10.20.17 — Between Colors

Joel Meyerowitz might seem an unlikely champion of color. He emerged from commercial photography only to set it aside, like Diane Arbus. He had discovered alternatives in the blacks and whites of Robert Frank and Eugène Atget.

He made his name in the 1960s with street photography, much like Arbus or Garry Winogrand—with people not for what they wear, but for the strangeness of who they are and what they do. A man in black and a woman in white kiss because opposites attract, Joel Meyerowitz's Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1977 (Howard Greenberg gallery, 1977/2017)because it is New Year’s Eve, and because the marquee above does say Kiss Me, Stupid. Another couple points at cross-purposes, as if in search of ways to deny the model whale behind them in, of course, shades of gray. Meyerowitz obtained exclusive access to Ground Zero after September 11, when mere appearances must have seemed beside the point when not ground to dust.

He prefers twilight to the steamy afternoons of William Eggleston, who did so much to make color respectable. For Meyerowitz, not even a rosebush looks plain red. It stands between a faded porch and withered ground, much as a 2013 publication (actually photos from the 1970s reprinted as recently as 2017) translates a French expression for dusk as “Between the Dog and the Wolf.” When he turns to still-life, he ditches the designer colors close to abstraction of Jan Groover. For him, the photographic object is an old watering can on a faded ledge against a pale yellow wall. He calls the resulting series “Morandi, Cézanne, and Me”—and who could have more exacting and understated colors than Giorgio Morandi?

Yet he was a champion of color, even before his first book, in 1979. A solo show celebrates the transition with an alcove for black and white and a small room for color. And then it assembles the two recent series out front, at Howard Greenberg through October 21. They suggest that color for Meyerowitz has less to do with surfaces than with objects and light. (He called that very first book, at age forty, Cape Light and another Tuscany: Inside the Light.) It also has to do with what Sigmund Freud called the uncanny.

Meyerowitz turned onto color in a big way, even before he turned to landscape and still-life. Try to decide which looks funnier or more unnerving in that small room—women in matching prints or in clashing one-color dresses. Maybe it freed him from the search for the creepiest personality or the creepiest incident. Maybe it freed him, too, from the search for the perfect moment. So what's NEW!With twilight, it places him between moments, much as he called past series Bay/Sky and At the Water’s Edge. With Morandi and Paul Cézanne, it also places him between an earlier realism and Modernism.

Outdoors, his compositions come almost ready-made. While people are few, two girls pose on a wall without undue encouragement. Someone with an eye for real-estate values erected that rosebush or built a gate opening onto the ocean at Fort Lauderdale. Meyerowitz has only to place them in the center of the frame. Saint Louis placed its Gateway Arch nearly up against its cathedral. Provincetown ensured that a building looks suspiciously like the Bates Motel in Psycho, and nature ensured that the sun and moon could share a darkening sky.

They also share an unnatural light. Contrasting neon colors cover the sides of a house, and actual neon lights reflect in car windows at a food shack as rippling curves. Colors grow more nuanced in still-life, including a glorious array of scratches on the ledge. Both Morandi and Cézanne used color to construct space, and so does he. They also left the construction forever incomplete, much as Meyerowitz photographs more enigmatic objects in dark corners. A sign on a fence at sunset resembles the glaring white of an LED, because people are finally catching onto the enigma.

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

10.18.17 — The Walk to Wealth

New Yorkers have every right to say that they will go anywhere for art, including a healthy schlepp from the nearest subway. Fort Tilden, past Rockaway Beach? I made it last summer for a house built on sand, drenched in paint by Katharina Grosse—and even more for the walk and the view.

Ridgewood past the edge of Bushwick, Red Hook by the Brooklyn waterfront, Wave Hill in the Bronx, or the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadow Park? Well, every so often, and the last of those has a scale model of the rest of the city to make me feel at home. MutualArtBut far west 42nd Street?

It is only Manhattan, not quite within view of Times Square or the High Line, but not exactly beyond reach of the guide books. It takes longer to reach the piers for the Armory Show or the May art fairs. The walk has me wishing for the station dropped from the subway extension to the Javits convention center and Hudson Yards, but then that whole project serves mostly the wealthy. I made my way last summer for a sculpture by Yayoi Kusama, on a tour of “privately owned public spaces.” Now, though, she has neighbors to either side. Sky Art to one side joins a city-wide celebration of John Giorno, through December 31, while the Atelier to the west gives over its lobby to Ayn Choi, extended through January 20.

Is this the next new neighborhood for ambitious art? It still has more to do with real estate. Sky Art has temporary space in a luxury high rise (“just blocks from world-class theater”), Kusama’s not so great bronze pumpkin anchors a private driveway, and that lobby belongs condo apartments as well. Still, the confluence of art and money extends dangerously to galleries and museums as well. Ayn Choi's Untitled (courtesy of the artist, 2017)Here at least the grand spaces had me remembering the up side of patronage. Besides, the concentration had me thinking about models for art.

Kusama is always a crowd pleaser masquerading as profundity, while “I ♥ John Giorno” (after the inescapable “I ♥ New York” by Milton Glazer) sounds more like a marketing campaign than a retrospective but recalls a riskier avant-garde. You may know Giorno for sleeping through a film by Andy Warhol. You may know him as a poet, a reader of poetry, the center of a social scene, the partner of Ugo Rondinone, or not at all. Rondinone organized the show, spread among Artists Space, Hunter College, and other nonprofits. Sky Art wraps the walls from floor to ceiling with Giorno’s posters, for an overwhelming spectacle of color. They lose interest close enough to read them, except perhaps to his large and jealous circle, but enjoy.

Choi may have one questioning the art scene from quite another angle. She has a fancy lobby, after all. Yet she is hardly an insider, not even with the rebirth of painting. Abstraction today has critics talking, to my mind often as not unfairly, of “zombie formalism.” It can have anyone thinking, I saw that one before—and not in the postmodern sense of defying originality. Choi herself can seem all over the map, while enjoying every corner.

The largest work adopts all-over painting, with big splashes of red, yellow, and black framed by a black border that lifts the unstretched canvas off the wall. Others titled Bruised have the fluid stains of color-field painting, in curves running down the canvas amid more slender verticals. Still others resemble what is becoming a dominant style, as with Amy Sillman or Patricia Treib, of irregular shapes in a single color set against softer fields (here in rubbed charcoal) and plenty of white. In my favorite, the top splotches are simply red, yellow, and blue. They refuse premeditation or geometry, share a love of poured paint and layering, and stick resolutely to abstraction. Time will tell if she has left her signature.

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

10.16.17 — Massive or Spare?

Was Minimalism massive or spare? Was it an art of big boxes and steel plates—or bare lines and empty rooms?

How about none of the above? For Kazuko Miyamoto, it could could hold the wall or spin out across a gallery. Dating from a time of industrial materials, it could insist on the handmade, the irregular, the repetitive, or the imagination. Work from the late 1960s through 1980, at Zürcher through October 22, helps recover a woman in abstraction for today. Kazuko Miyamoto's Star Piece, 9th Precinct (Zürcher, 1979)

Born in Tokyo, Miyamoto came to New York in 1964 to be a painter. She studied at the Art Students League, already past its prime as a nurturer of Abstract Expressionism. Like others then, she retained broad brushwork, while stripping down to simpler geometries. She also began to engage the wall. Maroon on black from 1969 resembles brickwork, like paintings by Sean Scully, but as Progression of Rectangles. From that point on, she treats the art object as a solid, but also as a source of optical activity and motion.

Massive and spare went together in those days, much as work by Carl Andre kept to the floor under its own weight. When Frank Stella turned the wood of his stretchers sideways, so that it comes further out from the wall, he insisted that painting can bear weight, too. When Richard Serra flung lead, he had begun to spill out into space as well, but one had sure better get out of his way. When Richard Tuttle bisected a gallery in thread or Sol LeWitt drew a dizzying array of lines, they were making wall paintings. Rosalind E. Krauss included all these artists in a legendary show of “Line as Language,” at Princeton University in 1974, along with Mel Bochner, Robert Morris, and Dorothea Rockburne. Miyamoto should have one seeing the line as much as the wall or the language.

She had already discovered a concern for line in LeWitt. They had studios in the same building in 1968, along with Adrian Piper, and met outside during a fire alarm. (She still lives on the Lower East Side at age seventy-five, and she exhibited nearby at Invisible-Exports in 2014.) As a studio assistant, she worked on his wall paintings and open cubes. She began to incorporate parallel marks into her drawings, including grids of dabbed ink and plus signs, too. They may allude to traditional Japanese calligraphy and the game of Go as well.

Galleries and museums have been looking for parallels to Minimalism in other nations, such as Grupo Frente in Brazil and Mono-ha in Japan. They have also been seeing these movements as sites of personal expression and gendered identity. (Hélio Oiticica, a gay from Brazil, spent the 1970s in New York.) Gender enters Miyamoto’s art with a break from the wall. She described dense arrays of string nailed to the wall and floor, from 1974 and 1978, as female and male, and do not go thinking of the “purity” of white as female or blackness as male. The show includes recreations of both.

They build on her drawings, but they take their full shape only as one walks past them. They also nearly dissolve into light. Paper ladders hang instead from above. They recall Joan Miró or a rope ladder to the moon. The gallery accompanies the show with a Japanese poet’s tribute to Miyamoto, as if she lived only in memory. If her imagery is any indication, she has already moved on.

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

10.13.17 — Gentlemen and Giants

Before you get too far into French drawing at the Morgan Library, you might stop to compare two striking examples on facing walls. If you think of the Baroque as high drama or ornate, they seem to set you alone with their subjects. If you think of the classical age as academic, the Royal Academy was still years away.

Pencil outlines by Jacques Bellange barely contain his brown ink washes and the paper’s creamy whites, as they alternate freely down the page. Nor can they quite contain the blinded giant leaning on his cane—or the goddess on his shoulder, leaning down to offer him a smile, a hand, and a guide. Claude Lorrain's Hilly Landscape with Bare Trees (Morgan Library, 1639–1641)They might extend to you as well. Just a turn of the head away, Daniel Dumonstier uses four colors of chalk for the portrait of a gentleman. They bring clarity to the arc of an eyelid, the glint of an eye, the pursed lips, the bridge of his nose, and the points of his mustache and goatee. They also bring a high flourish to every curl of his hair and fold of his ruff collar.

Poussin, Claude, and French Drawing in the Classical Age” is an overflowing study in contrasts, through October 15. You can see the erudition of artists and audiences familiar with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, poetry, and myth—and sharp eyes concerned for nature and appearances. You can see competing bases for art in Versailles, the royal palace at Fontainebleau, and the ducal court of Lorraine, at Nancy. You can see the growing importance of drawing as central to an artist’s working methods and as finished product—for patronage, for sale, for mounting in albums, or for production in series. Dumonstier had a reputation for his four-chalk technique and for entertaining his sitters while he worked. You can see why he was in demand.

Think of them not as conflicting impulses or as tensions within the art. Think of them rather as the nexus of beliefs and practices that define the high style of the 1600s. Throw in the devotion of French Catholics—and try not to worry that the Inquisition had Sébastien Bourdon, a Protestant, on the run. This was the Grand Siècle, or great century, for both royal power and the Baroque. It drew on Italy, from Caravaggio to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, even before the king recalled Simon Vouet to France in 1627. Overwhelmed with commissions and intrigues at the French court, Nicolas Poussin hightailed it back to Rome in 1642 as fast as he could.

The Frick went into greater depth fifteen years ago, with loans from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. (Pardon me if I leave a fuller and more helpful look to my review then.) The Morgan has turned to the same century with “Rembrandt’s World” in 2012—and to later French drawing with “Fragonard and the French Tradition” in 2006, “Rococo to Revolution” in 2008, and Théodore Rousseau and the Barbizon school in 2014. Here the curators, Jennifer Tonkovich and Marco Simone Bolzoni, trace the influence of the court, the birth of a print culture, and a budding market in collectors (like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe more than a century later). They end with the consolidation of artistic practice in the Academy and the royal collection under Charles Le Brun. Fewer than fifty drawings, almost all from the Morgan’s collection, make a compact introduction.

As the show’s title suggests, they give the most space to Nicolas Poussin and Claude Gellée, better known as Claude Lorrain. Nowhere else is the mix of classicism, piety, observation, and creativity more apparent. With Poussin’s Death of Hippolytes from 1645, real horses run wild past a crag, a mythic chariot overturns, and a tidy pyramid collapses with them. In his study soon after for The Holy Family on the Steps, black chalk adds stabs of insight, and shadows are a torrent of ink and wash. Anne and the infant Saint John have a greater activity than in the painting, and such props as a towel and plant life have not yet given way to its eerie perspective. Claude lends Apollo with a herd of goats both a greater naturalism and a higher polish, while the crossing diagonals of hills, clouds, houses, and trees take on both a greater depth and a supernatural energy.

Claude may have worked from the view out his studio window in Rome or on the spot, only to enhance clouds and reflected sunlight later on. An artist known only as Lagneau may have sketched a peasant’s raised hair and crooked mouth, much as August Sander sought social and psychological archetypes in the twentieth century—or he may have posed a workshop assistant and added his imagination. Charles Mellin definitely played with actual and trompe l’oeil architecture in designing a fresco over an arch. Building on a The Visitation by Pontormo from 1528, Laurent de la Hyre allows Mary and Elizabeth a very human warmth, but also a Renaissance bulk and a perfect balance. Earlier, Vouet treats Louis XIII informally, but also apart from details of clothing that might make him a mere mortal. Gentlemen, too, might be giants.

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

10.12.17 — Understated and Overstood

Sanford Biggers wants you to listen. He punctuates his latest work with gunshots—and his images with torn bodies, towering fields of black, and colors running every which way. With one major party giving aid and comfort to bigots and Neo-Nazis, he evokes everything from African totems and decorative arts to Black Lives Matter.

Yet he also challenges one to pin any of his images down. On top of that, he calls the show and its centerpiece Selah, at Marianne Boesky through October 21. Sometimes it takes courage to resist interpretation, so permit me (after last time on another African American artist, Kara Walker) another extra post this week to keep up with the busy early fall.

That centerpiece is larger than life, but only barely, and other work may run comically small. Selah stands nearly eleven feet tall, but only because the human figure has its hands raised, either to avoid a deadly police response or in the throes of death. Patches of red, white, black, and blue heighten its jagged outlines, and one lower leg is entirely shot away.

A bronze head on a pedestal shows off a bullet hole more directly, in place of an eye. The flat bronze recalls African art and the “primitivism” of early Modernism, and the single eye more reasonable in a profile connects to Cubism as well. Someone might have taken a gun to a museum artifact or a human being, but then art may disfigure the humanity of others, too.

Overstood combines the show’s scales, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether Biggers has overstated or understood. A black triangle connects three small African gods on the floor to the black outlines of four men on the wall, like enormous cast shadows. Do they draw on iconic photographs of black activists forty years ago? Should one be worshipping gods or men? Gunfire rings out regularly in a video of still more totems, its five channels blinking on and off in a further rhythm. Yet the monitors receive a kind of demotion, too, relegated to leaning up against a corner.

They also bear glimpses of landscape and the title Infinite Tabernacle. Registering the past does not exclude the possibility of renewal. The bright colors of Selah derive from tapestry, and actual tapestry goes into wall pieces—along with charcoal, acrylic, mirrored tiles, and gold leaf. Sources range from Japan and Egypt to America more than a century ago. To trust the artist, they served as markers for the Underground Railroad. With work so all over the map, I can promise only so much.

Speaking of resisting interpretation, you may remember selah as a refrain of uncertain meaning in the Psalms. After years of rock concerts, I want it to signal a guitar break or an invitation to audience response. And his show at SculptureCenter in 2011 went for volume. Maybe Biggers is learning eclecticism from Rashid Johnson or reticence from David Hammons. Maybe he could agree with Walker in refusing to stand for a people or a generation just a few blocks away. Still, selah.

Leslie Wayne has a taste for African tapestry, too. She appeared just this year in “Africa on My Mind” at the Houston Museum of African American Culture. Still, she is using the decorative arts much like Biggers, to unsettle abstract painting, with its own refusal of interpretation. A white artist born in Germany, she paints and rubs away at her painting, crinkles it up, and attaches it to more painting. It may fold over the top of the backdrop, as if hanging out to dry, at Jack Shainman through October 21. Even routine geometry and gesture can be an opening onto multiple cultures—or an opening into the third dimension.

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

10.11.17 — After Subtlety

Kara Walker is out to try your patience, through October 14. Her very title sounds like the words of a carnival huckster, and one hardly knows where the boasting stops and the irony begins.

An absence of lowercase letters turns up the volume that much more, but allow me to supply them to stay halfway sane: “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!” So there. The funny thing is that it may well be true. Kara Walker's A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (Creative Time, 2014)

It is hard to say, too, where the long title leaves off and the press release begins. “The Final President of the United States will visibly wince,” she concludes. “Empires will fall, although which ones, only time will tell.” Plainly she, too, is losing patience, like so many others in the age of Trump. Sketching in ink, often on mammoth sheets of paper, she seems barely to keep up with events or her outrage. Her loosely assembled figures become collectively a game of “Where’s Donald,” as in “Where’s Waldo” for a child president.

Walker is just as impatient with her audience. “Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media.” She speaks as the artist whose plantation stereotypes in silhouette made her career, but seemed to critics a passive acceptance of what she hated. She has defended Dana Schutz, a white artist who tackled the death of Emmett Till in the 2017 Whitney Biennial—and Till’s corpse, wrapped like a mummy, may pass through this show as if rescued from a burning building. Walker spoke as a defender of artistic freedom, but she was speaking from experience. And experience is a harsh master, because the lynchings and other violence in her drawings seem all too contemporary and all too real.

Her critics have always missed the point. Not every African American has to offer role models in her art. Portraits by Titus Kaphar or Kehinde Wiley are cheerful enough, but racism is not pretty—no more than Till’s mutilated face in an open casket. Neither, for that matter, is anger. Walker has a respect for history, but also the fierce energy of now. She has not lost her sense of humor, but she is feeling the pain.

How much has she changed since her plantation days? She is glad you asked. “Art Historians will wonder whether the work represents a Departure or a Continuum.” The silhouettes reappear in one work, but on white linen whose ripples shine. A few drawings appear on linen, with oil stick. Dredging the Quagmire puns on Trump’s promises to drain the swamp, but its opaque background makes a woman’s struggle to escape the quagmire seem that much more desperate. They make a point of their hasty or unruly assemblage, with hardly a trace of color but with plenty of heat.

They also make a point of their knowledge of art history, including white art history. Titles allude to Edward Kienholz and Albert Pinkham Ryder, in a spirit of tribute as well as mockery. The Pool Party of Sardanapalus combines the tawdry affairs of suburbia for Eric Fischl and an Assyrian king’s harem for Eugène Delacroix. Christ’s Entry into Journalism has a predecessor in Christ’s Entry into Brussels, by James Ensor in 1889. Walker’s carnival of death looks almost restrained by comparison, but barely. Just try to spot Martin Luther King, Jr., and Frederick Douglass with a black power salute—and try to decide who has the last word.

Work like this has to bear a lot of weight, and Walker has mixed feelings about that, too. After the boasting comes an “artist’s statement,” in which she sounds “tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.’ ” If her compositions fail to cohere, she may have meant it that way. A prominent critic’s demand that the work go on permanent display opposite Washington Crossing the Delaware, in the Met’s American wing, sounds downright laughable. After a sphinx-like sculpture in sugar, as A Subtlety in 2014, she may be happy to dispense with permanence. With the factory that housed it lost to gentrification and the powdered sugar lost to the winds, who knows how long the authority of art or this administration will remain?

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

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