5.27.16 — A Maze of Light

Robert Irwin cannot remake Dia:Beacon, not even with sixty-four walls and twice that many fluorescent tubes. No more did he remake the Whitney in 1977 and again in 2013, with a single scrim and a single thick black line, each the length of an entire floor. He merely allows one to experience the space anew and as an ever-shifting whole.

Irwin calls his installations not site specific but rather “site conditioned,” and the conditioning works both ways, and if you are looking for a holiday weekend trip, this is definitely the place. With Excursus: Homage to the Square3, at Dia through May 31, 2017 (and approaching summerRobert Irwin's Scrim veil—Black rectangle—Natural light (photo by Warren Silverman, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1977), you need a field trip), a regular design sets conditions for the work and the visitor. In turn, the work conditions the space.

In truth, it would take more than sixteen rooms to remake Dia:Beacon. What once took over Dia Center for the arts, then in Chelsea, now has to settle for less than a tenth of Dia’s galleries upstate. And that counts just one floor, quite apart from a mezzanine of Torqued Ellipses by Richard Serra, a floor apiece for Louise Bourgeois and Bruce Nauman, and the west garden, with its bird calls by Louise Lawler mocking the collection’s predominance of male artists. Irwin should know what it takes, too, and he has every right to try. He already remade the former Nabisco box printing factory, as designer and landscape architect. The passages in and out of his current installation serve as a welcome excuse to reacquaint oneself with the enormous space, the detailing of walls and windows, the collection, and his role in one’s perception of all three.

People often remember Excursus from 1998 as a maze. If so, it is an easy one to navigate, even after nearly twenty years. Translucent scrims set out a simple four by four grid, with paired lights set vertically at the center of each wall and paired openings at the ends—right next to identical openings in adjacent walls. Feel free to march up one aisle and back down the next, to make sure that you have seen it all. Repeat the process, and you are done, unless you are prepared to turn back. And yet it is indeed a maze of light.

Plastic looped around the center of each light fixture adds color and subdues the fluorescent white. The colors change from room to room, and so does the natural light in spaces open to the skylight above. Look longer, allowing light to penetrate the scrims from rooms away, and the colors multiply as in a mirror. Look at the corners, with the openings angled away, and they take the very shape of mirrors or a maze. Irwin’s subtitle pays homage both to the grid and to Josef Albers, who used it as a title for his seemingly endless series of nested squares. The superscript, as in cubed, then both serves as an intensifier and marks the passage into three dimensions.

So what's NEW!If I were a museum director, I might hesitate at this point to ask Irwin for an installation. It might come as a prophecy of doom. He designed for Dia:Chelsea, where Dia is gone and now the whole building is on its way to demolition, driving out the Independent and other art fairs. He designed for the Whitney on Madison Avenue, and now the Whitney is gone, too, to the Meatpacking District in architecture by Renzo Piano. His reinstallation at the Whitney was the museum’s way of saying goodbye. Yet it also embodies the very notion of site-specific art as transient, as much of Irwin’s smaller, independent works never could.

The artist faces down the trend toward overblown installations of found objects refusing the return to trash. He is open to reception and change as he conditions and is conditioned by space. He parallels Doris Salcedo, whose retrospective reconceives past work for the Guggenheim, much as her career keeps returning to much the same furnishings from everyday life. Irwin had already reconceived Excursus once while still in Chelsea, where it started as Prologue in eighteen rooms before adding lights. For Beacon, he has had to think it through again. And then it will be different after it is gone, but so will Dia, and so will you.

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

5.25.16 — Feared or Ignored

A retrospective of David Hammons sounds about as likely as an ISIS museum of antiquities. It comes as one more twist and turn on his sometimes unsuspecting audience.

A retrospective is necessarily a long, hard look back, but few are as elusive as artists and as ephemeral in their work. Those two qualifiers are, on the face of it, at odds at that. No art form is as passing as performance, but performance necessarily puts the artist on stage, right? MutualArtYou might think so, but somehow Hammons pulls the contradiction off, for nothing illuminated his otherwise empty gallery off Soho in 2003 except blue light pointers, in the hands not of him but of visitors. The black artist applied all of himself to his body prints in 2006, but face down, and he turned up on New York streets to sell snowballs, but not every customer grasped who he was or why he was there. He did not even show up for his last shows on the Upper East Side, in 2007 and then 2011, or permit a press release.

Yet here he is, back at what was then L&M, now Mnuchin, and tinkering himself this time with an overview, right down to the last minute. They range from a hoodie high on the wall and a chandelier of basketball hoops to a fur coat stained blood red and an artful right torus out of modern sculpture, but of empty liquor bottles. They include a seething black tangle of wire and human hair, massive rocks and more hair like an archeology of urban and human waste, and a stuffed cat. They play again on invisibility, with a mirror effaced by rough metal plates. Of course, there is a point to all this. Hammons presents black America as doubly unsettling, at once feared and as best as possible ignored.

A letter from a client complains that she cannot obtain insurance for her snowball. And critics have treated the new show as a big deal, too—but are they the subjects of manipulation as well? True, the shocks come fast and furious, from the course of five decades, through May 27. David Hammons's African-American Flag (Museum of Modern Art, 1990)One may forget, though, how often he returns to New York. Just right now, a photo of himself at work appears at the Studio Museum along with a “Kool-Aid painting,” through June 26. (If you have no idea what that means, I leave it to your imagination.)

Can one call blackness invisible—or perhaps, as with Kara Walker, only a silhouette? His American flag in African nationalist colors also hangs outside on West 125th Street as an emblem of his art, the Studio Museum’s mission, and Harlem. I see it there all the time, and I have reviewed those three earlier shows before. Allow me, then, to sign off with a link and an excerpt rather than starting over. Any claim about race in America is begging for a fight. And art has a way of fighting back.

Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, tried to imagine the first human bonds and found merely a harsh struggle, and he used that parable to put people in their places. He should have spent more time in darkness. Visitors found their way in that vast empty gallery, and children ran every which way, as a discovery of themselves and each other. I bet they would have begged for snowballs. The later exhibitions called attention to their Upper East Side mansion. The fur could belong to someone dropping in from the neighborhood—and not, as in a Lorna Simpson video, by subway.

The material and its treatment may extend to stereotypes of black people as unclean, animals, an inferior race in a dark continent, or “the primitive,” waiting for Modernism’s “Primitivism Revisited.” The mirror, the chandelier, or the hoodie, too, points to how blacks see themselves and how they appear to others. Yet with Hammons’s wit and indirection, one hardly knows whether one has only oneself to blame for reading these issues into the work. He and his invisibility take on new meaning these days, with artists on the style pages of newspapers and magazines. Even notable exhibition spaces come with controversy, act out power structures in and beyond the “art world” that makes for narrow roles and invisible careers. A black artist has a lot to recover.

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

5.23.16 — Show and Tell

In 1966, the year of Revolver, the Beatles sat for publicity photos—of only their lips. Their familiar faces might pass unrecognized without a hint, their familiar voices reduced to silence.

More than thirty-five years later, Jonathan Lewis closed in instead on their record covers, pixilated beyond recognition. Just as vinyl was making a comeback, they entered the digital age as little more than colored squares. So which photographs count as art for art’s sake, and which are sending a message? Aaron Siskind's New York 6 (Siskind Foundation/Morgan Library, 1951)If you hesitate to say, you can find both sets at the center of “Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World,” at the Morgan Library through May 30. Still cannot decide? Read my lips.

Not one of the Fab Four could sight read, but photography, the Morgan argues, entails reading as well as sight. It is about telling as well as showing, and it is concerned with gathering signs and sending a message. In the case of the Beatles, the publicity stills (by Jean-Pierre Ducatez, a French photographer) project the growing interiority and experimentation of four very public figures. They belong to the Morgan, while the second set belongs to the George Eastman Museum, which supplies much of the show. It comes after decades of talk of art as text, text as art, and line as language. It includes science and advertising alongside museum photography going back to the very origins of the medium, and it dares one to say which is which.

Does its own text message hold up? The curators, Lisa Hostetler of the Eastman Museum and the Morgan’s Joel Smith, quote László Moholy-Nagy, who wrote that literacy would soon demand “the use of the camera as well as the pen”—but then Modernism back then was big on utopian futures. And his own contribution from 1927, a photo-collage of nudes as Massenpsychose (or “mass psychosis”) is all about silencing the voice of madness. The show speaks of photography as “writing with light” in a “range of dialects,” but that alone implies a common language. In practice, its many voices and languages add up to a welcome cacophony. You can write your own story.

Nominal divisions bear such titles as “The Camera Takes Stock” and “Crafting a Message” that are hard to tell apart, much less apply. Lewis W. Hine was crafting a message as he went through prints of his Powerhouse Mechanic, a laborer fitting so neatly into a steam pump that he becomes its driving engine—and that of capitalism as well. Yet Hine was also crafting a message as he cropped immigrants to America, on quite another wall, not far from the witty political photography of John Heartfield. Meanwhile that earlier section also includes Sophie Calle, who combined text and photographs while working as a hotel chambermaid in 1981. “I hear them shouting,” she writes, a couple has “only coffee” for breakfast, and “the left pillow is stained.” Her narrative appeals not just to legible signs but to all the senses, and its messages could belong to others or to her.

Many of the show’s most telling pairings occur across sections—or within a single image. On another wall, Duane Michals, too, adds handwritten confessions to shadowy photographs, for The Man in the Room. The man was dead, he pleads, and “yet here he was!” Michals looks into a mirror, as if to silence his fears, but “I could not see myself.” Separate walls also hold Richard Sharpe Shaver’s glistening Rock Prints and a scientist’s sandstone. Robert Adamson titled his portrait in a churchyard The Artist and the Gravedigger. But then Hine spoke as not just a photographer and social reformer, but also a trained sociologist.

Photography here appears less as a sign system than as a compendium of existing signs. It runs from book covers and log books to color charts, marriage certificates, fossils, studies of human physiognomy, “PhotoMetric tailoring,” and more than one biologist’s photomicrographs. It details the surface of a dried lake and the surface of the moon. It includes President Grant from an unknown photographer on his way to the dollar bill. John Baldessari fashions smoke into the words “Seeing Is Believing,” for his Cigar Dreams. An artful compendium of cities reaches from sidewalks to storefronts by Eugène Atget, Andreas Feininger, Margaret Bourke-White, Aaron Siskind, and others, as the “Empire of Signs.” It could well have included Bernd and Hilla Becher from quite a different section—or Paul Strand and Irving Penn at that.

Among its narratives, the show also displays the medium’s reflections on itself. It opens with William Henry Fox Talbot wondering whether his photograph of a china collection could stand in for the objects were they destroyed. It juxtaposes motion studies by Eadweard Muybridge, Harold Edgerton, and Etienne-Jules Marey to contrast the techniques of multiple cameras and multiple exposures. It has John Pfahl measuring out waves breaking on the coast of Hawaii. It follows Robert Cumming onto a set at Universal Studios. Maybe photography is not science after all, and a message is not always art.

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

5.20.16 — Dead, Serious Art

Much of the pleasure of Joseph Cornell boxes is that they may contain anything. Much of the terror of boxes for Kurt Schwitters is that they may as well.

Not everything from Mary Bauermeister fits into a shallow wood box under glass. Some of her finest displays of wood, stones, and words spill out onto the wall, as if driven by their own radiant energy. Yet the principal thrust of her “Omniverse” is within, at Pavel Zoubok through May 21, with an implicit demand on viewers to look within themselves as well. And that thrust allows them to grow into pleasure or terror the closer they get. Mary Bauermeister's No More Bosoms (detail) (Pavel Zoubok gallery, 1969)

Like the perfect hybrid of Cornell and Schwitters, Bauermeister may seem a leftover from Dada or an embodiment of outsider art—and I have added this to other recent reports on women artists as survivors as a longer review and my latest upload. She has the casual scrapings of the first and the obsessive repetition of the second, while lending them both the polish of early European modernism. She covers small spheres with text, squiggles, faces, and polished surfaces. She layers stone upon stone in regular circles, preferring sea stones for their weathered smoothness. Like a hybrid of the older artists, too, she worked between Europe and America, starting with an exhibit at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1962, while still in her twenties, and her first New York show on 57th Street in 1964. Yet she came to the city to get in on the late modern action.

She would have known the drive here toward appropriation in Robert Rauschenberg and toward regular geometry in Minimalism. She identified most, though, with Fluxus, for its playfulness and multimedia. There she found what the show calls her “Omniverse,” at once all-encompassing and impatient with claims to wholeness or unity. There, too, she looks both outward and within. She displayed her early Sand-Stein-Kugelgruppe (or “sand, stone, sphere group”) with music by Karlheinz Stockhausen, with whom she studied and whom she briefly married. They divorced in 1972, the year she left for Germany, never to exhibit here again.

Unlike Cornell, she shuns allusion to art history, but with no shortage of reflections on art. Unlike Schwitters, she stands apart from the brutality of war, but with another sort of anxiety. Her wood cylinders tapering to a point could be undersized spears or oversized colored pencils, and some come with the label pen. Another work announces that My Contribution to Light Art Is Dead, Serious Art. Apparently she will not follow Pop Art in accommodating art to anything less than itself, and apparently serious art requires irony or a joke. The comma before serious leaves open whether art for her is dead or English too great an obstacle to expression.

The show sticks to her New York years, pretty much because it has to. Back in Germany, she became wrapped up in “geomancy,” while finding a clientele for garden designs instead. Maybe she knew that Cornell had tapered off, too, almost as soon as he found a wider audience in the 1940s. He had also become an adherent of Christian Science and Mary Baker Eddy. Maybe, too, her years of extroversion and collaboration could extend only so far. The work has plenty to say, but only if one looks within.

Just in case one is not looking closely enough, Bauermeister tops many compositions with lenses. They do not so much focus the eye as draw it every which way. The lenses are rarely convergent, and a box has way too many anyway for a single point of view. They show the carvings like pencils tapering into concentric circles of bright color, almost the only color apart from shades of gray stone. Text competes with squiggles to describe the art itself as affirming or anxious—a matter in French of yes or night. Step back, though, and Bauermeister is composing something like paintings, with all the distortions, geometries, and diversity of her omniverse.

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

5.18.16 — A History of Art History

When a museum celebrates itself, it is celebrating its past. And when the Met celebrates its curators as tastemakers, it can hardly help calling attention to how tastes have changed.

It does so again with works from its holdings, through May 22, in “The Power of Prints“—and I have worked this together with other recent reports on prints there and at the Morgan Library as a longer review and my latest upload.

Why now, other than as a pat on the back? The show looks back to the creation of a department of prints exactly one hundred years ago—and to the department’s growth under its first two directors. When you consider how aggressively it grew under the first and that the second lived until 1980, you have much of the history of a world-class collection. Albrecht Durer's Adam and Eve (Metropolitan Museum of Art,1504)If the works on display more often than not look familiar, they are. Meanwhile the Morgan Library gives its view of the making of both a collection and art history, with Pierre-Jean Mariette more than three hundred years before. But I told that story here before.

Simply having a separate prints department is one sign of changing tastes, toward scholarship and professionalism. And yet there both men had at least one foot in the past. William M. Ivins gave up a successful career as not an art historian but a lawyer, and A. Hyatt Mayor, the assistant who succeeded him in 1932, had worked as not just a critic and teacher, but also an actor. Yet they were eager for change as well. The department was born of necessity, after the gift in 1916 of some thirty-five hundred works by, delightfully, a paper manufacturer. And the first thing Ivins did was to subject it to criticism.

The donor, Harris Brisbane Dick, had reasonably progressive tastes, including a fondness for James McNeill Whistler. If you recognize Whistler’s Nocturne, you can thank him. Yet Ivins saw the era as too wrapped up in “art for art’s sake,” and he demanded a greater social awareness. It shows in a bedroom scene by John Sloan, Night Shadows from above by Edward Hopper, a speakeasy corner from Martin Lewis, or a view of the Tombs, that infamous prison, by Reginald Marsh. The desire for a social history shows in the director’s pursuit of Francisco de Goya as well, including much of Disasters of War and most of the nearly three hundred Goya prints in the Met today. Goya’s Garroted Man from around 1780 still sends a chill, the tangle of lines defining the man’s anguished face and the means of his death set off by the pool of light before him.

Ivins sought, he wrote, “the whole gamut of human life and endeavor, from the most ephemeral of courtesies to the loftiest pictorial presentation of man’s spiritual aspirations.” The search led him to Renaissance books of learning, from architecture to botany, with woodcuts by the likes of Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein. Does talk of loftiness, spirituality, and mere courtesy sound a bit old-fashioned after all? Ivins added some estheticism of his own. He turned to a friend for ten prints by Mary Cassatt, including a woman reading a letter influenced by Japanese art. They go well with a print of Cassatt at the Louvre by Edgar Degas, a portrait by Paul-César Helleu of his wife in the same museum, and The White Kimono by Childe Hassam.

Troubled by the association of women with works of art? Once again, times have changed. And estheticism also appears in the department’s view of the Renaissance. It acquired a slew of mythological scenes designed around interlocking men in action. They appear in a Bacchanal by Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the Nude Men by Antonio Pollaiuolo, and engravings by Lucas van Leyden—plus more than a few artists that textbooks have forgotten. The same tastes may govern Mayor’s attention to lithographs as well. They appealed to him as popular culture, but also as the refinement of Pierre Bonnard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge.

The curator, Freyda Spira, points to an interest in the artistic process, too, befitting a museum collection itself in the making. Wall labels quote Mayor on how Goya burnished the plate before printing his Seated Giant and how Dürer modeled his Adam and Eve with a “powdering of dots and flicks.” And no artist has so often rethought his work as Rembrandt. His Three Trees employs drypoint, etching, and engraving to capture a passing storm—in what Simon Schama has called “esthetic metamorphosis.” Ivins also managed to acquire three of four states of Rembrandt’s overwhelming Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves. In their course, darkness gives way to light and back again to darkness, while figures enter the foreground and vanish as mysteriously as they came.

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

5.16.16 — Breaking the Mold

Has any artist had a shorter and stranger career than Marcel Broodthaers? In 1964, at the ripe old age of forty, he created his first work of art from an edition of his poems. Meanwhile, someone else back then was moving away from a career in books—and not whom you may expect. It was Andy Warhol, and I told you about him last time, but he and Broodthaers are the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload.

Make that unsold copies of poems, in a volume called Pense-Bête, their pitch-black covers half open and their pages scattering to the winds. The rough plaster and skull threatening to encase them forever have their ugly side, but also a resemblance to coral, its accretion a sign of life. And then in 1968 he declared himself an artist no more. Marcel Broodthaers's Moules Sauce Blanche (photo from estate of the artist/ARS/SABAM, private collection, 1967)From the first, though, he had not given up on poetry, and at the end his art had only just begun. The more critical of the arts he appears, the grander his aspirations and installations. His life unfolds as one long, leisurely work of art.

Others have died young, like Georges Seurat and Eva Hesse, or burned out in pursuit of a single idea. This artist lived only to 1976, but he had a history along the way. The curators, Christophe Cherix and Manuel Borja-Villel with Francesca Wilmott, set aside a room for his poetry, in a retrospective of some three hundred objects, which closed just yesterday at the Museum of Modern Art, through May 15. It could pass for the display of rare books and manuscripts at the Morgan Library. As a poet, Broodthaers had been fashioning a vocabulary, and later works weave it into hand-drawn text, much like a hero of his, René Magritte. Where Magritte declared that this is not a pipe, Broodthaers draws pipes and declares that this is not a work of art.

Broodthaers lived in a bilingual country, Belgium, where he founded a gallery for just his work, but he never wrote in Flemish. As a poet who had carried messages for the Resistance and flirted with Communism, his first allegiance is not to a nation, but to language. He likes puns, both visual and verbal. While he does display a bone as Femur d’un Homme Belge, he dedicates much of those four years as an artist to mussel shells and broken eggshells, and the French for mussels, moules, also means molds. When he converts them into a black painting, he is walking on eggshells and breaking the mold. Moules frites, or steamed mussels and fries, is also pretty much the Belgian national dish, and when he paints the word veritablement, he is questioning not only the truth in painting, but also the painting or dining table.

He gave up art only to declare himself its curator. He spent the rest of his life on what he called the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, or eagles. And there, too, he was cultivating a vocabulary. It suggests royalty soaring to the heavens, but also the detachment of an artist not satisfied with the museums and platitudes of others. A poem had spoken of the “melancholy bitter castle of eagles,” and he was prepared to maintain his own bitter redoubt. Rooms standing for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries contain decorative arts, but also weapons.

Still, irony would carry him only so far. He was friends with Joseph Beuys, and his imaginary museum looks ahead to the critical stance of a museum for Barbara Bloom and Postmodernism’s “Pictures generation.” Yet it identifies just as strongly with André Malraux decades earlier, looking to the entirety of art’s past as a feast for the imagination. Broodthaers collects his favorites, like postcards of J. A. D. Ingres, and surrounds them with the trappings of French music and palm trees. He transfers to canvas the names of writers in English and German, from Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll to Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche. For a true poet, text art can never be as bloodless as for Lawrence Weiner or John Baldessari in America.

Even his melancholy looks to the culture he wishes to preserve, like his filmed close-ups of collage by Kurt Schwitters. Besides Surrealism, his disjunctions derive from the classics of French poetry. He calls a poem “Le Voyage” after Charles Baudelaire, finds his role as a trickster in turning the pages of a fable by La Fontaine, and the sadness of his verses or a black coffin is straight out of Paul Verlaine or Arthur Rimbaud. He highlights the spatial character of broken lines in Stéphane Mallarme by effacing them in black. He is paying tribute to poetry as art, while placing it, as deconstruction would say, “under erasure” (in French, sous rature, or more literally crossed out). A “visual tower” of ceramics painted with eyes suggests a poet’s or an artist’s vision, but also a serious distrust of the all-seeing eye.

A personal vocabulary can look at once too impersonal and too private, like a work familiar from MoMA’s collection, a white cabinet and table laden with eggshells, and maybe he had limits as an artist after all. Yet Broodthaers at his closest to poetry looks both ways, caught between love of the past and fear for the present. Pense-Bête means a memory aid, but as a wedding of thought and a wild beast. La Problème Noir en Belgique (“The Black Problem in Belgium”) savages his country’s colonialism with black skulls and a newspaper clipping from Le Soir (literally “the evening”) about the Congo—but then his work, too, is painted black. His museum is an assault on commerce in art and the originality of the avant-garde, as with screen prints of gold bars captioned copy and imitation. Still, I bet he liked mussels.

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

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