7.29.15 — Growing Up with Minimalism

I remember Mammy. I wish I remembered Joseph Zito some other way, but this work has a way of getting under one’s skin.

Three cookie jars, in a form still recognizable from the likes of Aunt Jemima, hang like a single chain from the hand of a strikingly white lawn jockey. Willie Cole has since brought that icon up to date, as an African divine messenger, but Zito’s has never left planet earth. Rest assured that he has cast those jars in bronze, and, his gallery swears, they “yield a lovely bell-tone when struck with a wooden mallet.” I can hardly wait. Joseph Zito's Untitled (Helmet) (Lennon, Weinberg, 2005)

In fact, he has been getting under one’s skin for some time now, in what a show calls “The First Thirty Years.” The very title has the phony ring of birthday reassurances to the elderly, although the artist is still in his fifties, with room to grow. He also chooses his targets carefully, at Lennon, Weinberg through August 14, based on what gets under his skin. Zito grew up as an Italian American in the racial mix of Brooklyn, where he still lives and works, and he hit upon Mammy while nursing his outrage at the racism disguised as scholarship of The Bell Curve. A seeming abstraction of five rectangles from 1992, My Weight in Lead, is just as impersonal and just as close to home. They, too descend from a single point on the wall, connected by steel wire that trails off unnervingly close to the floor.

Does Mammy hurt so much because it appeared in 1996, between the all-absorbing irony of, say, Richard Prince and the greater cynicism of Jeff Koons? It came between two distinct bodies of work for Zito as well, neither one much concerned for popular appeal and neither one simply appropriation. Taken together, they challenge one to make connections. They begin in 1985, with First Cut, maybe because the first cut is still the deepest. It consists of a single slit in the wall, barely three inches wide and eighteen inches tall, lined with steel. Yet things really get going in the early 1990s, in what became his first show with his present dealer, then in Soho.

The rusted steel and lead share their edge and materials with Richard Serra—but also their intimacy with Richard Tuttle, their care with Martin Puryear, their deliberate clumsiness with Joel Shapiro, and their body imagery with Post-Minimalists like Eva Hesse. Seven spikes rise from the floor, leaving one to decide between focusing on the danger of their points or the regularity of their tilted rows. The bottom few inches of each spike has lost its sheen, connecting them by an imagined polyhedron in brown. Two weathered copper disks, bound together, could be primitive armor, lethal weapons, or a body coming apart. In each case, though, imagery is at most implicit, and metaphor is out of the question. All that changes after Mammy.

So what's NEW!The concern for raw materials does not change, and neither does the damage they can suffer or inflict. A ball of shining steel rests trapped in a network of rusted steel rods. They do, though, become instantly recognizable—and pointedly unlike the thing that one recognizes. The gap between image and object may lie in materials, as with rose petals spilling out from an opaque glass helmet onto a steel slab. It may lie in the dimension of time, as with an hourglass with red sand that refuses to trickle down to a matching red base. It may lie instead in scale and space, as with small chairs poised unstably.

The materials and their scale may allude to childhood, like a drapery of infant body bags and an inflatable backyard pool holding only iron weights. They may allude, too, to an always uncertain passage to adulthood, like the hollow keel of a single ship as Adrift. They most certainly draw on the artist’s everyday surroundings, like a red armchair from his studio cast like statuary.

They may border on the obvious, especially when the artist reaches for words and one learns that the hourglass is Stand Still Goddamn It. Another chair turns slowly on its side, the time of its descent taken from bodies falling on 9/11. They are spare and pointed all the same—enough that I may finally forget Mammy.

7.27.15 — Revitalizing Minimalism

Anya Gallaccio might be acting only as curator, for a series by Sol LeWitt, but what then is that coarse black stone on the wall? Derek Franklin might be compiling an entire lexicon of Minimalism, for your edification and enjoyment. He has more seeming stone, too, strewn across the gallery floor like earth or flung lead. He has his own sculptural geometry, in open frameworks of galvanized steel. He has abstractions as well, somewhere between a studied monochrome and a rock face. So what then are the rusted bolts amid the rocks, and what lies within the glass jars on his dark metal shelves? Anya Gallaccio's One Art (SculptureCenter, 2006)

In truth, as Minimalists go, both artists are something of new-agers, and apologies for a post and review from earlier this this year that somehow fell between the cracks. Franklin’s stark materials stand, he says, for “healing, abandonment, and revitalization.” His show’s title, “Mending Capers,” sounds like a thankfully forgotten dance craze or salad dressing, in either case as alternative medicine. Gallaccio has made a near fetish of natural materials, from flowers and chocolate to a tree in Long Island City, and she takes even stone as a sign of the fragility of planet earth. Both, too, see their materials as the locus of a journey across continents and geologic ages, and they ask that it become a viewer’s personal narrative as well. What saves it is that the journey also unfolds in the time and space of the gallery.

Gallaccio’s floor pieces recreate LeWitt’s 1974 Incomplete Open Cubes, each nearly four feet tall, at Lehmann Maupin downtown through February 15. Their edges pass through half a dozen permutations, in varying degrees of completion. Yet while LeWitt built his geometries from aluminum painted white, she starts with such native American materials as limestone, sandstone, and granite—their porous surfaces like particle board or ceramic. The wall pieces are fragments of obsidian, their volcanic glass polished like black mirrors. The contrast between black and white looks back to Minimalism, while the mirrors look forward to you. She thinks of them all as a natural history of America.

Franklin ranges further, at Thierry Goldberg through February 22. His floor piece, Charnel Ground, refers (to trust the press release) to “a Tibetan funerary practice in which the bodies of the dead are left on a mountaintop to naturally decompose.” Fortunately, they are not going anywhere fast. They adapt admirably to the architecture, spilling out from the connecting corridor into the broader back room. MutualArtThey also introduce the human element of their making, in a way that Richard Serra would understand. Serra called his flung lead Castings, although no pun intended, and Franklin has cast these gray stones from concrete, in shapes like tear drops and with a nod to Jan Arp.

Other work continues the ambiguity between industry and nature. The steel does function as shelving, and the jars hold gin-soaked raisins that could themselves pass for stone. The abstractions are inkjet prints, from scans of Norman Rockwell, with asymmetric white borders that defy formalism. Never mind that golden raisins, too, are a purported natural remedy for what ails you—or that a second steel sculpture is supposed to recall a “therapeutic tub.”

Installation art and Minimalism dissolved the boundaries between the sculptural object and the gallery, while conceptual art and earthworks dissolved the boundaries between the gallery and the world. Now, retreads can be yet another symptom of today’s Neo-Mannerism and “zombie formalism,” much as in painting. Gallaccio really could just be trotting out an expensive private collection.

Franklin, though, gains relevance by accepting the fluid boundaries while leaving behind the formalism. Others have already restaged Walter de Maria and his New York Earth Room for the crumbling structures of the gentrifying Lower East Side. Franklin talks big, but the work still sticks to the nuts and bolts.

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

7.24.15 — Summer in Black and White

To wrap up from last time, maybe summer group shows are a gallery’s way of taking it easy—wrapping up a season of exhibitions with selections from them all for sale. And maybe they are a distraction from the real work of getting to know an artist, by hard looking. Or maybe their sheer proliferation is a mirror of art, with no obvious direction and more entering the market everywhere. (Did you notice that, by now, shows keep opening well into July?) You may find yourself begging for something more urgent and more manageable. Surely someone can spell out what matters, in black and white. Javier Tellez's F for Fable (photo by Jason Wyche, Sean Kelly gallery, 2011)

And that, too, is a summer theme, give or take shades of gray. “From the Shadows,” at Tyler Rollins through August 14, speaks to lives fitfully emerging from the pall of globalization. They barely show through Manuel Ocampo’s ghostly silkscreen, Pinaree Sanpitak’s dark acrylic, and Sopheap Pich’s black grid of burlap and beeswax. They do not appear at all in Yee I-Lann’s photograph of block housing, corner on, massing behind a dark plain and folded-paper animals. Tiffany Chung translates the urban rubble into an installation, at the spooky remove of more than thirty monitors. Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s video could speak for them all, Regret Rises in Our Memory Even for Bygone Hardships, and who knows when it is safe to let bygones be bygones?

If black and white more often means print, galleries are happy to go there, too. “The Written Trace,” at Paul Kasmin through August 14, even manages a Renaissance Book of Hours. (It omits the only potentially shocking text, the insurance document to permit display.) Mostly, though, it has trouble making a point at all. As curator, Ariella Wolens mixes the expected, such as R. Crumb and Ed Ruscha, with the peculiar, such as a hatchet cutting into the wall. John Baldessari is back in performance, Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, but he stops short of teaching collectors anything new.

By the Book,” at Sean Kelly through July 31, plays it even safer, but this time the choice pays off. Here safe, in the sense of collectible, also means physical—and that in turn means the perilous gap between words and things. It appears in lead sheets for Anselm Kiefer, crumpled pages in aluminum for Jorge Méndez Blake, binding in stainless steel for Fernanda Fragateiro, a display case housing memories and an open book for Rebecca Horn, flickering phrases for Charles Sandison, and an old-world library for Candida Höfer.

Joseph Kosuth, William Kentridge, and Glenn Ligon may try to reduce the gap, but it returns with a fox nestled into a book for Javier Téllez, as F for Fable. Chitra Ganesh indulges in mixed metaphors, like “she of a thousand eyes whose long lost rivers still run through our veins.” They take hold anyway, all the more so since her black script in hair, thread, fishing wire, and rubber bands is ever so much easier to read in its shadow.

Black and white have a far less academic meaning in politics, but elsewhere “It’s Never Just Black or White.” Except for a smear of blue by Norman Lewis, Michael Rosenfeld avoids color, through August 7, but with a striking mix of black and white artists, both men and women, from the 1930s to today. Jay DeFeo and Lee Bontecou share their ambitions with tall sculpture by Barbara Chase-Riboud and concentric squares by Burgoyne Diller, all of them more direct than in the textbooks. Many of the more modest works occupy a long shelf together, like a metaphor for a biracial America. For Lenore Tawney, the parallel edges of browned paper come out from the wall like razor blades. Maybe art can cut through the garbage after all, even in summer.

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

7.22.15 — From Walls to Real Estate

To pick up from last time, another summer group show (my theme all this week) says hello to wall painting, but also goodbye. “Over and Under,” at Sikkema Jenkins through July 24, opens with four rectangles and a broad gray border. If you know Kay Rosen from her text paintings, you may enjoy puzzling over her colors, which she identifies as olive grove, red maple, nomad’s trail, and buffalo grass—all, rest assured, On Top of Old Smokie.

If the look makes you think of Neo-Geo, paint brings out the best in old Chelsea walls, with a texture almost like that movement’s Rolotex. And if the irony makes you ready to move on, be sure first to look down, where Rosen has left paint cans. The painting looks neat and tidy, but she is still cleaning up.

Others, too, cannot decide where the wall leaves off. The show takes its title from Matt Keegan’s cardboard lattice, which serves as backdrop for other words, his included. They run to sculpture on and off the wall—including a cabinet by Bill Jenkins, a mirrored column of rough cedar by Virginia Overton, and two columns of plastic crates by Tony Feher. Back on the floor, Jenkins has a video of, presumably, his own feet walking, in counterpart to Babette Mangolte dancing. Feher also returns to texture and the wall, with blue glitter. By then, though, you may be craving for space.

Another show, too, features wall painting and then some, but as a solo act. Robin Rhode once again treats graffiti as performance, but he also leaves something behind. That includes not just video and white chalk, at Lehmann Maupin through August 21, but also the object that he sketches. In truth, the brash athleticism that separates him from ego-tripping has worn a bit thin, and so has his connection to the politics of South Africa. Still, a skeleton seemingly suspended between coat hangers and barbed wire has a fatal attraction—and so do two giant light bulbs, one black and one white, connected or forcibly restrained by a rope. Apparently his country still needs to set ideas free before it can leave its racial history behind.

Invisible-Exports takes wall painting back to the very origins of art. Adam Parker simulates cave painting in white carpeting, right down to hand prints beside the galloping horse. Between carpet pile and horse flesh, though, the real theme is the body. The rest of “Soft Core” is anything but soft, through July 25, even when Pinar Yolacan simulates prehistory again, with the lumpen white of a female totem. Anne Doran displays the bullet-ridden torsos of police target practice, Linder treats female nudity to Pop Art and Surrealism, Stephen Irwin converts its scars into slashed canvas, and Naomi Uman strips it bare of everything but a picture tube. Jade Yumang takes it into three dimensions with what could pass for dynamite and Dave Hardy with a stack reaching to the ceiling.

Maybe one can just forget the wall. A small selection at Klaus von Nichtssagend, through August 1, moves easily from the Flatiron Building for Robert Moskowitz to abstraction in the present—with David Scanavino, Michelle Lopez, and Julia Rommel. Rachel Uffner brings a Pop sensibility to both abstraction and representation, through July 31, as “Old Truths and New Lies.” Lucas Knipscher uses African fabrics as the backdrop for playing cards, Ana Cardoso subjects cotton and art history to serious punishment, Wilder Alison gives tapestry the look of emoticons, and Mae Fatto (also the show’s curator) runs riot right through the twentieth century.

Naturally Marianne Boesky has a more elegant take on the shapes of space, through August 7, and The Hole a disrespectful one as “Not a Painting” through July 26. Yet they all have at least one thing in common, New York real estate.

The subject helps unite the artists at Lisa Cooley. “I Dropped the Lemon Tart” speaks overtly only of human error, through August 21, but some errors matter more than others. As a plaque by Jenny Holzer puts it, “If you aren’t political, your personal life should be exemplary.” And from Leon Benn’s Cop Commander and Sean Landers’s legal notice to Todd Bourret’s Boarded Up, the errors mount. Fiona Connor offers summer relief with a working drinking fountain, modeled after one in Tomkins Square. Yet that, too, is contested ground.

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

7.20.15 — Walled In

Summer has everyone breaking through walls and into the sunlight. Within the galleries, though, the walls are alive and well. Summer group shows, my topic all this week, play on walls and real estate, before settling matters in black and white.

Hello, walls, and welcome back. It’s like you never left. So often these days, as artists freely mix media and messages, painting comes off the stretcher or off the wall—hearkening back to the materials of tapestry and the materiality of Minimalism. “Hello Walls,” at Barbara Gladstone through July 31, instead does without canvas entirely. From fresco in the Renaissance to today, artists have always painted directly on the wall. Chris Doyle's Everhigher (Andrew Edlin gallery, 2015)Gladstone stops well short of anything as old as Modernism or as contemporary as street art. It loosens things up all the same.

Lawrence Weiner votes for Every Which Way + Up. This once, the most austere of text artists admits excess. So does the other more or less straight text, not counting Ricci Albenda’s alphabet as color spectrum and Karl Holmqvist’s circled letters, like a word game without rules. For Mel Bochner, Forgetting Is the Only Continuum –, set against black that seems to leave off on its way somewhere else. So do lines for someone as tied to conceptual art as Daniel Buren. Even the most rule-driven of Minimalists, Sol LeWitt, lets a crayon shape float nearly free.

Angela Bulloch foregoes austerity within the grid, with colored rectangles that seem to blink on and off like her video art. Wangechi Mutu pictures a planet of flying snakes. Their avoidance of politics runs up against the bitter edge of racial stereotypes for Kara Walker.

In the gallery’s second space a few blocks away, Ugo Rondonine, Raymond Pettibon, Arturo Herrera, and Michael Craig-Martin tackle the ultimate in Minimalism—the four sides of a freestanding near cube. Pettibon’s undisciplined musings on history abut Rondonine’s concentric circles, like Ken Noland but more ephemeral. And around the corner from Herrera’s abstraction from nature lies Craig-Martin’s schematic coffee cup, with that plastic lid that always permits another jolt. Douglas Gordon presides over them all with geometry as the merest shadow.

Andrew Edlin, too, has walls on its mind, as it gears up for a move to the Bowery. For now, it attends to its old space, much like Robert Irwin at the Whitney a few months before the museum’s departing Madison Avenue. For “Anthems for Mother Earth Goddess,” through August 15, the gallery asks seven artists to do their thing, one artist to a wall, with work expressly for the occasion. This once a dealer associated with folk art demands a comment on the present. Online, one can see the artists still at work. In person, the immediacy of outsider art and politics enters as well.

Title notwithstanding, this is not a cloying or cultic ritual. The closest one gets to a goddess is with Saya Woolfalk. Her polka dots serve as backdrop to a strangely inhuman woman—arms cut off and laden with what might once have been her fatal attraction. Otherwise this is not an anthem but a smoke alarm, for global warming. Thornton Dial made art about Gulf winds in the same space before. Here only a collective energy saves art from a lecture.

Kevin Sampson’s KKK stands for Monsanto, fracking, police killings, and whatever else is on his mind this minute. Rigo 23 changes the subject, too, to nations without maternity leave—the United States the sole in the first world among them. Others are having too much fun to hector, even when Chris Doyle’s tidal wave overruns a futuristic city. Rising seas also drive Brian Adam Douglas, who updates The Raft of the Medusa in grisaille for a contemporary disaster. Peter Fend’s circles cast their orange shadows as seed pods, and Katerina Lanfranco’s garden colonnade overflows onto the ceiling. Like nature, art on the walls may yet prove capable of renewal.

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

7.17.15 — In the Light of Minimalism

Just this past weekend, I returned to Dia:Beacon for Excursus: Homage to the Square3, an installation by Robert Irwin. Impressively, it recreates and reconceives an April 1998 exhibition at the late and dearly lamented Dia:Chelsea. Just as impressively, it occupies only a small fraction of this amazing space. I once called the site the New Hudson River School. I could again see why. Dan Flavin at Dia:Beacon (photo by John Haber)

Irwin himself planned the conversion of a former Nabisco box printing factory, which opened in 2003. I first visited Dia:Beacon that summer and have been back more than once, including for a retrospective of Carl Andre in 2014. This time, though, I could give full attention to what Dia calls its Reggio Galleries. I promise a report soon about the installation, so allow me to hold off on the details. Suffice it to say that it is worth the trip, about ninety minutes from Grand Central Station. For that matter, the ride up the Hudson alone is worth the trip.

For now, let me offer my own visual tour. It includes photos of the collection, starting with “Getting and Being There” and Irwin’s installation as “A Maze of Light.” Other groupings play with “Grids Within Grids of Light,” “Creature Discomforts,” “Tight and Mirrored Spaces,” and “White and Everything Else.” Among the other featured artists are Dan Flavin, Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, John Chamberlain, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, and Gerhard Richter. Think of them as featured rather than selected, not only because one wants to select practically everything, but also because these just happened to survive the cut from among my amateur photography. I admit to not a single selfie within them.

One encounters such surprises as LeWitt’s artistry (give or take assistants), Serra’s informality, Richter without either a squeegee or the news, and Bourgeois as more personal than mythical. A ponderous exhibition of Michael Heizer in Chelsea showed him as, no doubt, he wishes to be seen at this point in life—with one weighty stone after another, befitting his stature and profundity. Up in Beacon, one sees instead the calm open spaces and rigorous conceptualism of his floor pieces, based on their weight in silver. One huge stone does find space, but tightly bound in a wall niche that brings it closer to direct experience. Old distinctions between expressionism and Minimalism or between conceptual art and the thing itself are worth preserving, but only so long as you remember to look.

I probably learned most from the four rooms for Robert Ryman, beginning with small gestural work and his first in white, one even with the text of its not entirely ironic title, The Paradoxical Absolute. As they become larger and smoother, almost like the polished metal that at times underlie the white, the works also make more and more manifest the rough edges of their making, through bolts and other supports. I probably learned the least from Blinky Palermo, although one room for his simplistic geometry, interestingly enough, claims to respond to the four seasons. He may even mean it. I found the greatest temptation to overlook very good art with Fred Sandback. The more time one spends with his colored strings, the more one gets to know their surroundings.

From the On Kawara retrospective at the Guggenheim this spring, I learned to be suspicious of Dia’s display of his date paintings without the accompanying news clippings. No wonder they used to turn me off. Yet for others, I learned how well they and Irwin’s design respond to one another, even if they did not plan those responses in advance. A floor to himself for Bruce Nauman allows others almost to share in his performance. But you will forge your own connections. Enjoy the show!

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

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