6.30.17 — Barriers and Ecotourism

With my theme political art this week, allow me to post a review that somehow never appeared. How could anything so dreamy have become a symbol of imperialism and militarism? Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico, quite literally made an easy target. The United States used it for bombing practice until fourteen years of protests, starting in 1999, ended with the navy’s withdrawal.

Visitors and natives, though, know it for something else again. Its secluded beaches are perfect for snorkeling or ecotourism, in what is now a national wildlife refuge. Microorganisms in its pristine waters give rise to the name Bioluminescent Bay.

Paul Anthony Smith's Blurr 1 (ZieherSmith, 2016)Paul Anthony Smith captures the luminescence and seclusion, in his seven tall photographs at ZieherSmith through this last February 4. Some show the island’s palm trees, clear skies, and blue-green waters. Others took him to Brooklyn on Labor Day, for the annual West Indian Day Parade. It appears less as the “Procession” of the show’s title than as erotic dancers and rapt faces. Still others superpose the two. Yet Smith means them to stand as well for barriers and confrontation—and I have added this to other recent reports on photography and New York as a longer review and my latest upload.

Each work has its own overlay, only starting with photos of chain-link fences. Smith also belongs with painters and photographers bridging media. Spattered paint takes the shape of cinder blocks, in places pricked or scraped away—what he prefers to call picotage. Smaller works close in on the fencing, for a double X. They also blur the underlying image, approaching a collage of bright color. Here the white spatters cover the entire surface.

Cultures meet and merge—and not just in Puerto Rico and Brooklyn. The patterning produces shards of white and clear colors, much like painting from Cubism to Minimalism. The dots of paint and scraping have a tactile quality as well, as in paintings by Allison Schulnik at the same gallery. Born in Jamaica and raised in Miami, Smith embodies a cross of cultures all by himself. Titles add to the sense of a celebration, with quotes from jazz classics by John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Maybe by coincidence, they date from the very height of abstraction in America.

Still, the artist has in mind a confrontation. The images appear behind walls and fences—or as walls and fences. Picotage takes an act of violence to their surfaces. Smith recalls the Battle of Jericho, when the walls came a tumbling down. (Now there is a trumpet not even Miles can match.) He would have heard the Bible story in church as a child, much like the people in his photos.

He also has in mind the legacy of conflict and colonization in Biblical lands today. Maybe, but that can make him something of an ecotourist himself. It can diminish the reality in actual photographs from the Middle East. When the Brooklyn Museum called a show “But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise,” it was not thinking of hurricanes interrupting tourist season in the Caribbean. Just as important, it can diminish the pleasures of his settings and his work. In their clarity and lightness, his walls have outlasted Jericho.

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

6.28.17 — Why Art Makes Headlines

To follow up from last time on cuts in funding for the arts, artists have every reason to fear: the culture wars are back, and they helped turn the election. Yet artists have every reason to hope, too, in a more diverse art scene than ever.

Allow me, then, another installment in my occasional revisiting of past articles from this Web site—with a little revision for clarity thanks to the chance to read anew. I first presented this as part of “Art That Makes Headlines,” a 2006 panel discussion moderated by Mary Birmingham. It augmented a group exhibition at the Pierro Gallery of South Orange, New Jersey. I hope that it remains relevant, and I hope that you will give the full article a try. And be sure to take your anger out on the party opposed to the arts in the 2018 elections. I trust you know who that is. Paolo Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi (Galleria della Academia, 1573)

Two artists on the panel, Amy Wilson and Jonathan Allen, made headlines themselves, and they did not welcome the attention. Both came under fire for politicizing art, as if the real world did not do so enough on its own. Wilson found herself a test case for public tolerance of art, when The Daily News cited a work exhibited at the Drawing Center as reason to bar the museum from a proposed International Freedom Center at Ground Zero. Allen found his work removed from a 2001 group exhibition in Queens. Yet art that deals with the headlines can still matter. Also on the panel, Svetlana Mintcheva spoke of her experience with the National Coalition Against Censorship.

Art ran into trouble at least as far back as the Renaissance, when artists were earning a broader renown as creative individuals. Only recently, before restoration, textbooks still showed Masaccio’s Adam expelled from Paradise with a fig leaf covering his penis. In a less solemn example, Paolo Veronese, the last in a line of Renaissance Venetian painting, found himself hauled before the Inquisition for his Last Supper. He had filled The Last Supper with such “vulgarities” as—I kid you not—”buffoons, drunkards, dwarfs, and Germans.” In reply, he basically claimed creative license, “the same license that poets and jesters take.” He also agreed to a safer title for his painting, Feast at the House of Levi, situating those Germans in less-sacred company than Jesus and the apostles.

Now, these disputes cover a lot of ground, including politics, religion, gender, sex, and violence—almost as many as 9/11, the Culture Wars, and the avant-garde. Veronese’s patron commissions a grand display, but the Inquisition still screams. Wilson finds a grateful public at her gallery, at “Greater New York,” and at the Drawing Center, but the tabloids imagine her image of Abu Ghraib at Ground Zero, and all hell breaks loose. Do they have anything in common? I want to suggest three things, and they do not depend on that shifting ground of subject matter. They put in question when something becomes political art.

First, they all involve a collision between an artist’s creative expression and audience. A work of art, in other words, necessarily belongs to two worlds, what I shall call the private and public. Second, neither side is as simple as it first appears. Both are divided among themselves—and not simply as matters of moral complicity with the culture industry or the art world. Each time, a public places the art in a different context, often distorting its meaning in the process. Less obviously, the private side has its divisions, too, because an artist has many motives, only beginning with creative expression.

In short, I cannot strictly disentangle public and private after all. The public sphere shapes an artist even aside from commercial and political pressures, right down to images and style. Yet art shapes the public sphere, too—and therein lies the really good news. One speaks of a work as finding its public, but it alters the public, too. On a really good day, art can change the world, which is why political art exists. As Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist, put it, “In contrast to the passion to create, we also want those we’ve forsaken to see and appreciate the inspired pictures we’ve made—and if they should call us sinners?”

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

6.26.17 — Unfettered Art and the Free Market

Yes, all eyes right now are on the twin evils of a gutting of Obamacare and tax cuts for the rich, both driving a Republican budget. And the National Endowment for the Arts and funding for the arts are once again at risk. Are anger, censorship, and cuts inevitable, and how serious are the threats? Is it just a matter of stupid, self-righteous people eager to take offense? Allow me to stop this week to ask.

Exhibition view: Degenerate Art (Munich, 1937)The question is newly important, with Donald Trump as president, Rudy Giuliani back in and out of the news, and Dana Schutz under fire at the Whitney Biennial for daring as a white woman to express her horror at the killing of black men. I want to explore it with you to make the case for funding. Allow me, then, another installment in my occasional revisiting of past articles from this Web site. I began the longer essay as long ago as controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe in 1988, a few years before this already ancient site began, and I hope that you will give it a try. Artists dealing with the headlines deserve only support and respect, I argue, at least as long as they are making art. I shall follow up next time with an additional older article that addresses more generally art’s place in political controversies.

By their very nature, art and the authorities are at war. How, then, can artists ask for a handout? For the right, government subsidies put a stamp of approval on immorality. For many on the left, subsidies mean that institutions will shape ideas, when it ought to be the other way around. For both right and left, the outcries over Mapplethorpe offered a vivid reminder that funding comes with long strings attached. Yet those strings sustain and connect art to the world.

Art may be created in isolation and cherished in private, but it is always a public concern. No ordinary goods persistently depend on society’s perception of itself. And no other goods cut so intently through perception itself. Haters of grants and subsidies defend more than a free market and freedom of thought. They also condemn artists to live an ugly, damaging myth. The myth speaks of capitalism and art in the same terms. That already is a cause for worry.

Even without grants, artists depend on subsidies. They do so indirectly, since cities with a cultural climate bolstered by museums and other institutions have a thriving marketplace for any good. They do so more directly as well, since painters who earn a living often manage by taking a teaching job. That works only because art education depends, quite properly, on public funds, just as it did when education came in the workshops of history’s greatest artists. When powerful banking families in Florence failed shortly after Giotto’s time, it took nearly a century of small-scale art before the Renaissance could fully burst forth. It took an age finally ready for public art on a grand scale.

Capitalism comes with many myths, in this case the bureaucrat selecting art for us. Direct grants to artists and collectives are a far smaller chunk of arts funding than the myth allows. In real life, government supports the arts by funding private groups, so that they can better inject variety into the public’s choices. Even private charity has a subsidy through tax deductions. If a museum can afford more different kinds of exhibitions and can lower admission to a few dollars so that more of the public will attend, the market has not ceased to function: it has only just started to function efficiently.

Maybe the finest art of all really is popular art, like Shakespeare’s theater with its cheap seats. Yet the need for a public hardly contravenes public support for the arts. Even the very greatest artists can be destroyed. Boccaccio renounced The Decameron and converted. If personal distractions can be that powerful, I have no doubt that threats of starvation lose the world at least a few decent artists, too. It may take public intervention to keep even private art markets free and alive.

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

6.23.17 — May Showers

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Allow me to wrap up from last time, as part of a longer review of the art fairs and my latest upload. A dank weekend put the freeze in Frieze and gave new meaning to Fridge. Even in sunlight, can anyone feel at home at an art fair, much less Frieze?

It occupies an island in the East River—and a tent with two hundred exhibitors. Yet right off I spotted Blue Clock by Ugo Rondinone and two translucent planks by Anne Veronica Janssens, both at Esther Schipper of Berlin, playing off against slim neon by Keith Sonnier at Pace, as alternative visions of light and color. Barbara Chase-Riboud's Matisse's Back in Twins (Michael Rosenfeld gallery, 1967/1994)And then to the side I saw two favorite Lower East Side galleries within a stone’s throw of such blue chips as Victoria Miro and Hauser & Wirth. You know, I thought, I might actually enjoy this.

Frieze does its level best to set one at ease. It leans contemporary and welcomes younger galleries without reducing their Focus booths to closets—or setting them apart from the mainstream. And here “younger” means less than twelve years of age, an eternity in the changing art scene. Rochelle Feinstein at On Stellar Rays has an ample wall for her text, rendered all the more enigmatic by a partial covering. Frame galleries, less than eight years old, get more of a ghetto, but facing each other like a Silicon Valley open office. As for the blue chips, their booths approach what another fair would call lounges.

In a display of wealth like this fair, size matters. Hauser & Wirth has blue ink flowing over screen prints from Ebony and Jet by Lorna Simpson, for African American culture as a force of nature. A boulder surrounded by pipes by Lee Ufan at Lisson looks anything but cramped—and it still leaves space for Anish Kapoor gearing up this summer for Brooklyn Bridge Park. David Zwirner has plentiful selections of Carol Bove and William Eggleston, tied to their appearance at the Venice Biennale. Another Biennale participant, Anri Sala, makes the open area part of the show, as a bare setting for robotic drumming at Marion Goodman. Sheet metal spilling its irregular sheen onto the floor by Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga, a Kenyan artist now based in Texas, is just one among other works at October.

Like October, a London gallery, the fair hits all the right notes with global artists and women. That is only to be expected. So are the occasional projects apart from booths, although they are the least of the show’s concerns. The bows to political art rarely extend to the art or politics of the present. Does that, too, comport with lounges for BMW and Deutsche Bank Wealth Management? Still, Frieze reaches out now and then to nonprofits as well, including White Columns and SculptureCenter.

Solo acts, too, come with a theme and a boast. They look back to “twentieth-century pioneers” in need of rediscovery. It takes some doing to think of Kenny Scharf at Honor Fraser of LA as neglected, rather than a product line. Still, Spotlight booths include galleries devoted to rediscovery, like Garth Greenan, Mitchell Algus, and Michael Rosenfield—here with rope and polished steel by Barbara Chase-Riboud, the African American sculptor. It also allows a fresh look at Alfred Leslie and his photorealism, at Bruce Silverstein. Here Leslie isolates not individuals in crisp light but rather groups in near darkness, for the psychological and social tensions of a death in the family or the working-class America of Youngstown, Ohio.

Maybe I had to feel at home, in a fair with cafés given over to New York staples. Roberta’s pizza beats a generic champagne bar any day. Maybe I just needed to feel at home, facing a long trip back in the storm. Maybe I was half afraid of home, after photographs of bus stops across America by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg at Gallery Luisotti of LA—as anonymous and ubiquitous as gas stations for Ed Ruscha. Or maybe this is home for all too much of the art world. Wealth, art, and politics make for perplexing but inescapable company.

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

6.21.17 — Out of Context

I was too busy making my way to the May art fairs to report on them that awful weekend, so allow me to catch up now. They still make a great story—and yet another excuse to assess money and the art world. Besides, as you may have noticed, there are more fairs going on, in Europe this time, right now.

I entered Frieze chilled to the bone and anything but eager for another mammoth art fair. I had sat half an hour in the ferry to Randall’s Island with my feet in puddles of water and the city’s looming just beyond windows curtained with a driving rain. Looking back, I have to wonder that it ran at all. Inside, though, I could almost have found myself at home. Mel Bochner's Going Out of Business (private collection, 2012)Why? I have already reported on the March fairs, in all their more often overlooked variety. A longer article and my latest upload begins by wrapping up those reports. And now I pick up the story in May. Sure, blame Frieze for extending that season, but before I tell you more about that cold wet day, remember that it is hardly alone.

Miami New York would just as soon forget about Miami, but it has a long way to go. Divided and renamed last year for a double helping of New York, it still has no local galleries of note. Art New York promises the breadth of art and Context New York the cutting edge, but both look familiar for all the wrong reasons. Set on pier 94, like the Armory Show but without a pier for older artists, they also feel lost in the gap between Modernism and today. Did I spot a target by Kenneth Noland, a silkscreen by Robert Rauschenberg on an off day, an outtake from Cindy Sherman, yet another a cartoon animal by Jeff Koons, a half-forgotten Abstract Expressionist, and a ton of Andy Warhol? Nope, but it sure looked that way, for seemingly every artist, however contemporary, is stuck on retreads of the past.

Art fairs could stand a little context, but forget about social commentary, creative pairings, or artists in depth. The sole direct encounter with art history amounts to tacky copies after Caravaggio. Even the more than forty “special projects” never loom large. Some hang together on a long wall, like a badly curated group show, while others stand meekly beside a booth like an extension of its artists. When Pablo Helguera dedicates his project to text paintings announcing that all proceeds will go to his favorite causes, even politics becomes a sales pitch. I, for one, am not buying.

I could not bring myself to the Park Avenue Armory for a newcomer to New York from the Netherlands. While TEFAF sounds like a European corporation’s stock exchange listing, it simply stands for “the European Fine Art Fair.” And while its banner labels it a fair of modern and contemporary art, its Web site touts it as art and antiques, with all the aura of dimly remembered beauty. It speaks of having vetted every single object and of making collecting easy, with photos of a presumed expert examining something or other with a magnifying glass. One can only wonder what he finds, but take a hint: it may not be art.

Oh, no, another art fair—and not Superfluous, but Superfine! The exclamation mark is theirs, not mine, but the fair has its fine points, starting with its location. For its first run, it snags a space under the High Line, between Chelsea galleries and the Whitney. Its forty or so contributors have to settle for close quarters, but the meandering layout gives it a festive rather than regimented air. Besides, who can resist a fair that calls its seating areas near the café a backyard lounge? I can forgive any number of cheap green carpets and lawn tables to take summer indoors.

Alas, the art is not nearly as fine. The fair gives space to artists, collectives, and dealers—including a group of artists under thirty all the way from Mexico. I recognized almost no one, but I did recognize the style, leaning to realism with an air of street art. At least it tones down the trashy overstatement. The biggest work, by John P. Dessereau, assembles street scenes, with wiggling windows and each building its own canvas. It makes a suitable backdrop to the stage and café.

Fridge is always looking for another venue. Last year it found itself stranded in a park, and this year it crams into the tiny service corridor of a hotel and the back room of a bar a mile and a half apart—neither one even remotely within “a five-minute walk from the Barclay’s Center” in downtown Brooklyn. In leaving Harlem, it seems to have left behind much of its professionalism and much of its edge as well. Work runs to dog pictures and the like, most likely tossed off in minutes and just as soon forgotten. An artist at my first stop even told me not to bother with the other. Like the fair, I persevered, but maybe next year’s will not open on a bar’s trivia night, and meanwhile my next post (as I promised) moves on to Frieze.

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

6.19.17 — Beyond the Fences

Merrill Wagner had a secret weapon in her paintings from the 1970s, their support. And if it is hard to keep a painting’s physical presence secret, that is precisely the point. Many make use of tape on Plexiglas. Another distances canvas from a stretcher to find new support, in the walls and floor, where three dark squares mark out a corner of the room, at Zürcher through June 24.

Like much of the tape and her brushwork, the squares have ragged edges, just in case one was tempted to overlook their presence. And it is tempting, just as one can write off Robert Ryman, whom she married, as the painter of white on white—forgetting his range of materials from canvas and metal plates Merrill Wagner's Outerbridge Crossing (photo by Jeffrey Sturges, New York Studio School, 1986)to the bolts holding them to the wall. For both artists, it takes looking at what lies right before one’s eyes.

Six months earlier, the New York Studio School made the background to painting inescapable—and I have wrapped this into my earlier report on its show as a longer review and my latest upload. That one spanned her career, including work from the 1980s on several panels, somewhere between painting, sculpture, and relief. It also included photos of fences in the New York metropolitan area, not so far from the verticals of cloth or masking tape. This show hones in instead on a crucial decade, when she turned thirty, making them together a fairer retrospective. It shows her as, first and foremost, a painter. No wonder it takes looking.

Wagner does not appear in “Making Space,” a survey of women in abstraction, but she could have appeared if only MoMA had taken more care to collect her. (She did appear there that very decade in a Christmas show.) She, too, is making and marking space, in line with the period’s emphasis on art as object. The verticals have their parallel, so to speak, in stripes by Frank Stella, the dark squares in Ad Reinhardt. A red square, for that matter, deepens into black. Even her forays out of doors have a parallel in the economy of plant studies by Ellsworth Kelly, back in Chelsea at Matthew Marks a door away from his last paintings through June 24.

For all that, she has little of their austerity—precisely what can tempt one to see only painting. One can come up close to watch the red vary and deepen, rather than wait for it to pop out of a near uniform blackness. One can stand back to compare its dimensions, brushwork, and tape marks with other colors set against uniform squares of Plexiglas. Not that they form a single work or even a series, but creative hanging invites a closer look. Paired yellow verticals look worn by earth or fire, while other works stick to competing fields and tones of black and gray. The show’s largest canvas stands alone, and its broader verticals dissolve at the edges like horizontal bands for Agnes Martin.

She is also not above illusion, as long as it can coincide with the literal. The corner piece looks at first like a translucent black cube, before falling back to canvas. It matters, though, that it still looks solid and painterly as loose fabric. It matters, too, that the weathering in earth tones on yellow depends on a combination of chance and her own hand. While other artists use tape to give geometry its clean edges before peeling it away, she uses it to mess things up. Where the fences make one aware of all her work as making space, here she is marking time.

Jill Moser marks time in abstraction, too, with a record of her art’s making. Twenty years younger than Wagner, she survived a long stretch of silkscreens and appropriation, when painting was out of fashion. She incorporates them into her work at that, along with oil on canvas. She, though, is appropriating only herself, in what can pass for painting, just recently at Lennon, Weinberg through June 17. Thin drips and curves contrast with underlying broader patches—and the opacity of the first with the translucency of the second, like passing showers in front of clouds. Together, they offer at least two versions of the definite or the ephemeral.

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

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