1.30.15 — The Real New York School

If there was a New York school, Lee Krasner was the consummate New Yorker. She was born here, outside the Manhattan elites, and went to school here. Yet she learned at least as much from the Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1929, just as she entered her twenties, as from the best teachers. For her, too, coming from an immigrant community to a growing circle of artists never meant leaving her roots behind. Norman Lewis's Untitled (Pamela Joyner and Alfred Giuffrida collection, 1949)

One could say the same about Norman Lewis, and the Jewish Museum makes the most of their pairing, through February 1. Think about it—the daughter of Russian Jews and the son of African Americans from Bermuda, one from Brooklyn and one from Harlem, born just one year apart. Together, they worked their way toward larger, more all-over compositions, in which line whips through paint and color, much as for Krasner’s husband, Jackson Pollock.

How close, though, are the parallels, and how representative are the late 1940s, the show’s focus, of their art? Did they even meet? Together in “From the Margins,” they also raise serious questions about an art movement, its roots, and who its histories so often leave behind.

They could hardly be more different, in temperament as well as art, and they are the subject of a longer review in my latest upload (where I also wrap in an earlier review of Morris Louis and his Veils). The show opens with photographs and two self-portraits. Born in 1908, she stands at her easel in 1930, in a crowded landscape of flowers and trees. Born in 1909, he painted just his head ten years later, with those luminous color fields running every which way. She is her bright, stubborn self, asserting her calling. He is dapper and charming. She could have done well to forget a certain charismatic drunk and cheater to take up with him.

So what's NEW!The show keeps looking for parallels, and it gets them, but more in their education than in their artistry. Already in her portrait, Krasner is determinedly high culture, but a European culture that Europe itself had pretty much left behind. She is still reworking Post-Impressionism as it made its way through its narrower spaces to Modernism. Lewis is blending high and low culture in both subject and style. The second room makes the case for their shared encounter with Henri Matisse and Cubism, and it did them both a world of good. The encounter took too long for all of American Modernism.

She adopts a style close to Stuart Davis, in work for the murals division of the Works Progress Administration. He adopts large rectangles in near monochrome, almost like Notre Dame for Matisse. Mostly, though, she is struggling, while he is jazzing it up. The musicians are more legible, and their field of color more compact, but otherwise he is on his way. And then in the third and largest room, they settle down. It covers just the years from 1946 to 1950, so crucial to both artists—and to postwar American art.

Lee Krasner's Milkweed (Abright-Knox Art Gallery, c. 1955)The last room leaps ahead to just a few works, as if to bid its actors goodbye. She has the largest, with only a few broad brushstrokes against a slightly lighter field, like calligraphic Chinese art, but in monochrome. He has the show’s brightest work, in more ways than one, with something like lettering spewing out toward the right of a bright, bold red. It takes the shape of a megaphone, because it is a protest concerning civil rights. Still, it is also illegible, and that raises the question of identity. Is this really a show about a man and a women, a black and a Jew—and what are they even doing in the same rooms?

Both Krasner and Lewis deserve more, much more, for all the show’s focus on the years from 1945 to 1952—and the curators, Norman L. Kleeblatt and Stephen Brown, have a long way to go to explain why Lewis is in the Jewish Museum in the first place. An explanation might begin with their shared line, so wiry as to become not just drawing but writing, whether in musical notation, in Hebrew, or in abstract art. It might also include a deconstruction of the politics of postwar American art.

For supporters, Abstract Expressionism necessarily means the triumph of American painting. For detractors, it is and was a tool of American propaganda, centered on a white male cowboy and drifter from the American west. Maybe, but Krasner and Lewis may have another message in their text, from the margins of New York.

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

1.28.15 — A Bit of Eden

Credit Carleton Watkins with a remarkable achievement: he “helped advance the notion” of Yosemite as “a Pacific paradise, a bit of Eden in North America.”

The Met credits him with just that, through February 1, but even that sells him short. He helped make it so. Thirty-six photographs and two stereographs, most from the Stanford University libraries, explain why—and I would have told you about them sooner, but this had first to appear in New York Photo Review. Carleton Watkins's Upper Yosemite Fall, Yosemite (Stanford University Libraries, 1865-1866)They show a land still untouched by tourists or developers. They offer a glimpse of Abraham Lincoln, turning aside from the burdens of war to imagine America’s future and a more lasting Eden. They also call attention to the role of the still-new medium.

Watkins certainly helped make it so in art. His epic sweep found favor with the Hudson River School, which did so much provide an image of America as a light among nations in a fallen world. Albert Bierstadt saw his work in a New York gallery in 1862, praised him, and purchased a set of his views in 1867. Bierstadt painted perhaps his own grandest view of the American West, now in the Brooklyn Museum, in 1866, the year of the photographer’s third trip to Yosemite. While Bierstadt was painting the Rockies, he had been inspired to visit Yosemite and to experiment with albumen silver prints and stereographs himself. His Looking Up the Yosemite Valley in oil followed the next year.

One can see many of the same hallmarks in both men. They provide an ample foreground, as an entry into the picture. It may have the mirrored surface of a lake or river. It has trees, dwarfed by the scene as a whole, to set the scale. They have the particularity of portraits, perhaps as stand-ins for the photographer himself. They lead the eye beyond to a cavernous space filled with light—and, at a greater distance, craggy heights.

Yet Watkins helped make it so in life as well. The New Yorker may have moved to California as early as 1849, at age twenty, settling in San Francisco—where he lost his studio to the 1906 earthquake, a decade before his death. MutualArtHe paid his first visit to Yosemite in 1861, and, Jeff L. Rosenheim notes as curator, the photos “established his reputation.” They also came to the attention of President Lincoln. A paradise must be preserved or lost, and Lincoln signed a bill in 1864 seeing to its preservation as the first step toward what would become a system of national parks. When Watkins returned in 1865 and 1866, he was working on behalf of the California State Geological Survey.

That task points to his distinction from the Hudson River School, too. For painters like Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church, the land partook of the Romantic sublime, at once clear in its path for humanity into nature and larger than life. Watkins sees a wilderness that defies access, with large rocks in the middle distance, treacherous waters, or the sheer face of distant cliffs. And he takes as his subject a single landmark, such as Mirror Lake, the Half Dome, El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, the Bridal Veil, a tree as old as human history, or a waterfall shrouded in mist—under clear skies without once an approaching storm.

Only twice does he ascend to create a panorama, and only once does he look to compose “the best general view.” Like a geological survey, he has to map out feature by feature what is there.

That ascent makes a heady reminder of the technical challenges. Watkins was carrying literally a ton of equipment, including glass plates and dangerous chemicals, in order to achieve what were then huge prints (18 by 22 inches) of painstaking clarity and pristine whites. On his first trip he had to tilt the lens to capture the scale in front of him, and on his return he had to lug an even clumsier camera more capable of dioramas. He needed it to advance the very notion of Yosemite. In the past, the Met has argued for painting as a response to a divided America and for Civil War photography as an unprecedented record of death and destruction. Thousands of miles from the front, Watkins was looking ahead to the recovery of a larger nation.

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

1.26.15 — The Big Small Museum

What is a museum to do? As blockbusters and busy atriums draw the crowds and crowd out collections, what does that leave for first-class museums with no room for either one? Together with an earlier review of a treasure at the Morgan Library, The Crusader Bible, it is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload.

Not coincidentally, those are an art lover’s most cherished destinations. They include alternative spaces that take chances on contemporary art. And they offer a respite from the crush of monster museums and the city. John Singer Sargent's Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (Scottish National Gallery, 1892)Here in New York, one need not identify with the voracious capitalism of Henry Clay Frick or J. P. Morgan to linger gratefully over their private enclaves and collections. But wait: what if small museums, too, feel the pressure to keep pace with the headlines?

For one thing, they can work together. Ten paintings from the Scottish National Gallery, at the Frick Collection through February 1, offer a modest history of art from the Renaissance through Romanticism. They honor both a museum that one may not see in a lifetime—and one that every New Yorker can call home. They also come as part of an ongoing strategy, of partnerships to bring out the strengths of smaller museums and their permanent collections. Yet they still leave one worrying about the future.

The show’s greatest artists are at their sparest and clearest, and my longer review will tell you more. Sandro Botticelli around 1485 was just moving from tempera on panel to oil on canvas—and from the grace of his early Venus and Madonnas to the fervor and austerity of his later years. Here the Virgin kneels before the infant Jesus but towers over the viewer, with clasped hands and lowered eyes. Her pink dress matches the flowers fallen to the grassy earth, and the blue of her robe easily outclasses its gold trim, although the green shadows probably have more to do with abrasion. Nature comes with its own sculptural niche in the rocky precipice behind her. Roses stand for suffering, and the sleeping child prefigures his death, but you do not need to know that to share her rapture.

Obviously drama is the order of the day. Scotland itself gets to show off. A Scottish artist, Henry Raeburn, allows a friend to dress up in tartans—and Raeburn to present himself to the Royal Academy in 1812. The wife of a Scottish lord slouches to one side of an armchair, for John Singer Sargent in 1892, without sacrificing her high style and piercing eyes. Another Scottish artist around 1759, Allan Ramsay, even takes showing off as his subject. A woman arranging flowers, backed by picture frames, insists on the seriousness of artifice and art.

Can a small museum, then, retain its purpose? By joining with others, it seeks wider attention while focusing on the core of each in their permanent collections. The Frick has shown work from the Norton Simon in Pasadena. It has given Dutch painting from the Mauritshuis a temporary home during remodeling. It has also worked before with Scotland, for a display of drawings in 2000. It is partnering as well with the de Young in San Francisco and the Kimball in Fort Worth, the present show’s last two stops, where it will grow substantially as well.

Still, one cannot make the pressures on museums go away. The Frick itself has proposed expanding into its gardens, promising public access to the mansion’s second floor and (ouch) a bigger reception area. If it once swore that things would remain as they are permanently, its director told The New York Times, “Permanent meant a garden that would last for at least a few years.”

Perhaps Watteau provides an allegory with his Fêtes Vénitiennes from around 1719. Seventeen courtly men and woman angle for a place in their garden, along with a statue and an urn, and the artist puts his face on a musician, but not everyone can be a winner. One can show off to one’s delight, but those delights may soon be gone.

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

1.23.15 — Minimalism in Retirement

Richard Artschwager makes an unlikely candidate for a traditionalist in landscape. Who can imagine him filling his waning years with pastels of New Mexico?

Artschwager left his mark with images as formidable and as urban as Minimalism. He painted public housing and the Whitney on Madison Avenue, in stark black and white. He painted them on Celotex, a fiberboard used for insulation, its rippled surface stubbornly resisting the hand and eye. Richard Artschwager's Description of Table (photo by Steven Sloman, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1964)He also made furniture more suited for an office than a retirement home, but with no place for one’s legs to penetrate—not unlike furniture from another artist with a taste for banality and dysfunction, Robert Gober. Yet he found himself in his eighties in Georgia O’Keeffe territory, returning often until his death in 2013. And he captured its vastness on paper, in the tradition of American Modernism.

Surprised? Adam McEwen has located Artschwager’s roots in landscape, at David Nolan through January 31, including paintings and sketches from his final years along with selections from more than fifty years before. McEwen ought to know something about a renewed commitment to painting, too. He announced the death of irony in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, the very same year that Artschwager landed in New Mexico. He has also made art from LeFrak City, middle-income housing in Queens much like the project that Artschwager rendered on Celotex. Now as curator he discovers the quirky emotions running through an often chilly art.

Did O’Keeffe use landscape to approach abstraction? Artschwager did as well around 1959, in his mid-thirties, with little more than three squiggly lines and a sandy cliff broken only by a spot of blue. Yet he also appears very much as a realist. He had his first solo show in 1965 at Leo Castelli, who posed for a charcoal portrait in 1970. Artschwager’s last work is more loving and realistic still, in layered horizontals approaching the horizon. He preferred blue skies to sunsets, but with an ever deepening light.

Pastel brings out the texture of paper, to the point that one could mistake it for canvas. One might see the bumps in Celotex differently now. One might see other connections as well, starting with his father’s career in agricultural science. One might—or one might see the landscapes in turn as stranger, drier, and more remote. The show coincides with a book of them called The Desert. Maybe the hairy surfaces of his lozenge-shaped sculpture, the blps, anticipate desert sand.

This is at once immersive and discomforting territory. A highway amounts to three distinct strips, as if requiring a mental and physical leap to cross the rolling hills. Another, its median an uncanny yellow, ends abruptly in smeared gray on its way to the sea. Charcoals include an industrial landscape, with two pairs of legs dangling out from its buildings. They are playful, but practically the show’s only signs of life. They are also, John Yau writes, “unapologetically weird.”

Northern lights curve into the sky, reducing two homes close to the horizon to specks of red dust. Bontecou Crater resembles a creepy sculpture by Lee Bontecou—or maybe an extraterrestrial space craft plopped down in the desert. The acrylic and charcoal cells of a grid entwine at its center, like the branches of a tree, and then an actual tree returns the favor in its twisting trunk. Together, they make a useful complement to Artschwager’s 2012 retrospective, which necessarily focused on his prime years, from 1962 to 1968. Perhaps he was overdue for a proper retirement.

Yau speaks of an “inexplicable vision.” Should one remember that his furniture also included a pedestal for the Bible or the Koran?

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

1.21.15 — Holy You Know What

After all these years, Chris Ofili has still not put the scandal of his arrival in New York behind him. He just discreetly leaves it in the stairwell.

He also leaves the roots of an artist steeped in piety and good intentions. “Night and Day,” a retrospective at the New Museum through January 25, shows his search for “Afromuses” and black identity, and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. Chris Ofili's Confession (Grey Rainbow) (David Zwirner, 2006)It shows him staking out African and western culture, from Titian to Modernism and from Zimbabwe to Trinidad. It shows him gaining as a colorist and installation artist, with two floors of twilit “architectural environments”—the dark night to his early day. It also shows his delight in the offensive material that once scandalized New York, as displayed in that stairwell alcove. It may not silence cultural conservatives, but it does all it can to meet them on their own terms, sanctity and all.

Of course, it was quite a scandal, and the New Museum has quite a stairwell. Ofili depicted The Holy Virgin Mary in 1996 with map pins, glitter, and ample black flesh barely concealed by a loose green robe. That flesh also sported an exposed breast fashioned from elephant poop. Speaking of map pins, Mary put him on the map. When she came to the Brooklyn Museum in 2000, in “Sensation,” Mayor Giuliani denounced the painting as a sacrilege. The museum was looking for a sensation, and it got what it wanted.

Born in 1968, Ofili encountered elephant dung in 1992 on an art study trip to Zimbabwe, and he went bat shit. He had found something at once native to the continent, pitch black, and redolent of life. He carried as much as he could back to London and set right to work. Shithead from that year consists of turds, human hair, and human teeth. Its devilish grin in black and white still draws a smile, along with lasting unease. Only the smell has faded.

That stairwell has its limits, though, and so does the sculpture. The stairs run all of one floor, before obliging a return to enclosed fire stairs and oversized white cubes, and the work flaunts its cartoon primitivism. This is African art in black face, so as to claim the authority of both deep history and the street. It uses hair as hair and teeth as teeth, because art is just too important to traffic in illusion. And it smiles because human impulses, whether for good or for evil, are just too plain to traffic in menace. Ofili will take nearly twenty years to see past blackness to darkness.

Soon enough he was incorporating more poop in large paintings, along with the pushpins and the glitter. Not all their subjects are heroes, but all of them boast of black identity. Their style falls between Jean-Michel Basquiat and a graphic novel. Ofili portrays the Virgin as something between an earth mother and Aunt Jemima. Even the medium seems at war with itself. The dots of elephant dung nestle amid paint and pins, more suggestive of pattern and decoration than of sewage and raw earth.

Ofili may have trivialized his theme and his roots, but one has to accept his profession of faith, even if Giuliani did not. A more recent series fills an octagonal room like the Rothko Chapel with Biblical and other scenes in deep blue, an allusion to the Blue Rider movement, Wassily Kandinsky, and the origins of abstraction. The final floor includes flat fields of color, with echoes of Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, on walls patterned with foliage in seductive violet. He is still not above simplistic morality tales and an art deco rebellion. At least for now, though, he has the installations, the collaborations, the color, and a greater agony. At least for now, too, a head of elephant poop is smiling on all that is to come.

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

1.19.15 — Artists Cared

The lesson of “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” is simple enough: people cared. The less simple and more interesting part is how many people cared, both black and white, and how many ways they expressed their caring. Maybe that papers over real and lasting divisions, but you decide.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and this year is special as well. March will be the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma Marches and August that of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So allow me to look back at the exhibitions and its lessons. I have been holding this post to make sure that it resonates.

The exhibition, which ran through this past July 6, actually honors the fiftieth anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but it takes its title from a painting by Benny Andrews, of a black woman who has seen it all. She stands by a window, wrists crossed quietly at her waist, but up close her wide eyes look positively beaten down. She is not the last one sees of conventional realism, in a show that also includes Norman Rockwell and Jack Levine. Yet she comes surprisingly close. Sam Gilliam's Red April (University of Iowa Museum of Art, 1970)

The Brooklyn Museum is into caring. It did, after all, also have space at the very same time for Ai Weiwei (a retrospective), Swoon (who responds to Hurricane Sandy with a canoe and a goddess or two), still more of Judy Chicago (her garish early work) on top of The Dinner Party, and a messy lobby display of cross-cultural connections. And it packs “Witness” close and full.

It has alcoves for such upbeat themes as “Global Sisterhood” and “Community,” although the work itself hardly touches on the everyday. Artists here have No Time for Jivin’, as John Outterbridge puts it—that NO descending to the floor in big red letters. The times, as witnessed here, were not sitting still (and I have expanded on them in a longer review along with coverage of art and the American South, then at the Studio Museum in Harlem, as my latest upload).

Martin Luther King, Jr., for one, was marching. A young Bob Dylan, before distancing himself from his reputation as a protest singer, strummed guitar for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Touchstones of the decade’s hopes or not, though, they make fewer appearances than blood stains and Malcolm X. And such photographers as Gordon Parks and Danny Lyon make fewer than Pop Art and, yes, abstraction. Philip Guston had already abandoned “pure painting,” for the Klan patrolling City Limits. Others, though, were finding that a connection between art and civil rights just would not go away whatever they did.

Naturally it would not for black abstraction. Jack Whitten sees race in foil peeling back from newsprint, Norman Lewis in the mere crossing of black on white, and Sam Gilliam in canvas spattered blood red. Yet white artists, too, found blackness in geometry alone, like Leon Polk Smith with Black Anthem and Frank Stella with Malcolm’s Bouquet. Does Melvin Edwards forge shackled in welded iron? Yes, but Mark di Suvero had his own Freedom Now. Here Minimalism and Pop Art in their plainness were fraternal twins.

Robert Indiana took as text the sites of racial violence. One may not so easily remember American Negro lurking amid the white pleasures of James Rosenquist, Black Bathroom from Jim Dine, a poster for the Congress of Racial Equality by Robert Rauschenberg, or It Takes 2 (meaning black and white) from Edward Keinholz. One may not remember a black Pop Art at all. Yet Faith Ringgold was there with blackened or bleeding American flags, Joe Overstreet with New Jemima holding a machine gun, Betye Saar with Aunt Jemima assemblages of her own, and Jae Jarrell with an Urban Walk Suit for the Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists (COBRA). Barbara Chase-Riboud makes it hard to say whether one is dealing with Pop Art or abstraction, in a stele sculpted as if draped in black fabric. So does Elizabeth Catlett, a sculptor influenced by African art who also made prints celebrating laborers and women.

Not everyone cared. A mean-looking George Wallace does not, in a photo by Richard Avedon, and I cannot even swear for Avedon. Rockwell’s New Kids in the Neighborhood made the cover of Look magazine, but only after the Saturday Evening Post no longer supplied a welcome. Andy Warhol may have civil rights in mind with his Birmingham Race Riots—or just further evidence of a violent America.

With a kitsch role model from Barkley L. Hendricks, the struggle for civil rights may even seem a thing of the past. David Hammons remembers, though, with his oily black hands pressed to the glass of college admissions, and please do not shut the door on your way out.

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

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