5.31.17 — From Billie Holiday to Proust

In 1969, fresh out of grad school and a newcomer to New York, William T. Williams entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA must have thought it knew what it got. (Hey, a watchword of late Modernism was “what you see is what you get.”) It did not, for already the African American artist was challenging the mainstream.

Those first broad bands of conflicting color, separated by thin outlines, look straight out of Frank Stella—or do they? Stella had introduced his Protractor paintings just two years before, and they are still among his biggest, brashest, and most recognizable works. William T. Williams's Mercer's Stop (Michael Rosenfeld Art, 1971)Seemingly everyone then wanted to be the next great white hope, and no doubt MoMA was looking for him, but Williams? Hardly. His bands run every which way, straightening out, fanning out, snaking out, or overlapping. Tall, narrow paintings like Harlem Angels from 1968 seem cut off by the edge of the canvas, as if glimpsed through a door.

Sometimes what you see is not what you get. Those thin outlines are white, not bare canvas, because Williams does not derive his image, like a proper formalist, from the art object, but rather from experience. Shows have given pride of place to black abstract artists—like Alma Thomas or Jack Whitten, whose tiles of dark acrylic ran just recently at Hauser & Wirth through April 8. And the door-like paintings are six feet tall but barely forty inches across, like a painter standing tall. Their freewheeling style and flirting with illusion also recall white artists who did not quite play by the rules as well, like Al Held and Jack Tworkov. They may still, though, have other stories to tell.

Born in 1942, Williams remembers quilting in rural North Carolina, and his next series took him to near monochrome built from cross-hatching. (Its metallic colors, while still acrylic, return in the show’s most recent work.) He also thinks of jazz with a title like Strange Fruit, after the Billie Holiday song about a lynching. He must think of race, too, in a series from the 1980s. Its colors build to a greater darkness, and the brushwork resolves into hands raised as if scraping against a wall in the throes of death. Paintings from 1988 to 2002 rely on a patchwork of rectangles, maybe an echo of wood siding.

Better not, though, take anything too literally. Williams had his MFA from Yale and fell into a busy New York art scene. The one remaining past series, from the 1970s, divides canvas into just two or three areas, like early Brice Marden. Some paintings have Marden’s muter tones as well, although deepened by contrasts between fields. Flat areas may lie alongside looser brushwork, richer colors, or more quilting. When it comes down to it, Williams is always setting approaches to art side by side, just as in deconstructing Stella. He calls one painting of hands A Note to Marcel Proust.

He does have at least one thing in common with Stella: each time he takes a series to its next step, it changes altogether. His twenty-eight paintings in Chelsea, at Michael Rosenfeld through June 3, start with his latest—in part to give the largest and squarest early paintings enough space in back. Paintings since 2007 fit comfortably by the entry. Their approach to calligraphy, with dry and broken marks in yellow or white over closely matched fields of blue, almost demands close quarters. Yet the reverse chronology also insists that he did not begin in New York or quit in 1971.

Not every gallery can transform a tight show into a serious retrospective like this one, and not every series has equal weight. The best do the most to explore a vocabulary for painting, a bit like formalism after all. The early band paintings still do it best, like palettes or color wheels flying across the room. The paintings from the 1970s do it more subtly. The paintings spanning the 1990s do it, too, with a return to bright colors and distinct brushwork in every patch. One can see why, by their dates, each took Williams more than a decade.

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5.29.17 — Sunday in the Circus

The painter known for a Sunday in the park spent much of his all too brief career out of the sun. “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow” centers on a painting by Georges Seurat, at the Met through (last chance!) May 29. It finds him haunting the fairgrounds and music halls of working-class Paris at night—and haunted by the actors and their audience.

If you come humming Sunday in the Park with George, be prepared to change your tune. If you come expecting a romantic interest named Dot, you will find neither puns nor a romance to explain the painting away. If you seek people assembling together and airing their lives, you will find only people in shadow, talking among themselves. Georges Seurat's Parade de Cirque (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1887–1888)If you seek the newly triumphant middle class letting its hair down at the beach, you will find instead an unsettling mix of classes unable to separate spectacle from the theater of modern life. If you seek Impressionist colors, you will find the eerie purples and greens of a fairground at night. If you come looking for Seurat, you may find a history only incidentally his at all.

It belongs after all to a changing Paris, and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. What starts as the story of a painting becomes a story of the circus and its changing place in society at the turn of the century. What stood at first for a tawdry spectacle became a serious business, with a routine all its own. And what served Seurat as a place to hone his art became the site of an emerging avant-garde. In no time, the spectacle looks tawdrier than ever. Now, though, art’s sympathy is with the artifice—and with life on the edge.

A sideshow sounds like a distraction from the main event, but the French, la parade, sounds more like a public display. For Georges Seurat, it could be both. Parade de Cirque depicts the Corvi circus, which ran each year at the Gingerbread Fair, before Easter. It had its clowns, tightrope walkers, strong men, fat ladies, and a wheel of fortune. Stereotypical black faces added to the entertainment and embarrassment. Just setting things up and knocking them down were quite a spectacle.

Seurat, though, centers his painting on a solitary trombone player, at one end of a line of musicians and rising above them. He relegates the ringmaster, Ferdinand Corvi, to the right—locked in rigid profile between the verticals of box-office windows, a poster, and his own old-fashioned coattails. Rows of artificial lights command the scene from above, the topmost spreading like flames. They have a counterpoint in the points of light and color in Seurat’s Pointillism or Divisionism. Spectators, seen from the rear, appear in near silhouette across the bottom. They become a kind of orchestra pit themselves, and the artist must have stood among them, even as the painting engages the actual musicians head on.

The painting appeared in the very first show at MoMA, and the Met acquired it as a bequest in 1960. Smaller exhibitions have focused similarly on a work from the collection, like recent shows of Jan van Eyck and a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. And this, too, starts as a look at a single work in context—of Seurat’s few major paintings, the only one in a New York museum. Preliminary drawings stand across from circus posters and contemporary illustrations. The museum declines to borrow La Grande Jatte from Chicago. This is no walk in the park.

Still, the Met has no end of resources, including a circus orchestra’s worth of period instruments. (Adolphe Sax himself designed the saxophone.) It also quickly broadens its focus. Seurat paints free entertainment set outside the circus tent, and his painting serves in its own way as a teaser. The exhibition fills the Robert Lehman wing (which projects into Central Park). It extends to more of his work on paper, contemporaries, followers, and more.

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

5.26.17 — Neither Poetry nor Place

Late in life, Walker Evans returned to Hale County, Alabama, but the sharecroppers had gone. So, after all, had the Great Depression, decades ago at that, and so had the professional camera that captured its most stubborn survivors.

This time Evans brought an emblem of a different kind of transience, that of consumer culture—a Polaroid camera. The results even look disposable, and they show temporary housing with no trace of the lives within. In the past, he had also collected penny photos and but now he saw no need to defer to studio professionals of any sort. postcards, Darren Almond's Fullmoon@Virgin River (Matthew Marks, 2012)To pile on the ironies, the medium to which he turned is obsolete in today’s stubbornly digital age as well.

The Poetics of Place,” through May 28, has precious little poetry and almost as little sense of place. The Met samples recent photos from its collection—and, together with an earlier report on a history of photography drawn from MoMA’s collection, it is the subject of a longer review and my latest upload.

Even when Carrie Mae Weems travels to Mali and An-My Lê to Vietnam, like Evans in search of origins, their destination seems out of reach. For Weems it reduces to a mud dwelling in soft focus and for Lê to the far side of a dense riverbank, and both could just as well be left over from prehistory or the day before. And even when Wolfgang Staehle sticks to the specificity of a single day along the Hudson, his slideshow of eight thousand images seems oddly detached. In place of the Hudson River School and the American sublime, he has the banality of real time. He also has an artery along which nothing and no one seems to move.

The show it takes its theme from the 1970s. Minimalism and earthworks had discovered repetition, waste, and entropy, as with coal mines for Bernd and Hilla Becher or Robert Smithson. Photographers still traveled America, like Robert Adams or Dan Graham, but to find trailer parks and the cheap housing of Staten Island and New Jersey. They linger on railroad crossings, like Laura Burns and Lother Baumgarten. They track the damage due to industrialization and natural disasters, like California after a flash flood for Joel Sternfeld. Strong colors for William Eggleston only bring out the awkwardness.

The Met describes its subjects as landscapes and built environments, leaving open where one ends and the other begins. It notes the role of the New Topographics, in Adams and Lewis Baltz. It invokes, too, the slippery border between amateur and art photography, as with “slow snapshots” for Jean-Marc Bustamante. You may not have known Donald Judd as a photographer. Yet he traveled south of the border to document ancient ruins. They would do his Minimalism proud. They also have eerie affinities with Mexico City sidewalks that, for Damián Ortega, look like tombs.

The show can feel like a throwaway. Most of its fewer than thirty artists have only a work apiece. Some, too, have the unexpected, like Judd. Sally Mann appears not for family portraits but for Virginia in the mists. Jan Groover, known for still lifes in gleaming color, also photographed the “semantics of the highway.” Suffice it to say that cars go in irreconcilable directions.

They are not above beauty, like Darren Almond, with his fifteen-minute moon.” They are also not above remembering, like James Welling, who sees the present through film noir, or Matthew Brandt, who prints the ruins of Madison Square Garden with his darkroom medium its own dust. They may even try to locate a sense of place, like a coffee plantation for Jan Henle—although it looks more like the surface of Mars. Sarah Anne Johnson follows the Arctic Circle, where she photographs herself at her tripod. You may wonder if someone else is behind the camera. You may wonder, too, if she will ever break closer to the pole.

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

5.24.17 — To Extremes

Janet Biggs and Regina José Galindo are not making documentaries, at Cristin Tierney through May 27. Their videos stop just short of horrific violence, and the barriers that appear are of their own making. They do not flinch at real-world terrors all the same.

Janet Biggs's Can't Find My Way Home (Cristin Tierney gallery, 2015)Both go to the Third World and to dangerous extremes, and their subjects know the dangers as a way of life. Biggs opens with a forbidding landscape in the Horn of Africa, Galindo with a verdant one in Guatemala. And both end with faces caught between a quiet dignity and fear.

Biggs has gone to extremes before, and the journey was personal. Her last solo show took her through a mine shaft and into a laboratory, with her body and her mind the subject of experiment. Talk about depth psychology. Here she takes herself out of the picture. She titles the video Afar, as if to attest to its remote setting or the challenge of keeping it at a distance. It refers, though, to a nomadic people that face political barriers to their movements and to survival.

She opens with volcanic crags and the steam that they release into a dark sky. The scene shifts to stark but often gorgeous open territory, where salt traders and the camels that they use as pack animals carry the story forward with a slow but seemingly inexorable rhythm. They till harsh ground with the barest of tools and seek a rest in the company of one another and tobacco. Steel gates interrupt now and then with other men and women, white men and women, glimpsed from behind, as if unable to leave or to enter, or passing in front, like guards for unseen prisoners. In time a cello, scored by William Martina, adds its poignancy to the ambient sound, but it must compete with the sound of those very people flinging themselves against the gates. The pulse is almost as unnerving as the image.

Those westerners are dancers, the company of Elizabeth Streb, in a video with no easy triumphs and no simple victims. Biggs called her last show Can’t Find My Way Home, and here the white dancers get no rest and the Africans have no home. By the end, the video returns to the crags and the volcanic activity within. It looks like cauldrons, with no miners or devils to tend to them. A young African appears on all three channels, from slightly different angles that add to the sense of unrest. And then the frames freeze on his uneasy glance.

Galindo ends with a close-up, too, but of herself rather than her implicit subject. One could almost call her 2013 video Regarding the Pain of Others, after Susan Sontag, but without Sontag’s skepticism about getting past the satisfaction of looking down on suffering. Its real title, Tierra, identifies it instead with the land in the aftermath of a refugee crisis and mass murder. Viewers entering in the middle will see Galindo’s naked body standing on a grassy knoll stained by soil and surrounded by a pit. Who put her there? No one, for it started as flat ground, before an earth mover began to dig.

It sets to work completing and deepening her isolation, with only the lighter skin of her breasts and belly as body armor. At times its shovel pauses just over her head, leaving one in hope of a respite and fearful for the threat—and then the rig shifts position, and the shoveling begins again. With the circle completed, it turns to narrowing her perch, while the trees behind her shake. Will it sweep her up or knock her over into the pit? Will it bury her alive or leave her with nowhere to go? The uncertainty becomes excruciating over the course of more than half an hour, and then you, too, will have to find your way home.

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5.22.17 — A Failure to Communicate

Everett Kane would make anyone afraid to inhabit his interiors, at Black & White through May 26. He has me afraid, too, that I already have.

I could almost call a neatly made bed in a room lined with bookshelves my own. I could almost call the equipment that shares his spaces my past. A college roommate had a tape deck much like that, and we envied his sophistication. School must have had pretty much the same film projector, and a gallery not so very long ago would have called it new media.

This is not, though, an exercise in nostalgia—or not entirely, for without the appeal it could not be half as disturbing. Kane recalls sepia prints and untitled film stills, but in the silvery chill of black and white. The furnishings are devoid of life, and anyone tempted by their sculptured perfection might be in for punishment on that ground alone. An old organ and a music box defy recognition, and their pedals and pins might serve more sinister purposes now. Besides, these are digital prints and exercises in computer manipulation. They have left their sources behind.

A show called “Ground” is bound to look for common ground, but also to question whether the viewer or the equipment is grounded. One print even had me thinking of an electric chair. A film projector targets not a screen, but a chair in a cage. The same projector runs in Kane’s sole video, but nothing is showing, at least for now. It might be in rehearsal for an interrogation or for filming it, for wider consumption. It might be bearing down on the empty chair like a weapon.

Then again, as Sigmund Freud might say, sometimes a projector is just a projector. The combination of gadgetry and a smaller bed might be an instrument of torture or medical care. Some might feel the same way about an actual hospital. The apparatus pointing at the double bed is still more mysterious. It might be a pair of projectors or jet engines going nowhere. Hotel rooms these days come with all sorts of amenities.

Kane sticks to old-fashioned communication equipment where communication has broken down. The cage is set deep in the background, where it looks all the more trapped, and the rooms lack for doors or windows. They become a space for rehearsing one’s fears and remembering one’s past—and a rather attractive space at that. They look like a cross between domestic and factory interiors, both out of an earlier era. They might even be settings for a silent comedy. As Freud might add, laughing at one’s past is just the start of overcoming one’s fears.

Becky Suss, too, looks into empty interiors, but they feel like home, at Jack Shainman through June 3. Large paintings look at rooms head on, their horizontal format aligning them with the facing wall, as if to bar entry. The grids of shelves, doors, and flooring flatten them further, as do the uniform areas of color. Yet the lighting recalls earlier American painting, and they invite a look deep within—into more distant rooms or simply closets. Smaller paintings rummage through their contents, like books, in a style that at times recalls samplers, but they, too, are no mere exercise in nostalgia. They belong to family, friends, and the space of memory.

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

5.19.17 — Riding for a Fall

It can be just one step from grace to a fall. Ask athletes or dancers about their last titanic leap. Ask Hillary Clinton about the ten days before the election. Or ask Lee Relvas, whose sculpture seems poised between a glorious ascent and collapse, at Callicoon through May 21. Her figures have all the grace of athleticism or a dance, but always in touch with the floor. They also have an inner life that would be impossible without that rise and fall.

Her technique alone evokes both grace and the workaday dignity of just plain plodding along. Her curved wood comes as close as anything to Modernism’s ideal of “drawing in space,” Lee Relvas's Feeling (Callicoon Fine Arts, 2016)as with sculpture by Ibram Lassaw. One can mistake it for the fine craft of bentwood furniture. In practice, though, Relvas cuts her pieces from plywood, sticks them together with a compound used for joints in plumbing, and sands away. The process is itself a kind of choreography. Plywood is already soft as wood goes, and rubbing softens it further—close, she says, to flour.

It works just fine as abstraction, like wood for Ursula von Rydingsvard. One can delight in following a curve from its start to the end, looping back on itself. One can easily overlook the branching here and there. Still, it does not take long to see a room of people, neither quite together nor alone. Some seem to sink into helplessness, while others seem to rise, and more than a few do both. Still another amounts to rigid planes joined at the waist, where a further loops around like the sash of an old-fashioned dress.

One can read all sorts of things into them, including their narratives and their character. Relvas does, too. The firm or, if you prefer, matronly stance is Deciding. Others are Hiding, Withholding, Thinking, Offering, Mourning, and Lifting. In each case, she associates a physical gesture with a state of mind—a state poised between moments of action. She treats exterior form and interiority alike as transient and fleeting.

Elaine Cameron-Weir, too, would love to rise but keeps stumbling, in the lobby of the New Museum through September 3. A snake of copper and stainless steel needs a sandbag to sustain its vertical. Mostly, though, she is hooked on the body as, in her eyes, at once transcendent and corrupt. A garment of metal sports breasts and spreads its arms, but it looks less triumphant than an instrument of torture. A pole topped with a skull and a lamp draped with parachute silk look neither life affirming nor all that illuminating. Then again, a snake once brought corruption to humanity as well, by tempting a certain woman.

The Canadian artist is fond of the body all the same, enough to aspire to engage the senses, with some of the same materials as Anicka Yi. Heat lamps warm a resin used in perfumes and fumigating. If all this seems like a lab experiment gone awry, she also claims to draw on scientific texts from before modern science, to locate the tensions between the occult and science. And if her art starts to sound like nonsense, so do her titles. One runs to forty-two words—including viscera, erogenous zone, altered state, subcutanean, and tantric. It could do with less messaging and more grace.

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