breadth of art and Context New York the cutting edge, but both look familiar for all the wrong reasons. Set on pier 94, like the Armory Show but without a pier for older artists, they also feel lost in the gap between Modernism and today. Did I spot a target by Kenneth Noland, a silkscreen by Robert Rauschenberg on an off day, an outtake from Cindy Sherman, yet another a cartoon animal by Jeff Koons, a half-forgotten Abstract Expressionist, and a ton of Andy Warhol? Nope, but it sure looked that way, for seemingly every artist, however contemporary, is stuck on retreads of the past.

Art fairs could stand a little context, but forget about social commentary, creative pairings, or artists in depth. The sole direct encounter with art history amounts to tacky copies after Caravaggio. Even the more than forty “special projects” never loom large. Some hang together on a long wall, like a badly curated group show, while others stand meekly beside a booth like an extension of its artists. When Pablo Helguera dedicates his project to text paintings announcing that all proceeds will go to his favorite causes, even politics becomes a sales pitch. I, for one, am not buying.

I could not bring myself to the Park Avenue Armory for a newcomer to New York from the Netherlands. While TEFAF sounds like a European corporation’s stock exchange listing, it simply stands for “the European Fine Art Fair.” And while its banner labels it a fair of modern and contemporary art, its Web site touts it as art and antiques, with all the aura of dimly remembered beauty. Mel Bochner's Going Out of Business (private collection, 2012)It speaks of having vetted every single object and of making collecting easy, with photos of a presumed expert examining something or other with a magnifying glass. One can only wonder what he finds, but take a hint: it may not be art.

Oh, no, another art fair—and not Superfluous, but Superfine! The exclamation mark is theirs, not mine, but the fair has its fine points, starting with its location. For its first run, it snags a space under the High Line, between Chelsea galleries and the Whitney. Its forty or so contributors have to settle for close quarters, but the meandering layout gives it a festive rather than regimented air. Besides, who can resist a fair that calls its seating areas near the café a backyard lounge? I can forgive any number of cheap green carpets and lawn tables to take summer indoors.

Alas, the art is not nearly as fine. The fair gives space to artists, collectives, and dealers—including a group of artists under thirty all the way from Mexico. I recognized almost no one, but I did recognize the style, leaning to realism with an air of street art. At least it tones down the trashy overstatement. The biggest work, by John P. Dessereau, assembles street scenes, with wiggling windows and each building its own canvas. It makes a suitable backdrop to the stage and café.

Fridge is always looking for another venue. Last year it found itself stranded in a park, and this year it crams into the tiny service corridor of a hotel and the back room of a bar a mile and a half apart—neither one even remotely within “a five-minute walk from the Barclay’s Center” in downtown Brooklyn. In leaving Harlem, it seems to have left behind much of its professionalism and much of its edge as well. Work runs to dog pictures and the like, most likely tossed off in minutes and just as soon forgotten. An artist at my first stop even told me not to bother with the other. Like the fair, I persevered, but maybe next year’s will not open on a bar’s trivia night, and meanwhile my next post (as I promised) moves on to Frieze.

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

6.19.17 — Beyond the Fences

Merrill Wagner had a secret weapon in her paintings from the 1970s, their support. And if it is hard to keep a painting’s physical presence secret, that is precisely the point. Many make use of tape on Plexiglas. Another distances canvas from a stretcher to find new support, in the walls and floor, where three dark squares mark out a corner of the room, at Zürcher through June 24.

Like much of the tape and her brushwork, the squares have ragged edges, just in case one was tempted to overlook their presence. And it is tempting, just as one can write off Robert Ryman, whom she married, as the painter of white on white—forgetting his range of materials from canvas and metal plates Merrill Wagner's Outerbridge Crossing (photo by Jeffrey Sturges, New York Studio School, 1986)to the bolts holding them to the wall. For both artists, it takes looking at what lies right before one’s eyes.

Six months earlier, the New York Studio School made the background to painting inescapable—and I have wrapped this into my earlier report on its show as a longer review and my latest upload. That one spanned her career, including work from the 1980s on several panels, somewhere between painting, sculpture, and relief. It also included photos of fences in the New York metropolitan area, not so far from the verticals of cloth or masking tape. This show hones in instead on a crucial decade, when she turned thirty, making them together a fairer retrospective. It shows her as, first and foremost, a painter. No wonder it takes looking.

Wagner does not appear in “Making Space,” a survey of women in abstraction, but she could have appeared if only MoMA had taken more care to collect her. (She did appear there that very decade in a Christmas show.) She, too, is making and marking space, in line with the period’s emphasis on art as object. The verticals have their parallel, so to speak, in stripes by Frank Stella, the dark squares in Ad Reinhardt. A red square, for that matter, deepens into black. Even her forays out of doors have a parallel in the economy of plant studies by Ellsworth Kelly, back in Chelsea at Matthew Marks a door away from his last paintings through June 24.

For all that, she has little of their austerity—precisely what can tempt one to see only painting. One can come up close to watch the red vary and deepen, rather than wait for it to pop out of a near uniform blackness. One can stand back to compare its dimensions, brushwork, and tape marks with other colors set against uniform squares of Plexiglas. Not that they form a single work or even a series, but creative hanging invites a closer look. Paired yellow verticals look worn by earth or fire, while other works stick to competing fields and tones of black and gray. The show’s largest canvas stands alone, and its broader verticals dissolve at the edges like horizontal bands for Agnes Martin.

She is also not above illusion, as long as it can coincide with the literal. The corner piece looks at first like a translucent black cube, before falling back to canvas. It matters, though, that it still looks solid and painterly as loose fabric. It matters, too, that the weathering in earth tones on yellow depends on a combination of chance and her own hand. While other artists use tape to give geometry its clean edges before peeling it away, she uses it to mess things up. Where the fences make one aware of all her work as making space, here she is marking time.

Jill Moser marks time in abstraction, too, with a record of her art’s making. Twenty years younger than Wagner, she survived a long stretch of silkscreens and appropriation, when painting was out of fashion. She incorporates them into her work at that, along with oil on canvas. She, though, is appropriating only herself, in what can pass for painting, just recently at Lennon, Weinberg through June 17. Thin drips and curves contrast with underlying broader patches—and the opacity of the first with the translucency of the second, like passing showers in front of clouds. Together, they offer at least two versions of the definite or the ephemeral.

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

6.16.17 — Beyond the Horizon

Summer brings New Yorkers outdoors—and early summer in the galleries brings the outdoors in. Sometimes it seems that abstract art can encompass anything, but sometimes, too, it is rooted in landscape. Francisco Ugarte brings the outside in ingeniously, with a single brushstroke, at Cristin Tierney through July 7. It may be only the illusion of a brushstroke, but then it is only the illusion of a landscape as well. Ugarte restricts himself to the mark of a loaded brush, dragged across the center of an empty field—and then he recreates or reimagines the mark, painstakingly, on paper or canvas. The black acrylic gathers and scatters, while also drawing thin and leaving the fainter lines of individual bristles.

Patricia Treib's Ensemble (Bureau, 2016)This art is determinedly abstract, but a video makes it hard to ignore the resemblance to a horizon line or the texture of rock and soil. It shows hills going nowhere fast, perhaps near his native Guadalajara, as the backdrop to a whiter and more inscrutable plain, while a car crosses much like his brush. Past work has used paint tubes and shadows to conjure up model cities and foil-wrapped furniture to bring the discomforts of an arid landscape indoors, but here things stay plainer. Ugarte subtitles each work Brushstroke. And then he calls the show “Three Lines, One Square” to insist that he is only painting lines. As for the square, I never found it, but (like the brushstroke) it may have broken up some time before.

Shara Hughes is more summery and a lot less summary, at Rachel Uffner through June 25. It takes a whole show to discover the abstraction in her abstract landscapes or studio interiors. Her all-over painting looks representational enough, like Pierre Bonnard on steroids. The sheer density of dabs puts vegetation at its center. Some images, though, become harder to make out, apart from exercises in mostly primary colors. Taken together, as in 2017 Whitney Biennial or an earlier show of “Post-Analog Painting,” they become a compendium of approaches to making a painting.

Patricia Treib is cleaner, at Bureau through June 18, but the compendium is there all the same. She combines firm edges with looser strokes to deepen her warm colors. Although their flatness may recall Henri Matisse and his cutouts, they go well beyond primaries to include browns and purplish blues. She also gives her color fields plenty of room to breathe. Their curves may overlap, or they may nestle up against one another without touching. The show’s very title calls attention to the “Interstices.”

That leaves the emphasis on the shapes. They may seem abstracted away from a profile or the dowels of old furniture, and the domesticity lends them a greater calm. And then the wiggles keep things moving again. One might even interpret a shape here and there as a large Greek letter. Pattern and Decoration, Pop Art, folk art, color-field painting, expressionism—none of the labels seems quite right. That is much of what makes the paintings interesting.

All these artists belong to the revival of abstraction, but without the formulaic scale and brushwork of “zombie formalism.” Treib especially messes things up. They also offer an alternative to the frequent invasion of the human figure into abstraction. They can still have even diehard fans of abstract painting like me wondering. As I have to keep asking myself, when anything goes, where is painting going? For now, it is happily preoccupied with itself.

6.14.17 — Remember the Maine

In his last years, Marsden Hartley tried to remake himself as, in his words, the painter of Maine. It would have surprised his most ardent admirers, but then he still could not get over his fears of banishment.

Hartley looked for home in Maine. He sought a sense of place in its mountains and shores. He sought a sense of community in its churches and farmsteads. He sought its livelihood in its lumberjacks and Acadians. Marsden Hartley's Log Jam, Penobscot Bay (Detroit Institute of Arts, 1941)At age sixty, he was returning home after a lifetime of fresh starts and unanticipated displacements. Is it any wonder that he ended up painting only turmoil and longing?

Hartley is better known for just that turmoil and longing, only in another country and in wartime. The painter of Maine made his name with paintings of German military gear and the iron cross. Their thick lines and strong contrasts between bright yellow, red, and black have ties to urban American realists like George Bellows and John Sloan. Yet they have only gained attention since then, with the seemingly postmodern reduction of a “portrait” of a German officer to surfaces and signs. They have also taken on a greater relevance with their frank homoeroticism. With “Marsden Hartley’s Maine,” though, the Met Breuer focuses instead on landscape all but devoid of humanity, through June 18.

He took a long time to find a home. Born Edmund Hartley, he lost his mother while young, followed family to Cleveland in his teens, studied there and in New York, introduced himself to modern art in Berlin and Paris, and exhibited with Alfred Stieglitz in a gallery devoted to American Modernism. For yet another disappointment, he broke with Stieglitz as well because he would not settle in New York. Even after World War I obliged him to leave Germany, he kept traveling. He saw Maine’s Mount Katahdin through the lens of the Alps and of Mont Sainte-Victoire for Paul Cézanne. He saw its seacoasts and storms through Winslow Homer and Japanese prints.

Still, he had reclaimed Maine as his own once before. He moved back for a while around the turn of the last century, and he joined an artist colony that encouraged an interest in American folk art. There he painted on glass along with his favored paper board and masonite. As curators Randall Griffey, Elizabeth Finch, and Donna M. Cassidy map the connections and disconnections, and the show falls in two with a huge gap in-between. The first half amounts to barely four years starting in 1907, the last from 1937 to 1942. Within those divisions, it proceeds less chronologically than by style and theme.

That can suggest an artistic development that is just not there, but it clarifies what drew Hartley to New England all along. He starts with a dark, thickly textured, and nearly monochrome seascape, on loan from a library in Maine, and blackness keeps asserting itself in his art. Even when he picks up Post-Impressionism a bit late in the game, the bright colors add up to twilight. They also give way to Dark Mountain, a series inspired by Albert Pinkham Ryder. He is already adopting his characteristic composition as well—dark masses surrounding pools of light, framed by brighter strips for earth and sky. Clouds at top appear disturbingly large, and houses or farms along the bottom appear unnaturally small.

They create a scene of abandonment—only intensified by the greater realism of his late work. When he paints a church, it appears as a white wall pierced by dark windows, set unstable and askew. When he paints breakers, they rise in a torrent. When he paints logging country, he finds imposing piles of timber or a logjam. When he takes up still life, a white seahorse looks larger than life but unmistakably dead. When he paints the view out a window, its brightness seems cut off irrevocably from the interior.

Hartley has found a more muscular art. He learns to use longer brushstrokes, tarter reds and blues, and black outlines as shadows. If they invite one to compare the landscape to a human body, he still has his undisguised longings, and he paints them, too. Loggers appear face-on in little more than small swim trunks, arms akimbo after Cézanne’s bathers. Who knew that workmen could cavort half-naked, with reddish-orange flesh? He could be unsettling masculinity or fixated on it.

Does he keep finding models in art at least a generation after their time? For all his appeal, Hartley remains deeply conservative—never quite able to engage Cubism or Henri Matisse. A black duck looking suspiciously like a woman in evening wear stops just short of German Expressionism. Then, too, though, his always stopping short adds to the sense of exile even at home. Katahdin means “highest land,” and he made plans for High Spot, a house to call his own. He died in 1943 without completing it.

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

6.12.17 — Archetypes and Stereotypes

If you are going to reduce people to types, it helps to treat them with compassion. August Sander did—and all in the pursuit of the universal.

His photographs have collectively become a group portrait of Germany over the course of more than two decades starting in 1910. It has room for young and old, men and women, workers and the comfortable middle class. August Sander's Boxers. Paul Röderstein and Hein Hesse (ARS/Metropolitan Museum, c. 1928)It shows how they defined themselves in the dress codes of their class, their occupation, and an older world. It evokes a way of life that was already vanishing, as an older order endured a world war only to give way to a fragile republic.

Yet he does see them as individuals, starting with the frontal poses that make them impossible to overlook. Sander does not seek Germany in the halls of power or the narratives of an older photography and an older art—although he did photograph a member of parliament and a political prisoner. His subjects smile or frown as they see fit, and even their inability to move appears today as an act of compassion. It frees them from putting on a show, and it allows them something visible to call theirs, in their appearance and the house or shop front behind them. Photos also include paired and group portraits now and then, like a restless and stoic boxer as distinct versions of a shared way of life.

Compassion helps all the more after so many decades, when what Sander took for universals have become particular and quaint. Born in 1876, he began with the idea of “mankind in general” and its characteristics. He sorted people into archetypes as part of the whole, first in his native village of Westerwald and then in Cologne—many published as Face of Our Time in 1929. Now they appear in an ample selection reprinted by his son, Gunther, at Hauser & Wirth uptown through June 17. It was a project in sociopolitical economy, at a time when Marxism was in the air and sociology was being born. It also coincided with the rise of psychoanalysis, including Carl Jung and his archetypes.

In time, though, supposed archetypes become stereotypes. They become even more so in their titles. The types include distinctions recognizable from political and gender critique in the present—like “The Skilled Tradesman,” “The Woman,” “Classes and Professions,” and “The City.” Yet they also include “The Lost People,” “The Sage,” “The Philosopher,” and “The Man of the Soil.” What seemed scientific then borders on sentiment now. Maybe the search for archetypes always will.

The photos survive as more than stereotypes because of their imperfections. Sander insisted on “honesty” rather than the perfect moment, as the very requisite to a systematic view. He makes no effort to alter the dull or dour expressions. He embraces the stiff folds of peasant costumes, the boastfulness of a top hat, and the stains on a varnisher’s apron. They make for more richly textured photographs and a further reminder that their subjects are long gone. If one ever doubted the vulnerability of the Weimar Republic, one can see it again here.

It seems more vulnerable, too, in light of “Small Trades” by Irving Penn, in his retrospective at the Met. Penn’s photos dwell on broad gestures and the tools of the trade. Sander includes props far less often, and they remain subordinate to the archetype and individual. The varnisher holds a tin without showing off, while an alert hound stands in front of the man in the top hat as just another part of his boast. Where Penn makes portraiture of act of stagecraft, Sander makes it an act of remembrance.

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

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