7.31.17 — Idle Hands

If you have time on your hands, you can idle away as much as you like at “The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin.” Benjamin himself began The Arcades in 1927 as a short meditation on Paris, but it consumed the rest of his life.

The Jewish Museum starts modestly, too. It pairs just one artist with each chapter of Benjamin’s unfinished project, through August 6, most with a single work. James Welling's Morgan Great Hall (Wadsworth Atheneum, 2014)And then it invites you to linger over the three dozen selections, as a busy biennial or an evening in the galleries never will. It does not hold together, but then neither did Paris. It seems at times to belong more to the curators than to either the artists or the German writer, but you can claim it for yourself. I give a complicated show a longer review as my latest upload.

Walter Benjamin is best known for asking whether the work of art retains its authority in the age of mechanical reproduction. (Today he might say digital.) This show brings art and ideas together to put them both to the test. You can imagine yourself meandering at leisure, much like him in the vaulted shopping centers of the last century. You can wonder at what it means then or now to embrace the present. And then, like the arcades for him, it gets totally out of hand, in a frustrating but intriguing jumble of past and present.

Benjamin did not coin the term flâneur for the archetypical urban stroller, although he gave it a chapter. He did not even popularize it, for his book did not see the light of day until 1982, more than forty years after his death. It appeared in English only in 1999—fittingly enough, at the dawn of a millennium. Still, he has come to typify the ideal. It fits with his fascination with half-hidden passageways and consumer society. It fits as well with his aphoristic style and his love of literature and history.

For all that, Benjamin was no idler. He came to Paris not for shopping, but in flight from the Nazis, and he left the book unfinished when he fled yet again. He committed suicide when denied passage to Spain in 1940, on his way to the United States. A Marxist, he is associated with the Frankfurt School, although he never managed to teach at its Institute for Social Research—or, for that matter, anywhere else. Still, he shares with such theorists there as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Jürgen Habermas a belief in both reason and subjectivity. For Benjamin, philosophy had room for Karl Marx and social movements, but also Charles Baudelaire, the railroads, the Seine, the catacombs of ancient Paris, and the city as the site of prostitution and gambling along with the stock exchange.

He gave each of them a chapter or convolute, after the Latin for bundle. And the project grew to encompass literary history, theories of knowledge, and the failed revolution of the Paris Commune in 1871. He really did have time on his hands, and you had better, too. You will need it to get lost along with Harris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer in their Infinite Library of gutted and reordered books. You will need it to find your way with Taryn Simon through the image archives of the New York Public Library, sorted into such categories as women, wallpaper, and buildings. Benjamin might have understood.

Each chapter gets a complex layering of art and text. Some art comes with its own, like a mandala of encircling words by Simon Evans, as The Voice. Wall labels add more—and then Kenneth Goldsmith contributes a poem of found text to each, out of anything from the social sciences to fiction. Bret Easton Ellis and his hard-driving 1980s accompany the stock market. Goldsmith in turn shapes his text into images, such as a smile or meandering curves for the streets of Paris. This is one convoluted convolute.

For all that, this history has many cunning passages. And the art works best when it turns on the collision between past and present. One becomes a flâneur in both space and time—right along with Bill Rauhauser, the self-styled “flâneur of Detroit.” As idlers go, he does not shy away from precision with his photograph of a compass for drawing, but then the whole show has its circles upon circles. It is part of Benjamin called “a waking world . . . to which that dream we name the past refers.” A pity that he did not live to put this past behind him.

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7.28.17 — No One Can Hear You

In space, no one can hear you quote art theory. I am not so sure about in the Guggenheim, but Doug Wheeler would just as soon not hear.

Wheeler packs a tower gallery with more than four hundred slim pyramids of the silencing foam used in recording studios, as PSAD Synthetic Desert III, through August 2. Still more spikes line a wall, pushing you out and onto a platform overlooking the array. If you fall, you can guarantee a soft landing. If you do not, you can hope for quiet. He would like nothing more. Doug Wheeler's PSAD Synthetic Desert III (Guggenheim Museum, 1971/2017)

He calls it a semi-anechoic chamber, meaning free of echoes. Conceived in 1971, it has taken shape for the very first time. To enter, one must silence one’s cell phone and pass three distinct doors. More foam takes the shape of airfoils but with triangular cross-sections, on the entrance and far wall. The remaining wall has nothing but a purplish light. It casts visitors into brightness and the corner pyramids into shade. Anything in-between takes on extra dimensions.

As long ago as the 1960s, Wheeler used white paintings to fuse art with the walls and the room with art. By the next decade, he was working with only the room—as a locus of light, space, and sound. On his last appearance in New York, in 2012, the lighting in a bare white room changed ever so gradually. In place of fine art or industrial materials, it offered an alternative to the course of nature. It was Minimalism without the art object or the rules. It built on Minimalism’s attention to the space around the viewer, but with the added dimensions of time and the space within the mind.

Synthetic Desert, too, alludes to nature, only starting with its title. It draws on Wheeler’s experience of the northern Arizona desert. Like all his work, it links him to Light and Space, the West Coast movement—but it is not quite so serene as it sounds. It contains plenty of objects, and they point directly at you. They also present a spectacle not so very far from that of another popular artist, Yayoi Kusama. Like her work, too, they belong to a chamber within the larger and more crowded spectacle of the museum.

The room admits just five visitors every quarter of an hour, a tiny fraction of museum-goers. You can take your chances at the ticket counter or online, but either way you are in for disappointment or a wait. You might use the time remembering Kusama’s mob scene in Washington, merging with tourists in the Frank Lloyd Wright building, or lining up for yet another spectacle—the solid gold toilet by Maurizio Cattelan. Those who arrive late for their time are out of luck, and I shared the room with just two others and an attendant. I felt privileged. I could think of Wheeler’s raised platform as a runway, with me as an unlikely fashion model.

While I explored more restlessly than Wheeler would approve, another visitor sat still, and the third lay down, either rapt or nodding off. Unlike an ordinary guard, the attendant got to sit with his legs spread, too. I marveled, but I still felt that I had entered less a theater of the mind than a public theater. Is this desert transcendent or boring, comforting or threatening, natural or synthetic? Does PSAD stand for post-synthetic art disorder? When you find your answer, try not to scream.

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7.26.17 — A Proper Burial

More than thirty years ago, painting was dead, and a woman in her thirties was determined to give it a decent burial. Louise Lawler photographed a painting by Jackson Pollock at his peak, but hanging above fine porcelain in the home of Connecticut collectors.

A soup tureen’s delicacy all but subsumes Pollock’s drips in its pattern. Is this the proper decor for a funeral parlor or what? Also in 1984, Lawler photographed a flag painting by Jasper Johns above monogrammed bedding—both as white as a sheet. May it rest in peace. Louise Lawler's Monogram (courtesy of the artist/Metro Pictures, 1984)

Not that painting had ever died, although all the right people declared it dead, and I had to pursue abstract art to Staten Island in the 1990s for the first hints of its resurgence. Lawler and others, though, were prepared to bring the death blow as well as the funeral. The “Pictures generation,” named for an exhibition curated by Douglas Crimp, saw painting as one more great white male institution in crisis—and who better to rise up against it than a woman with a camera like Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Sherrie Levine, or Lawler. She did the deed well, too, for her image of Connecticut is instantly recognizable today. It is recognizable even traced on vinyl, in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art through July 30, curated by Roxana Marcoci with Kelly Sidley.

Just the year before, in 1983, Crimp wrote “The Museum in Ruins” for a book edited by Hal Foster. And no wonder, for postmodern art and critical theory were then learning from and encouraging one another. So why does the museum look very much intact, even when Lawler takes one behind the scenes for, ambiguously, a taking down or an installation? Her photographs from the 1980s and 1990s occupy the show’s first room—some more recently enlarged to the scale of walls. Some are distorted in the process, which she deems a response to distortions of another kind, in fact-free politics after Donald J. Trump. A second room has the tracery and “ephemera,” such as announcements of past exhibitions.

Lawler takes down the “originality of the avant-garde“—not just with her photographs, but also in the spirit of collaboration. She casts leaf shapes in bronze with Alan McCollum and engages Jon Buller, a children’s book illustrator, to do the tracing. She photographs a painting by Robert Rauschenberg that already appropriates Peter Paul Rubens. She also packs a mean spirit when she cares to do so, as with the white globes of an art handler—or in pairing Jackie Kennedy with a Nazi. Titles ask whether Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol make you cry, and the obvious answer is no. How, then, did painting and sculpture escape death?

For one thing, no one ever doubted that art depends on patronage. Pollock made do with far less than the bounty of Renaissance princes before him—or of art fairs, art advisors, and museum blockbusters today, when The New York Times interviews celebrities each week about what hangs on their walls. In contrast to her obviousness, Lawler can also come off as more insular than a private dealer. Wall labels follow the money trail, naming the owners of all her prints from editions of five. They do not, though, offer the least help in identifying the art on camera. If you have to ask. . . .

To her credit, she freely admits her complicity in the game. When she makes a glass paperweight from a photo of Dan Flavin, his lights shimmer. She picks co-conspirators like Sherman as subjects, transforms the name of male competitors into bird calls for the museum’s sculpture garden (in a recreation of sound art from 1972 and 1981), and includes stationery and custom matchbooks for her gallery. One matchbook even gives the retrospective its title, “Why Pictures Now.” So why return to “Pictures” now, and did Lawler’s generation kill art only with kindness? May it rest on museum walls in peace.

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7.24.17 — A Matter of Style

Irving Penn was not just a fashion photographer. The Met insists on it, by opening and closing an abundant survey of his work with still life, like the remains of a meal. It catches a man lighting a woman’s cigarette, a girl drinking, and a woman resting her chin on the bridge of a man’s nose. Yet there, too, Penn takes pains to compose the apparent artlessness—and I have added this to an earlier report on his photography as a longer review and my latest upload.

The show celebrates the centennial of his birth and a massive gift from the Irving Penn Foundation, filled out with work from the Met’s existing collection, through July 30. It includes the peoples of the Andes, Africa, and the South Pacific along with celebrities. Irving Penn's The Bath (A) (Dancers Workshop of San Francisco) (Irving Penn Foundation/Pace gallery, 1967)It includes workers in London, Paris, and New York—along with cigarette butts that they might well have thrown away. It includes storefronts that are anything but this year’s model. It includes nudes in contortions that preclude dressing for a ball. Still, they are all posing, and together with the photographer they are all putting on a show.

To be sure, Penn did not just work for Alexander Liberman at Vogue. He bought his first Rolleiflex Twin-Lens Reflex camera in 1938, while a young assistant to Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar, and the Met sets a later purchase out front. He continued working in advertising while at Vogue, and he would probably have made much the same choices even if they were not to appear in print. The headless and legless nudes did not go over all that well at first, the cigarettes even less so. A show last year called them his personal work, and their grainy prints foretell the dark totems and darker cavities in sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. Yet they, too, pose upright for the camera, and still later cigarette packages and flowers look like modern dancers.

The curators, Maria Morris Hambourg and Jeff L. Rosenheim, speak of “face and figure, attitude and demeanor, adornment and artifact.” Even early street photography sticks to surfaces, with shop signs and shadows. Still life may come with titles like Theatre Accident and Salad Ingredients, but anyone at the scene of the accident or the kitchen has vanished for good. Portraits from the 1950s warmed up his sitters with coffee, to present them “honestly,” but Richard Burton seated at a table, his arms commandingly in front, will never let his hair down. That “personal work” already included Pablo Picasso dressed as a matador, only even more stylish.

The photographer has much in common with Picasso at that. He, too, changed subjects and styles again and again—and he, too, kept returning to both, like an aging Picasso to his lovers. Penn sets his “existential portraits” from the late 1940s in a corner, for the physical presence of a confined dancer, like Jerome Robbins, or the emotional presence of a confined artist, like Marcel Duchamp. And then he repeats the device for sitter after sitter. Like any a commercial photographer, he is packaging fashion as sex and high style. Yet he is also stylizing sex as high fashion.

The nudes make that stylization obvious, with their reference to the Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf. Readers found their sexuality as disturbing in a fashion magazine as their fallen breasts. Yet his travels, too, were a matter of style. A butcher or a knife grander carries off his costume and the tools of his trade very much like a model with hers. The people of Peru, New Guinea, or Dahomey flaunt their native dress and adornment. Editors at Vogue delighted in their concern for clothes, makeup, jewelry, and theater, just as in the West.

Amazingly, Penn packed all that into just a few years around 1950, although he continued working almost to his death in 2009. (He joined Vogue in 1943.) He preferred his studio to the street, even with those workers, and he took a soiled stage curtain with him as a backdrop. Its shades of gray enrich the prints, setting off the contrasts of dark and light, suits and gloves, or lipstick and flesh. He favored black and white, although the magazine more often ran his work in color, just as he favored platinum palladium prints for their tonal richness and glamour. Even among writers and artists, he preferred sitters with a sense of style—like Salvador Dalí, Tom Wolfe, or Saul Steinberg with his nose sticking out of a paper mask.

Was he bringing fashion to the detritus of ordinary life or subverting fashion all along? The Met puts him firmly in the commercial mainstream, while arguing for the diversity of his achievement. Yet it raises questions, too, only starting the heavy gloss of his fashion shoots. Is Penn alive to native cultures—or indulging in primitivism and cultural appropriation on behalf of a very western industry? What would I think if his rag and bone man in London then were a homeless person in New York now? And what if he is right, and nothing lies behind the curtain, not even a magician or (for William Butler Yeats) “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”?

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7.21.17 — Fairs Without Tourists

Summer group shows are like art fairs without the tourists and collectors. They carry the same promises and the same dreadful sense of obligation, even as the crowds have left town—perhaps for another art fair.

The summer of 2017 brings little in the way of a trend, but then a trend is hard to find anywhere now apart from anything goes. To add to the confusion, a dozen galleries even mimic art fairs by hosting artists from galleries from out of town and abroad. Barbara Chase-Riboud's Matisse's Back in Twins (Michael Rosenfeld gallery, 1967/1994)This year does, though, bring some more than halfway creative shows. How about a quick tour? I have also wrapped this in with an earlier report on abstraction in summer, as a longer review and my latest upload.

Art fairs without gawkers and buyers must sound like galleries without artists or a future—but I would not rule that out either, alas. It might be the last remaining avant-garde. Yet summer shows do make me think of fair week. They, too, offer the chance to take stock or to catch up. Bitforms even calls its show a fall preview (through July 30), including video as sculpture in, he explains, four dimensions by Gary Hill and swirling video colors by Sara Ludy. Like fairs again, they also tempt me to sit them out.

Who needs yet another forced theme or unthemed sprawl? Not that recaps of old and new friends are all bad. Canada gallery makes clear that it has some shocks left (through July 21), with a full room of streaming black cords by Heather Watkins approaching life forms—and with art between torn clothing and posters by Kristan Kennedy visible on the back wall. Lennon, Weinberg allows gallery artists like Jill Moser and Melissa Meyer to choose counterparts and influences (through September 16) that, often as not, blend right in. A stalwart defender of abstraction like McKenzie can approach routine, but several artists there go big (through August 12), including Plexiglas triangles high on the wall by Doreen McCarthy and wide brushstrokes by Andrea Belag. Don Voisine shows that he need not use black to add translucency or to unsettle his symmetry.

Not all themes are forced either. At their best, they may even sound routine. In the case of women artists, make that overdue to sound routine, and Michael Rosenfeld makes the point in its exhibition’s title, “The Time Is Now.” It also has the commitment and resources for a credible history (through August 4). It outdid the Studio Museum in Harlem with its survey of Alma Thomas, who again appears. So do the likes of Magdalena Abakanowicz, Grace Hartigan, Louise Nevelson, Lee Krasner, and Joan Mitchell.

Not everything, though, is a textbook history of the late twentieth century. In accord with its program, the gallery includes such black artists as Thomas, Betye Saar, and Barbara Chase-Riboud. It also reaches back to Surrealism by Dorothea Tanning, Kay Sage, and Irene Rice Pereira, along with early fabric art by Lenore Tawney. Lee Lozano looks unusually sleek in her machine-inspired abstraction. Perhaps the first drip painter gets her due as well. Janet Sobel was not just an outsider artist.

Galerie Lelong, too, has a shot at what is becoming the usual (through August 5). After retrospectives of Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, plus one this very summer for Hélio Oiticica, it must seem that museums can no longer get enough of Latin American art or Neo-Concretism. Yet one can almost forget that Grupo Frente in Brazil was indeed a movement—one that could make the elements of geometric abstraction pop. “Brushless” at Morgan Lehman (through July 28) has to sound like more business as usual. A roller, a rubbing, or a palette knife should not come as a surprise, not even in such capable hands. Still, poured paint from Carolanna Parlato, shaped by tilting the canvas, and hard edges by Halsey Hathaway, made with an atomizer, had me wondering that they pulled it off.

The most ambitious theme may well be the simplest, with two full floors of “White Heat” at Marc Straus (through July 30), for all its limits. It cannot offer white painting by Alberto Burri, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Valerie Jaudon, or Robert Ryman—or lattices of white cubes by Sol LeWitt. It includes sculpture, where a patina of white is more an option than a reduction, even with deadly nightshade covered in frost by Jeanne Silverthorne or a brutal torso by Nicole Eisenman, like a horse by Raymond Duchamp-Villon as a frat boy. Mostly, it eschews color in favor of a textured surface, with Europeans more concerned for elegance than a revolution. Yet it, too, reminds me of summer. Even in off season for galleries, the heat is on.

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