12.19.14 — Less Than Zero

So many movements. So little time.

With “Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow,” the Guggenheim demands attention for yet another, but others may lose count—and it is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload. From its beginnings at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1957, Group Zero did not so much innovate as play well with others, including some of biggest names in European painting and sculpture. It was both more and, I am afraid, less than zero. Otto Piene's Hangende Lichtkugel (courtesy of the New Museum, Sperone Westwater, 1972)

Maybe you grew tired of art movements long ago. Maybe you grew tired of sorting them out. Maybe you never heard of half of them, when art could still aim for the diversity and urgency of Modernism. From around 1960 alone, there were Arte Povera in Italy, Gutai in Japan, Nul in the Netherlands, Nouveau Réalisme in France, G58 and COBRA in Belgium, and Fluxus everywhere. Maybe you wish that people could forget the whole thing and just get on with making art. Start again at zero.

Only guess what: that, too, was a movement. Heinz Mack and Otto Piene met in art school and declared themselves Group Zero, after the countdown of space shots and the nuclear age. The third issue of their magazine, with a cover by Mack, displayed an actual blast-off. Günther Uecker fell in with them almost from the first and formally joined in 1961. They insisted on the priority of experiment in painting, print, and performance, with new materials, periodicals, “street action,” and light shows.

If that sounds less like amazement in art and more like a day in the life of the 1960s, so is their retrospective, through January 7. With nearly two hundred objects, it becomes an exercise in obscurity and nostalgia, but also a handy look at goings-on in and out of Europe. It draws on artists from every one of those often forgettable movements and from Japan to Latin America. They all joined in rebellion against the painterly excess of Tachisme in Paris and Abstract Expressionist New York, much like America’s Pop Art and Minimalism. While its big three supply about half the art, following a more modest summer show at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, others provide the big names and the innovations. The curators, Valerie Hillings with Edouard Derom, speak not of a movement but a “network.”

So what's NEW!It feels caught up in the 1960s all the same. When Piene described Zero as a “zone of silence,” I could think only of Maxwell Smart and his cone of silence. As reflective spheres rotate in the near darkness of a dance floor, I could almost name the dance. The Guggenheim deserves part of the blame for the tameness. Three floors of Mack at his gallery, at Sperone Westwater through December 13, shows more of his sparkle right up to today. He could fill an entire wall in paint, reflective tape, or aluminum. His light boxes could aspire to Surrealism, with otherworldly shapes towering over the sand.

Still, Zero must share the blame as well, especially in a show that obliges one to compare it to its collaborators. The early abstractions prefer dull colors and lumpy surfaces to Lucio Fontana’s slash and Yves Klein’s burn. The kinetic art never goes so far as to self-destruct like Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York. Compared to Walter de Maria or Robert Smithson, Mack in earthworks refuses to get his hands dirty. Well before the end, Zero comes off as a quaint and all too masculine echo of the summer of love without the free spirit. This happening refuses to happen.

 

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

12.17.14 — Coming Home to LIC

You know the recipe: take a corner of New York, add artists, and stir. SculptureCenter has long epitomized a neighborhood in transition, and yet gentrification has been surprisingly slow in coming. That may at last have changed, and one of contemporary art’s most overlooked institutions may have found a lasting home. Along with an earlier report on projects for Long Island City two years ago, it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. Anya Gallaccio's One Art (SculptureCenter, 2006)

Founded in 1929 in the Village, SculptureCenter moved in 2001 from an Upper East Side carriage house to within blocks of what is now MoMA PS1, where it has paid host to such grand dames as Ursula von Rydingsvard and Petah Coyne—and to such bad boys as Mike Kelley and Michael Smith. Yet the Maya Lin architecture still looked in transit.

One entered the former trolley repair shop past a roll-up gate along a dead-end street, a pebbled garden, and a desk that might have folded up for the night. And one found not just a great space, but also the raw materials for art. Its skylit interior, undivided but for a room behind the desk, leads to three basement tunnels, their functioning infrastructure barely exposed to light. They seem only right for a city on the edge or on the verge.

It has thrived, too, on its crumbling brick and adventurous choices. A tree by Anya Gallaccio blossomed easily in its main hall, and Jeppe Hein reached for the skylight. Most often, though, one came for the surprises lurking below. One could delight in how the space shaped each and every show. Not that everything worked out as planned, only starting with its near secret identity. Who, for example, wants a large sculpture garden that never seemed to house sculpture?

Now the Center has reopened, as of October 2, in a changing Long Island City. The gate has given way to a door beside a proper wall, in rusted steel that a visitor could mistake for sculpture by Richard Serra. Within, more than half the garden has become a proper entry as well, with a desk and bookshop in the same white concrete as for PS1—thankfully, without tchotchkes for sale or a café. MutualArtIt also houses an elevator, as suits the tired, the eager, building code, and moving art. A partition marks out a broader entry to the main hall, with a further partition just behind for added wall space. For the reopening, the additional small chamber to its side held, thanks to Judith Hopf, concrete sheep and a glass door, with a hand-drawn knob to proclaim the new divisions.

Where once Ilya and Emily Kabakov created “The Empty Museum,” the site now has occupants—and chipper ones at that. They include a model Superman by Danny McDonald, Lego-like robots by Keicchi Tanaami, vaguely scatological cartoons by Jordan Wolfson, hands grasping toilet paper by Lucie Stahl, Teresa Burga’s stillness, and still more action figures in paintings by Jamian Juliano-Villani. Signs of others appear in Lina Viste Grønli’s sports equipment pressed between bricks, Antoine Catala’s motorized office junk, Win McCarthy’s drooping glass sculpture, Olga Balema’s latex “long arm,” Camille Blatrix’s steel tongue, and Marlie Mul’s seemingly bandaged glass panels. The pebbled square of the remaining garden, too, has sculpted company for a change, including a tycoon, a dog, a humble laborer, and a military officer with a birdbath for a brain. Mick Peters may have the neighborhood in mind, still caught between waterfront luxury towers and the utter dearth down the street from the Center itself. Maybe he was thinking, too, of PS1’s original function when he left a blackboard downstairs, with extravagantly oversize chalk.

They all belong to “Puddle, Pothole, Portal,” through January 5, curated by Ruba Katrib and Camille Henrot, who has filled a floor of the New Museum with her memories of Eden. Their global cast claims inspiration in “out-of-control machines” and Saul Steinberg, who gets the small room still in the back.

The title means little or nothing, while the nearly two dozen artists add up to misplaced hyperactivity for so grand a space. Only Chadwick Rantanen aspires to scale, and his telephones hanging from piled desktops mark a failure to communicate. What do Joachim Bandau’s layered rectangles in black watercolor have to do with all this? Probably nothing at all.

The real story remains the Center’s future and a neighborhood’s past. As architect, Andrew Berman has basically rearranged the elements with which he began. The brick façade has regained its industrial glory, although Allison Katz embellishes the windows over its tall arches, and the basement still has its ruins. More trash spins cheerfully past on a dry-cleaner’s rack in one alcove, with help from Abigail DeVille. She calls it Gone Forever Ever Present, which pretty much sums up the dilemma of the present. I shall miss Lin’s simplicity, but her rawness has found a more lasting home.

 

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

12.15.14 — Double-Crossing Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Museum wants to do right by Brooklyn. It wants to reach out to its community, from artists and students to a budding public for art. And it wants to reach out to their concerns, for their neighborhoods, their identities, their politics, and the planet. Mary Mattingly's Microsphere (Robert Mann gallery, 2012)

One can see those twin aims in everything from the deadly 2010 renovation to extended hours and curatorial changes—and from the permanent display of Judy Chicago to socially aware exhibitions of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lorna Simpson, the Civil Rights movement, Wangechi Mutu, women in Pop Art, “Global Feminisms,” gay artists, SWOON, Mickalene Thomas, El Anatsui, and Ai Weiwei. But could those aims come into conflict? Apparently so, and “Crossing Brooklyn” comes down squarely on the side of the second, at the expense of either serious politics or art.

Truth be told, the museum’s changes and programs have looked far more often tawdry and tired than enlightening. And here the thirty-five Brooklyn artists and collectives settle for a lame rehash of that touchy-feely mix of performance and installations known as relational esthetics. The curators, Eugenie Tsai and Rujeko Hockley, adopt the subtitle “Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond,” through January 4, but it could not look less like Bushwick’s galleries and open studios had they turned instead to Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian.

Now, that could be a good thing. What if it unsettled one’s expectations about the endless search for bankable emerging artists, collectibles, and the next big thing? In practice, though, the work could not be more predictable.

It does not just repeat past trends. (Frankly, if a proper follower of Rirkrit Tiravanija had turned up to dole out free curry, I might have welcomed it, since I was hungry.) It also repeats the same tricks and tropes to the point that one blends into another. Forgive me if this once I omit names, to mitigate the blame and to reflect the sameness. Regular readers of this site will recognize William Lamson and his concern for process, Janine Antoni and her feminism, Cynthia Daignault and her knowing wink at painting and its viewers, and Steffani Jemison and Mary Mattingly and their fears for climate change and the earth. They have all seen better days apart from the crowd.

Virtue, alas, is abundantly rewarded. Artists photograph borough residents looking as proud as selfies, and they transfer the borough’s portraits onto plastic bags and smileys. They track down classical dance in the museum and taxi dancers in Queens. They “interpret” the speeches of Huey Newton in black and start their own lecture center. They solicit your thoughts about nothing in particular and your contributions pinned to a statue from ancient Rome. They bring you, in letters, their love.

At some point, the sameness alone may make you gag, if not also the sentiment. They remember their grandmother’s recipes and their grandmother’s samplers. They build sheds in the gallery for a woman aging gracefully and for carrier pigeons to Cuba. They do indeed serve up food, from the ices of Latino street vendors to the products of a community garden. They reconstruct their street corners with still another model, with photographs of chain-link fencing, and in walk after walk after walk. They roam Brooklyn at night and the New Jersey Meadowlands and Brazil by day, row the city’s waterways and drift standing up on the Delaware, accompany the borough’s clouds with Motown hits and sketch them each day for a friend in prison, haul its garbage down the sidewalk and collect its scraps for posterity.

Many Brooklyn artists feel excluded from the art world, and some resent this show for its near exclusion of painting and sculpture. Ken Johnson in The Times sure did, but then he judges every show by whether it has enough expressive brushwork. They are wrong, and not just because one should never judge a show because one has another in mind. For all they know, this could become just the first in a series of shows about Brooklyn—along with a welcome reminder that so much lies between high-end galleries and DIY. Its lesson is not that painting is lacking or political art is bad. It is that virtue alone cannot do right by Brooklyn or by art.

 

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

12.12.14 — Black Inside and Out

Serge Alain Nitegeka calls his latest “Morphings in BLACK,” at Boesky East through December 21, but you may not see them as black. You may not even see them as morphing.

They look like structures that fell into place not so very long ago and are likely to change again, but for now they look solid, quiet, and open to the air. The very changes are likely to leave them intact, as foundations for the future, like a construction site after hours. The broad areas of white could arise from late-afternoon sunlight raking across them. The only blackness is then their shadow. Serge Alain Nitegeka's Barricade I: Studio Study VI (Marianne Boesky gallery, 2014)

The medium alone asserts its stability. Nitegeka paints on solid wood, leaving areas untouched except for a finish that brings out the grain. Black bars cross against geometric fields of black, white, wood, and the occasional red. The language of formalism underscores their stability. They also have to do with space, and space here is both clear and indeterminate. The structures could be real or imaginary, inside or out—and together with recent posts on Alyson Shotz and Laura Letinsky, others with the same delight in two and three dimensions, it is the subject of a longer review as my latest upload.

Some look like the skeleton for a high rise at its base, others like glimpses of rooftops and water towers—or perhaps the High Line darting past the white box of the gallery’s Chelsea branch. One structure seems to occupy a courtyard or broad interior, and titles refer to the artist’s studio. Their space lies somewhere between inside and out.

The surfaces, too, play off that enigma in the unpainted panel and almost rubbery monochrome, ambiguously layered on and peeled away. This could be space for its own sake, the space of Cubism or computer graphics—and indeed morphing is a computer term as well, its root meaning form or structure. It could also be the space of a gallery, with the white as walls.

And in a sense it is, for much the same structures turn up as abstract sculpture in past installations, at least once of breathtaking density. One occupied a booth in the 2014 Armory Show. Nitegeka considers them site specific and the paintings a documentary record. That can strip them of their ambiguity, and indeed his sculptural style is clean, corporate, and perfectly familiar from Forrest Myers, Joel Shapiro, Mark di Suvero, and any number of others. The wood surfaces in two dimensions correspond to literal wood crates affixed to the crossed beams. Still, they morph and tumble smoothly into black.

One should have no trouble finding abstraction’s blackness, from Pierre Soulages to John Divola. One should have no trouble, too, finding structures in relation to the gallery. Sam Durant, who has worked with public spaces and against public memorials, even treats his surroundings as computer models. At Miguel Abreu through January 11, he outlines some in black tape on the floor, others in recycled computer parts on the walls. “This type of spatial modeling,” his gallery claims, “and its planning of smooth perfect paths materializes into collapsed sinews and abraded arteries.” It sounds as if his laptop is suffering from joint and heart disease, along with his art.

At least Nitegeka skips the nonsense, and at least his structures are both imagined and real. He also frames their blackness with a face portrait on the way in. Born in Burundi, he has studied and exhibited in South Africa, and he is determined to make one aware of blackness. Does that conception enter the work? Certainly none too clearly, and his portraits verge on banal, but his abstract paintings and sculptures work together as installations all the same, too. They have him at his most tumbling and elusive—black inside and out.

 

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

12.10.14 — Video for Robots

His goal was not to create high-tech toys, he insisted, but “to humanize the technology.” How then can Asia Society call its show of Nam June Paik, through January 4, “Becoming Robot“? The secret is to take each word seriously, the becoming along with the robot.

Of course, one had better take him seriously. Not many can claim to have invented an art form, but Paik did that and more.

The pioneering video artist collaborated with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Yoko Ono to push art past such tidy divisions as painting, sculpture, music, dance, and performance. Buddha (Museum for Contemporary Art/Center of Art and Media, Karlsruhe, 1989)One makes his acquaintance here wheeling Robot K-456, named for a favorite Mozart concerto, along a New York sidewalk in 1964. He had arrived in the city from his native Korea via Germany just that year, and he fit right in with the idea of the avant-garde as one step above the homeless. Chris Burden could hardly have tormented himself and puzzled his neighbors much more.

Then there is the robot, starting with that first one. For all its rickety outlines, its stacks have the open architecture of a skyscraper—and nearly the aspirations of Monument to the Third International for Russian revolutionary art decades before. It is also the debris of the TV culture that Paik both celebrates and humanizes. Much of the show looks like a branch of Radio Shack back in the day, and it leads to a whole 1986 robot “family.” Clunky old TV sets supply the utterly blank screen of a robot head and the bulge of a woman’s hips. Other robots look like toys after all, in one case a learning toy with blocks to teach basic arithmetic. Sex and child’s play were almost always on this artist’s mind.

For play, Paik sat on a chair, a monitor below its almost missing seat, reaching up to the camera for a robotic self-portrait. As for sex, his collaborations with Charlotte Moorman on cello run from her in a gown for Opera Sextronique to stripping for a TV Bra. The show treats her as its co-star, giving over a room to what she wore. Finally, there is the becoming, starting with his own.

The curator, Michelle Yun, falls short of a retrospective, like that at the Guggenheim in 2000 or the Smithsonian starting in 2013—and I have wrapped this into a revised recap of that earlier retrospective, which offers a fuller account of the artist, as a longer review and my latest upload. Her brief survey has its installations and its time lines, but it really comes down to those first moments and becoming Nam June Paik.

Was Paik really becoming robot? We all have a way of becoming what we fear, and he fears civilization as an all-seeing eye, a technology, and a mere toy—even while pressing monitors, a still-new Sony Portapak, and his own playfulness into the service of art. Even when he calls a video collage Good Morning Mr. Orwell, it flashes by with the noisy enthusiasm of daytime TV. His good nature almost anticipates Jeff Koons, but with a spirit of experiment rather than pandering. It has its parallels in TV rooms back then for Robert Heinecken or a “talent show” for Andy Warhol. Paik’s ambivalence is inseparable from his wonder.

When Moorman clasps portable TVs to her nipples, she humanizes them, even as they encroach on her. When Golden Buddha contemplates its image on TV, it steps outside of American culture while falling into real time. Another Buddha, in ceramic, reclines over monitors with a reclining woman. Are they two kinds of humanity or two received stereotypes from eastern and western art? The show’s last room challenges the visitor’s humanity as well. Three cameras convert one into color silhouettes.

The emphasis on performance can miss out on Paik’s radicalism or even his video art. Still, he ends up looking that much more contemporary. Fears of art as a toy for the rich seem prescient indeed. His freewheeling comedy anticipates more video artists today than I can name, bred on cartoons and the Internet. They know well an endless torrent of images. Now if only they appreciated how much they were becoming robot.

 

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

12.8.14 — Rubbing the Right Way

When Sarie Dienes appeared this fall at the Drawing Center, through November 15, she brought a welcome reminder of everyday New York. Her rubbings of manhole covers belong to the city’s infrastructure, and one could only imagine what lies just outside the basement “lab.”

The perfect circles in black and white update the shared immediacy of Minimalism and Pop Art for the street, much as the Drawing Center’s renovation has brought it more fully into Soho in the present. Besides, a lab by its nature is still experimenting. Sarie Dienes's Storm Sewer (Pavel Zoubok gallery, 1950s)Only surprise: Dienes was at her peak from 1953 to 1955, with an impact on Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Mark Rothko.

I have to take her gallery’s word for that, and dealers have a stake in boasting, but I can well believe it. Large circles and found imagery take one right to Johns’s targets, and their presence as art takes one to his discomforting habit of placing those targets not at a distance, as if for practice, but in one’s face. Dienes cast still more manhole covers in rough plaster not so far from Johns in gray, in work meant for the wall. They could be crumbling before one’s eyes or piercing them. As for Rauschenberg, her borrowings are combine paintings before the letter. Cotton pads, the kind used in surgical dressing, preserve life to much the same degree as his stuffed goat, but without violating animal protection laws.

Where Rothko’s generation marks the “triumph of American Painting” (or, to those left behind, “how New York stole the idea“), Dienes suggests a continuum—from Dada and Surrealism to the creepiness and camp of art today. Such is her gallery’s ongoing subject, as with Judy Pfaff the month before, and such is its three-person show, at Pavel Zoubok through December 20.

Where Dienes seems surprisingly ancestral, Addie Herder and Stella Snead look older than their years, although all three have died. They have in common Sherwood Studios, on West 57th Street, in the 1950s and 1960s. Dienes herself fashioned that cotton gauze into floating rectangles of red ink that Hans Hoffman at the nearby Art Students League might have taken as his own.

Herder and Snead never do set aside prewar Europe. Snead became a painter in London, and her photocollage clings to Surrealism’s dark absurdity. The hard edges of her cutting and pasting, with no attempt to hide the discontinuities, go back to the movement as well. Who is that grinning character with white skin, black makeup, and a bludgeon at the base of a pyramid, somewhere between a Mexican god and a cartoon superhero, with a rhino and wildcat guarding or challenging one another above? Who just dove into the water at the base of the World Trade Center, his legs miming the Twin Towers? Maybe Ground Zero is different now, but it is not yet ancient history, and it is startling to see it in art so rooted in the past.

Herder looks even more at home in the 1920s, in work as late as 1982. She fits cut paper into small abstractions, with the emphasis on fragments. One even sports the text Stück, German for piece. What goes around comes around, and what might have begun as bits of a matchbook or a deck of cards ends up recreating one. Herder, who also worked in Paris, is at her best there. She constructs street scenes in depth, like shoebox models.

Born in 1898 and the oldest of the three, Dienes tosses off watercolor and ink near the peak of Abstract Expressionism, in 1949. Soon enough things get nastier, in the cotton of raw bodily sensation, but still as abstraction. The plaster manhole covers enter more fully the space of the gallery. All three series surround the rubbings, in ghostly colors on a single raised platform on the floor, for a storm sewer is also part of a city’s long history. Dienes may be conducting only a modest experiment, but an experiment in time and New York.

 

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

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