9.19.14 — Lost in a Crowd

New York for Garry Winogrand had its moments of solitude and quiet—a sailor crossing an overpass at night, a man and a woman at a window long after the store had closed, a distant ferry in the mist. They came early, though, for no other photographer was so swept up in the theater and the terror of the 1960s.

They are Winogrand at his saddest, for nothing to him was harder to bear than being alone. The soldier carries his bag toward destinations unknown, guided only by the aura of streetlights spreading into the blackness overhead. The man and woman at a window are almost certainly not a couple, and their silhouettes are more lifeless than the shop’s mannequins in the glare of artificial light. Not one person is visible on the ferry to Manhattan, and it has a long way to go. Garry Winogrand's Central Park Zoo, New York (Randi and Bob Fisher collection, 1967)

They are only the start of a retrospective as well, at the Met through September 21, for a man who declared himself a lifelong student of photography and of America (and I should have told you about it sooner, but this had first to appear in a slightly different form in New York Photo Review). Together with alternative visions of street photography more than a generation ago, by Mark Cohen and Barbara Crane, it is also the subject of a longer and more in-depth version in my latest upload.

They are not truly alone either, for the only solitude here is the loneliness of a crowd. Cars will speed past the sailor any moment now, and the city holds its millions. Winogrand and Diane Arbus share the comedy and anxiety of a freak show, but hers takes place between one or two people and the camera. Born in 1928 in the Bronx, he preferred the public spaces of Manhattan and Coney Island—starting in the 1950s with the tawdry spectacle of Minksy’s Burlesque and El Morocco. When a friend photographed the two together, Arbus was talking on the phone. Winogrand gets his energy from others, and he is looking for more.

How, he must have wondered, could a freak show not take place in public, and how could a public spectacle not become a freak show? During frosh/soph rush at Columbia, a black ball descends on upraised hands like a visitor from outer space. In perhaps his most famous image, a grumpy driver and his passenger share their car with a chimp—and all three turn their back on Park Avenue traffic to face the camera. In a fair runner-up, a young black man and an equally handsome blond woman nestle monkeys in their arms at the zoo, just daring you to call it miscegenation. In another favorite, a wide-angle lens turns a bench at the 1964 World’s Fair into a panorama of women in motion. So what if it records three separate conversations, and a man at the far end does his best to hide in his newspaper from them all?

So what's NEW!Of the show’s themes, first comes “Down from the Bronx,” with New York from 1950 to 1971. Then comes “A Student of America,” from those same years. That for him meant not the compendium of a nation as for Robert Frank or America by car as for Lee Friedlander, but sites of spectacle and isolation in California, Texas, and the Southwest. Finally, “Boom and Bust” takes him to his death, after he had largely abandoned commercial photography for teaching. One might better describe his arc as from quiet optimism to, first, a nation torn apart and then a loss of confidence in picking up the pieces. The last and least successful photographs run to small groups dancing and preening for the camera—or, in Los Angeles, for the Day of the Dead.

Winogrand worked for mainstream publications like Life and Sports Illustrated, but even his 1963 Guggenheim Fellowship application tweaks the reader: “our aspirations have become cheap and petty.” He keeps returning anyway to the same places and the same obsessions. He never stops combining the comedy and the anxiety—or the isolation and the spectacle. The comedy enters just when the fears have become too much to bear. A mother out with her stroller seems to be taking her son to the trash, while a bride steps out of her limousine to puke.

In turn, terror enters just when one wants to count on human comfort or communication. People disembarking from a small plane could be leaving the scene of a disaster. Their story, like the sailor’s, remain unfinished, but they are also decidedly lacking in finish. For Winogrand, who disdained crisp perfection, the blur of lights and the grain of a print are a secret weapon. Lack of finish also extends to the packed compositions and frequent tilt of the picture plane, which the photographer did nothing to crop away. He saw them as part of the comedy and the terror.

 

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

9.17.14 — Facing His Limits

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Could Mel Bochner be feeling his limits, in a moving retrospective at the Jewish Museum, or has he broadened his world? It is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload. (I have there appended an earlier review of Andy Freeberg, a photographer who quotes Bochner to mock the art fairs.) Mel Bochner's Going Out of Business (private collection, 2012)

The quote is from Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. One can almost think of its enigmatic prose not as philosophy, but as word painting. Bochner simply adds the paint. Back in the late 1960s, at a time when he was also exploring conceptual art and Minimalism, the artist wrote his columns of words on graph paper, although never all that neatly. He did not use stencils, and his text did not all but vanish like conceptual art, but it proved only the beginning.

He has always, though, been pushing at the limits. In 1970, Bochner created Theory of Boundaries, a wall painting for the Jewish Museum consisting of just four red squares—growing messier from left to right before dissolving into a fiery outline. An accompanying text spoke of “the reciprocity of enclosure and enclosed . . . (disclosed),” as rigorous and as elusive as philosophy.

At the same museum now through September 21, words have taken on a lot less reticence. Right at the lobby admissions desk, Blah Blah Blah wraps around two walls, its presence heightened by a ground of deep black and blue. The curators, Norman L. Kleeblatt with Stephen Brown, call a retrospective of his text art alone “Strong Language.”

This side of his work might seem too much of a piece, and the seventy works do go by rather quickly. At most, one might think, he has grown better at challenging the eye. The quotes about photography return in 2011, but now seemingly pinned to the wall as trompe l’oeil in soft grays and softer colors. MutualArtBlah Blah Blah has run through an impressive range of textures and colors, slipping away into the ground while getting truly in your face. Still, Bochner can claim at least one breakthrough, in coming upon Roget’s Thesaurus. With his usual reticence about his boldest gestures, he treats the book as a “readymade,” like Duchamp’s bicycle wheel but with words as its vehicle.

And it did embolden him, in 2001, with a lively series that riffs on (among other things) nothing, crazy, and useless. He is talking about you, kid—or is he? No question but his art is confrontational, while his strategy of appropriation keeps him at a certain remove. One could say the same about the very first readymades, in the years of bitter disillusionment in and around World War I. It would be a mistake, though, to accuse his art of being above it all. It all comes down to his limits.

Most of all, kid, this is not just about you. Bochner directs his skepticism first and foremost at himself. How can Blah Blah Blah tumbling into blarney and bunk not be about him, after so many years dedicated to words? He has a two-column Self-Portrait as early as 1966, that self sliding into ego and that portrait into caricature. When he paints Silence!, Be Quiet!, and Shut Up! with all their exclamation points, he is again wondering at how much and how little he has said. When he chooses an inky blue for his monochromes, he is surely wondering, too, how much his newfound freedom has outgrown those first words on paper after all.

Of course, this is all about something else as well—about language and its limits. Oddly enough, that distinguishes Bochner from others better known for text art. Between nuance and synonymy, he navigates the twin demands to look and to think. Still, can words be exhausted? What is left after so much Blah Blah Blah? Perhaps an artist in his seventies is feeling the limits of his world.

 

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

9.15.14 — Johns Sends His Regrets

Sorry I’ve saved this for today, but it seemed only right for me. I’m having surgery for a detached retina that has me fearing just how much of me will be back Wednesday and how much of what I saw or drafted this weekend will be the last of me for a while to come, although I’ve quite a few posts all ready for the “publish” button. So forgive me if I take today to send my own regrets.

Jasper Johns sends his regrets. One can search high and low for his outline, but nothing. Still, he leaves more than a trace, recently at the Museum of Modern Art through September 1.

The thirty amazing objects of “Jasper Johns: Regrets” take a single image through its paces, and I have added this to an earlier article on Ileana Sonnabend as a longer review and my latest upload. He tries his hand at pencil, watercolor, ink on plastic, aquatints, monotypes, and two paintings. He even displays the copper plates for several prints. He is just wary as ever of saying too much—or of leaving anything unstated. Jasper Johns's Racing Thoughts (photo by Jamie M. Stukenberg/licensed by VGA, Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection, 1984)

That single image belongs to Lucien Freud, the German-born British painter—or perhaps to Johns, to Francis Bacon, to its photographer, to anyone who looks, or to no one at all. Bacon commissioned John Deakin’s photograph of Freud around 1964, as a source for his paintings. Jasper Johns in turn came upon it in an auction catalog in 2012, the year after Freud’s death. He thus connects two English artists known for their effusive agonies and their adherence to representation, while appropriating them for an art that refuses both. If one has been following or bemoaning the record auction price for Bacon, one may suspect Johns of doing the same, but of course he is not saying. His place in the art world hovers over the series all the same.

At least since the death of Robert Rauschenberg in 2008, he has every claim on the status of greatest living American artist. Born in 1930, he must also know that he will not be that forever. And reflections on his career have long entered his work, as in the studio interior of Racing Thoughts in 1983.

From the first, though, he has multiplied a handful of images in a hall of mirrors. A ruler hanging motionless against the area that it might have swept out, a target held uncomfortably in one’s face, three flags superposed, or a map with its boundaries as fluid as encaustic and oil—they all reflect on their own making without quite admitting that it took an artist to make them. They are only what they are and more.

With Regrets, things are murkier than ever and yet no less literal. Even in black and white, Johns sees shades of gray, but then Jasper Johns in gray often has color as well. The largest work in his new show, a painting, develops its gray through a great deal of color. As so often, Johns combines a found object with its mirror image, to create a semblance of symmetry or a disguise. Is the somewhat lighter gray surrounding a darker area just off center a veil, and is the space just above the darkness a skull? Is the word regrets, in cursive off to one side, the artist’s signature, or is he sending his regrets?

In time, one can make out Freud’s presence or maybe absence, but it sure helps to go back to the photograph. Bacon being Bacon, the Brit preferred Freud seated in bed, nearly doubled over, with his hand to his face as if unable to face the camera or to bear his very existence. And Johns being Johns, the artist of In Memory of My Feelings, he chose a reproduction long since cracked, crumpled, paint spattered, seriously cut off, and folded back. Any jagged edges come with the image. As for the word regrets, Johns at some point had a stamp made so that he could dismiss more quickly myriad invitations to appear. Still, the word looks handwritten, and he does send his regrets.

The skull, the grid, the image of Freud, and their reversals come and go throughout the show. Johns displays each state of a print, as distinct as for Paul Gauguin, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether he is revealing his process or denying the very possibility of progress. One print includes directions to the printer to enlarge the stamp, and a separate series, of the numbers 0 through 9, bears the imprint of a mesh, rags, coins, and string. They are like a sign language that conveys nothing but the artist’s hand.

A pencil drawing after Freud also includes the words Goya? Bats? Dreams?—a reference to The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, an etching by Francisco de Goya among Goya’s last works. Does it matter that Freud never gets out of bed, that Johns approaches art like a logic problem, that this may be among his last works, or that the words are a series of questions?

Johns takes each and every technique and runs with it. Ink can run or gather, pastel on charcoal on watercolor can take on unexpected textures, and the white of an aquatint can glow like neon while the black can resemble a cylinder lamp. He still juggles the twin impulses of late Modernism—from conceptualism to subtle abstraction and from a denial of authenticity to a space for personal expression. Can those two sides get along? The sources of Regrets do not connect all that closely to everyday life, and the stamp and the photograph do not have all that much to do with one another either. Still, it takes a virtuoso to send these regrets.

 

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

9.12.14 — Are They Friendly Spirits?

Remember spirit photography? Not that you were there in its heyday, in the nineteenth century, but then neither were the spirits. If you have any associations at all, you probably think of mistaken longings and a sham.

Yet art, too, channels desires and artifice, almost by definition, and so does Laura Larson, at Lennon, Weinberg through September 13. Together with an earlier review of Scott Alario, it is also the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload. Laura Larson's Emma (Lennon, Weinberg, 2008)

For all their black magic, Larson’s photographs also capture a quite everyday reality, one that threatens at any moment to disappear like a ghost. She attends to unmade beds, peeling walls, period rooms, and the confidence and baby fat of a twenty-first century adolescence. A balcony with a view of the Eiffel Tower recalls the Paris of Henri Cartier-Bresson, while a woman swallowing or maybe disgorging lace could almost date to Surrealism. So could a woman’s breast, a slim fragment of fabric hanging from its nipple like a chain. These scenes are as distinct as the transient spaces of Katherine Newbegin and the childhood indulgences of Rineke Dijkstra today, and one could well treat the show as three or four distinct bodies of work, including large color photographs and smaller ones in black and white. All, though, look back further, to photography in search of spirits.

The titles alone of Larson’s past series suggest both her range and her obsession. “Domestic Interiors,” “Well Appointed,” “My Dark Places,” “Apparition,” “Asylum”—they all barely keep away the demons. The first obvious apparition, though, comes well into the current show, with work from 1996 to as recently as 2012. In Day Room from 2005, a pillar of light rises before tall bay windows. The puff of light might have shattered the floor below it or emerged from the rubble. Other ghosts inhabit empty interiors and forest clearings.

Nor are they the only signs of the departed. A sign for Internet service identifies an unmade room as a hotel, and one does, after all, speak of both guests and the dead as “checking out.” Mail slipped under a door piles up as Estimated Time of Death. Larson’s female nudes are creepy enough on their own, while a third arm encircles the adolescent girl. Not that her subjects are altogether helpless. That girl is also capable of suspending a table in midair and summoning a bell over her head.

It is a charmingly old-fashioned bell, the kind that might once have rung through a New England madhouse, and revisiting past accounts of witches is still a feminist issue. As influences, the photographer mentions Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneeman, Martha Rosler, and Yoko Ono. All four women made themselves vulnerable in performance while asserting control, and Larson speaks of recasting them in her art as “latter-day mediums.” For her, even empty rooms and narrow clearings take on feminist overtones. Mirrors and close-ups turn them into spaces of confinement, much as women were long confined to the home. “What,” she asks in an interview, “does a feminist photographic practice look like if there are no bodies?”

For starters, it looks inhabited. A hotel room also has associations with trysts. Another unmade bed has a lump under the sheets, either because it was hastily abandoned or because it never was. Larson, who has worked in film, still implies a narrative. And then, as with spirit photography, she leaves it up to the viewer’s longings to fill out the story. This being art rather than a con game, the story might even be true.

Spirit photography had to do with the amazement of art all along. It arose when science flourished alongside Romanticism, as two ways of naturalizing the supernatural. It also came about when photography’s ability to capture presences seemed like magic—or, as with Julia Margaret Cameron, like theater.

Like Cameron’s, Larson’s photography is staged rather than manipulated. She arranges the rooms, and she uses cigarette smoke rather than double exposures or Photoshop for her spirits. Her magic act may call up both a woman’s self-assertion and her demons, but she still keeps things real.

 

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

9.10.14 — A Small Miracle

A small show can be a special treat, a chance to spend time with a single artist and just one or two works. So what if its centerpiece is only two inches across? With “Miracles in Miniature” through September 14, the Morgan Library has the ultimate in small shows—and a small miracle. Along with an earlier review on the theme of “Small,” it is also the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload. Claude Master's Month of May (Morgan Library, c. 1517-1520)

Along the walls run a calendar by the artist known only as the Master of Claude de France. Each of its twelve pages set the month’s labors beneath an architectural lunette, containing the signs of the zodiac. The exhibition centers, though, on that artist’s Book of Hours, also in the museum’s collection, alongside an only slightly larger Prayer Book, from a private collection in Switzerland. One can imagine Claude herself, the first wife of King François I of France, nestling them in her hand and holding them close from day to day. One can imagine her commissioning them in 1517, expressing in her prayers her dreams and anxieties on becoming queen.

I am happy to take the show’s word on the last point, regarding her fears that she could never bear healthy children, for I shall never turn their pages to decipher their images—but in principle I could, at least online. The museum has scanned every page for the Web, where one can linger that much longer and zoom right in. That, in turn, is part of a still more impressive digital program, most recently extending to the entirety of the Morgan’s Rembrandt etchings.

Its availability is also only right when it comes to miniatures. The genre has acquired over time the aura of a rare book, beyond even most paintings in public collections, but it was always among the most humble of arts. As the museum insisted with its 1999 exhibitions of The Medieval Housebook, books like these were part of the fabric of everyday life, even when the life was a queen’s.

The Claude Master acquired an identity, if not a name, only in 1975, when a study of the two tiny books discovered a style in, already, a dying art. They have a distinctive reliance on plain text within broad historiated borders, meaning a weave of images to unfold the narrative. These also happen to include the king’s and queen’s emblems and her coat of arms, the first clue to their source. They all have the artist’s soft but intense palette of lilac and rose, tiny brushwork that rarely lingers over outlines, and gentle spirit. Jesus at Gethsemane prays before a tiny chalice on a hill, as if this cup were the best and the worst that he could do. The apostle resting in the foreground looks well fed and comfortable, rather than reflecting a god’s agony in a tormented sleep.

At the Morgan, the Prayer Book is open to the Annunciation, where the angel has entered in long strides rather than descending from the sky before kneeling to a virgin queen. The Book of Hours displays the Trinity, its only full-page miniature. Here Jesus, eyes lowered and facing forward, has a more rounded face and richer beard than the usual passionate sufferer or action hero, as he raises a hand to bless the reader, and both he and his kindly father beside him have a childlike grace. The dove of the Holy Spirit has doll-like eyes and wings spread a tad askew, as if taken by surprise in flight. The figures rest against an orange field within successive red and blue ovals, beneath the king’s emblem, a knotted cord. The colors stain the page with their quiet glow.

The stories lack for drama, but not for courtly sophistication. The Annunciation suggests architecture within architecture. Its decorative border creates the illusion of a carved frame surrounding Mary’s canopy bed—all within an elaborate interior, with molding in perspective that runs neatly along the picture’s edge. In the calendar, a young woman sits humbly within an arbor for May, braiding flowers for her hair, but she has the breadth and calm of a queen. The sheets also give pride of place to simple labor, like feeding and then, a month later, butchering a hog. A man treads grapes for wine as if lowering himself into a warm bath. Yet that happy view of peasant life may well reflect the needs and narrow vision of the upper class.

If the Claude Master’s playful innocence is fully his own, it is also a part of his time. The artist worked in Tours, influenced by Jean Poyer (or Jean Poyet) and Jacques Ravaud—and the curator, Roger Wieck, believes that he can document a teacher as well, in Jean Bourdichon. And by 1500 manuscript illustration in northern Europe had gone from leading the way toward the Renaissance to reflecting a new humanism and an ease with representation, in which ordinary people and ordinary feelings can come to the fore.

That new spirit is particularly evident in the human comedy of the calendar, for all its courtly biases. Its couple feasting could be having dinner any day of the year, men hawking could be grown-ups playing with model airplanes, and martyrs could be assembling dutifully for an unwanted reunion. Fine art and folk narratives have become inextricable, and old hierarchies will soon be dying away.

 

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

9.8.14 — 100 Years Without Solitude

Christoph Schlingensief never did get over Hitler, but he sure gave himself enough time. 100 Years Adolf Hitler falls well short of a thousand-year Reich, and indeed it unfolds in that final hour in the bunker. The title refers, straightforwardly enough, to the film’s release in 1989, the centenary of Hitler’s birth. Yet it reflects an obsession with Germany’s most terrible past, and Schlingensief could be blaming the nation or reliving it personally every day.

His films all but scream at the viewer, between unrelenting close-ups and barely coherent soundtracks, and so does a retrospective, at MoMA PS1 through September 1 (and allow me this slightly late post to follow up on James Lee Byars at PS1 last time). It provides a short but messy account of a short but messy life—and I have appended this to another German artist into mess, history, and disaster, Isa Genzken, as a longer review and my latest upload.

The show begins all over again at least three times, not counting film and video loops. And each time it compresses the German artist’s madness into a joke, a protest, and a scream. A corridor introduces him through posters. Born in 1960, he made a name for himself with movies before largely abandoning them for theater and art fairs—including Documenta in 1997, where he bore a sign demanding death for the conservative chancellor, Helmut Kohl. The terror of Hitler’s bunker opens a trilogy of German history, with The German Chainsaw Massacre for reunification and Terror 2000: Germany Out of Control for its aftermath. Could that be a dead deer and a mutilated cross just off the corridor, and what orchestral dissonance is playing inside?

Here the past will not let go, not even for an artist too young to remember it. Another start (the part that remains open) has several films running at once in a single long room. Do not even try to find a beginning or an end. One will recognize the repeated references to the Nazis from Sigmar Polke—and to terrorism from Gerhard Richter and Isa Genzken. Schlingensief found another influence as well in Werner Fassbinder, and he drew on Fassbinder’s actors for some of his cast. The nasty and simplistic puns, however, are entirely his own.

Schlingensief is equally at home with history and horror films, but also with street theater and reality TV. A third start to the show gives a full wing to more detailed documentary evidence.

The mix of anarchism and activism has its debts to Joseph Beuys and Actionism, an Austrian parallel to Fluxus. He projected a theater of the homeless, an “open war theater,” and a Church of Fear. He declared a political party of the marginalized and invited supporters to overrun a public fountain, in hope that its waters would swamp the German government. Few showed up. “We are Germany,” he insisted, all the same.

As curators, Klaus Biesenbach, Anna-Catharina Gebbers, and Susanne Pfeffer (of the Fridericianum, a contemporary arts center in Kassel) take him more seriously than perhaps even he did. They make that wing’s center a half-hidden alcove near the very end, for a life that had trouble with straight lines. Inside is the single obvious work of art. Naturally it contains whatever crossed the artist’s mind, on a preposterous scale, and naturally it is not going anywhere fast while never sitting still. A house slowly rotates beneath an old chandelier, in near blackness, with feathers and a cat mummy on its roof.

Do climb right up, but do not even try to sort out parody from sincerity. A film called Please Love Austria clearly satirizes the right. The Battle for Europe as an adaptation of Space Patrol may not. Schlingensief may have hoped to flee Germany’s past to some saner cultural present, but he was always in search of a nation, too. He even reached a kind of accommodation, in agreeing to direct Parsifal and The Flying Dutchman, although here Wagner meets the carnival in Rio. Unfortunately, his shift from cult to mainstream status did not last long. He died of cancer in 2010.

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