8.31.17 — Punching Back

To continue my week of catching up with unpublished reviews from this past season, the School of London will not go down in history for its sense of humor. Yet the man who gave the school its name could still laugh at art and himself. Did that leave R. B. Kitaj in exile?

Beginning with Francis Bacon, English artists seemed to compete to express horror and revulsion—and to inspire horror and revulsion in others. The very subjects of Bacon’s best-known paintings, the Crucifixion and Pope Innocent X, attest that this is no laughing matter. Kitaj knew high seriousness when he wished, but he did not always take it seriously. R. B. Kitaj's Los Angeles No. 16 (Bed) (Marlborough, 2001–2002)His version of a dead Christ lies in what could pass for a fish tank, like a beached whale, and it is only Pretending to Be Dead. He rendered an earlier artistic rivalry, between James McNeil Whistler and John Ruskin, as a boxing match. In self-portraits he appears as a terrorist, a woman, a black sheep, and a punching bag.

Of course, in ordinary neurosis self-flagellation is a serious matter, and Kitaj kept at it. He became The First Terrorist in 1957, six years before his first exhibition, and a punching bag in 2004, three years before his death. The boxing match, too, aspires to a place in art history. It may joke about the libel suit against Ruskin, the critic who accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Yet it places Kitaj in their august line, and it borrows its composition from a rather earnest American painter, George Bellows. Even when he is punching himself, this artist is punching back.

All four paintings appear in a healthy selection of his work, at Marlborough Contemporary through this last April 8 (with prints at the gallery uptown through April 1), curated by Barry Schwabsky. The show follows Kitaj to his late years in LA, as “The Exile at Home. Few artists seem anywhere near as English, but he was born in Ohio, as Ronald Brooks, and he took his name not from British colonialism in India, but from his Austrian stepfather. (Try not to pronounce it kitsch.) For him, art is always in exile, and he coined the term diasporism to describe it. He knew that Whistler, too, thrived as an American in London.

The entire school had its roots anywhere but at home. Bacon was born in Ireland, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach in Berlin. Leon Kossoff was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, like Kitaj’s mother. Their exile may appear in Bacon’s agonies, Freud’s distorted portraits, Kossoff’s repeated self-portraits, and Auerbach’s darkly slathered paint. Kitaj evokes a sense of displacement with the urban idlers in Arcades, after the studies of Paris by Walter Benjamin, and with Franz Kafka as only a hat. Another self-portrait calls him The Jewish Rider, punning on Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider, a notoriously strange figure in a distant landscape.

All this sounds solemn enough, but Kitaj’s colors keep getting brighter and his backgrounds more filled with white. Schwabsky compares them to Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne, but they approach Modernism from the perspective of a good illustrator. A black outline here and there may recall another exile, Max Beckmann, and a schematic face has the flair of Alexej Jawlensky, but German Expressionism seems long ago and far away. Kitaj comes closest to another exile in LA, David Hockney, whom he knew from their years at the Royal College of Art in London. They share an obvious facility that crosses over into glibness. He was not altogether joking when he called the show’s last painting his Technicolor Self-Portrait.

As with those titles, a joke can serve as a defense mechanism as well. When he titles a woman with big boobs The Sexist, it sounds like special pleading. He is at his best when humor gets along with a deeper mystery. In I Married an Angel, the angel has wings and approaches his bedside— with the choice between consummation and salvation still to come. A nonpracticing Jew, he found in religion, too, a deeper mystery. I laughed at The Jewish Rider, but Rembrandt, the painter of The Jewish Bride, would have approved.

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

8.30.17 — Autumn on Delancey Street

Even in December, the trees on Delancey Street have a coppery glow, so allow me on a late summer week of catch-up posts to remember it. It is not the glow of fall foliage, not on a Lower East Side thoroughfare better known for traffic than for signs of life. At least one gallery has bricked up its glass façade to keep out the sights and sounds.

No, these trees exist only within a work of art, and this copper is the real thing, the transition metal, the twenty-ninth element in the periodic table. James Hoff etches it on fiberglass, for the silhouettes of trees—and I wrap this into earlier reports on landscape painting and the city as a longer review and my latest upload. It outlines trunks, leaves, and branches with a delicacy and density that would defy many a landscape artist. Then again, Hoff borrows the technique used to create microelectronics. James Hoff's Useless Landscape (Callicoon Fine Arts, 2016)

He brings more of nature into the gallery as well, as he did at Callicoon through this past December 23, so that it, too, takes on the appearance of a landscape. Mottled stones lie here and there on the floor (and I would have told you about them then, but this had first to appear in a different form in Artillery magazine). They look natural enough that visitors may already expect some trickery. Perhaps he cast them in foam, for the mere illusion of stone. Yet once again they are the real thing, only this time the reality of the found object, give or take a little help. He has painted them black and white.

They promise an enclave apart from the city, but beware. Hoff calls the show “Utopia Landfill, or Vacation in the Age of Sad Passion”—and it does not sound like a recommendation of where to escape the coming winter. Of course, others, too, have wondered where the inorganic ends and where life begins. Garret Kane, for one, has embedded electronic circuits into carvings that evoke schools of fish. This artist, though, is not in awe of the digital. When he looks forward, like Sophia Al-Maria at the Whitney, he sees toxic waste from used devices and a cramped imagination. He makes a point of having started with photos of the great outdoors from a cell phone.

Hoff’s ambivalence toward humanity and nature also extends to art. He begins with the conventions of landscape painting, and he compares the technique of etching circuitry to screen prints. Copper has its place in art history as well, as an alloy with tin. Sculpture in bronze all but invented the Renaissance—with The Gates of Paradise, the doors to the Baptistry in Florence by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Hoff also models his black and white stones after camouflage, and he notes that artists created those patterns in World War I. He does not mean it as a compliment.

Maybe, though, he should—or maybe he understates how much he already does. Maybe he knows that, all along, living creatures have depended on copper to carry oxygen, much like iron in humans. Maybe he knows, too, just how much he evokes landscape painting. Even as Useless Landscape, the tracery on fiberglass glows with autumn, and the stones carry it into a third dimension. Art always thrives on the border between nature and culture. Now it just takes on appropriation and the digital.

Pamela Rosenkranz loves the landscape and, for that matter, the chemicals that shape its experience. She calls her show “Anemine,” which ran that same month Miguel Abreu through December 22—and, just, for the record, that means a green substance distilled from annelids, or worms, that covers the Amazon. And here you thought that Frederic Edwin Church knew the rain forest. In practice, one can set aside biochemistry for a study in blue and green. In unfolds on fluorescent lights, taking up the gallery’s usual track lighting. It extends to smeared acrylic on aluminum and to sound enveloping them all. It feels like James Turrell descending to industrial lighting or Dan Flavin reaching for the sublime, but it presents both a natural and interior light.

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

8.29.17 — Minimalism and Murder

Barry Le Va takes Minimalism close to murder, with a recreation of his Cleaved Wall at David Nolan through this past February 11. Talk about zombie formalism. Allow me, again, an extra post on a quiet end of summer to catch up a bit.

If I were you, I would have been very careful not to get drunk at the opening. I am still weighing the risks, as Le Va intended. He wants one to feel the work viscerally—from the weight of the thirty-four meat cleavers, the kind from a butcher’s shop, to their 9½-inch blades. Installation view of Beneath the Underdog (Gagosian, 2007)He wants one to imagine how they got stuck in the walls. Did he fling them, and from how far away? Did he know where they would land?

Not that I can swear the gallery served alcohol. (There was no sign of it when I passed through half an hour before.) If so, I am sure that the event took due diligence, just as raised wire keeps one at due distance from that corner of the room. Still, the installation demands to be seen in bodily terms, beginning with its origins. Le Va purchased the cleavers in the meat yards of Chicago—the subject of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking in The Jungle, the 1906 novel. The work first went on view in 1970 at the Whitney, where drinks were scarce.

Where have the blades lay since, and how did they get into the wall? One row runs just above the floor, another high on the wall. The first dares one to picture the cost of coming too close. The second defies one to stand under them—or to imagine the artist flinging them like props in an action movie, on a ladder or even (less plausibly) from the floor. Their shifting angles relative to the wall evoke stop-action photography of a single blade. Either he or the fine wood handles could be dancing.

One thinks in human terms, too, because Minimalism and process art demand it, and Barry Le Va had a serious role in both. Minimalism obliges viewers to contemplate themselves and the gallery along with the sculpture, as part of a living theater. Process art insists that the theater unfolds in time. When Le Va produced his “scatter pieces” of torn felt, they made a mess. When Richard Serra flung molten lead, the mess was not so easy to clean up. When Walter de Maria brings earthworks indoors with his New York Earth Room, one can only wonder how long it took to cart the black soil into the gallery—and how much human intervention it takes to keep anything from growing.

Le Va may not match their reputation. The scattered felt can seem too arbitrary and too little visceral. One cannot smell soil or shy away from lead. Still, his materials have included shattered glass (as seen here in 2007), the kind that Chris Burden dragged himself across, and guns. Besides, he cherishes the arbitrary gesture, much like drip painting and gestural abstraction. It may sound odd that he planned the near random arrangement of blades, cuts, and handles, but the show comes with drawings to prove it.

Their interplay of thought and impulse becomes a dance. So does another product of Chicago in the back room, Floret by Julia Fish. It makes no attempt to reproduce the 1998 original, for which Fish expanded on green sections of institutional floor tiling, separated by white. Rather than add complete circles, she had her own arbitrary placement of small hexagons. In works on paper for the occasion, the clusters seem to grow before one’s eyes. They could pass for pixels in motion from video games—or plain old drunk.

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

8.28.17 — Noh Way

On that quiet last week of summer in the city, allow me to catch up a bit by posting reviews from the last season that somehow never made it to the blog. I shall have extra posts (Tuesday and Thursday) to help as well. Start with a slow dance.

Simon Starling calls his work At Twilight, which ran at the Japan Society Gallery through January 15, but its heart lies in darkness—the darkness of night giving way to morning, of a threat to one’s very life, and above all of a darkened theater. Simon Starling's At Twilight: Mask (by Yasuo Miichi) of William Butler Yeats (Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., 2016)AIt unfolds on video as a dance but also a drama, and it recreates the dance at the climax of a drama by William Butler Yeats.

A man shrouded in refuge from age, poverty, the wind, and the cold stumbles forward and collapses to the floor. For Yeats, he was all that was left of Cuchulain, a legendary Irish hero searching in vain for a fountain of youth. nd then not water but music summons him to life. He throws off his shroud, rises in glory, and spreads once and for all his hawk’s wings.

Starling conceives the work as part installation and part history lesson. It opens with the usual wall text and two hanging objects that could almost pass for headphones bearing further explanations and obligations. They are instead Japanese swords. The video plays out behind masks like those of Japanese Noh theater from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, set on the shapes of thin, bare, twisted trees. They also include a horse’s head in fabric much like the aging hero’s stark gray cloak. Past them all lies a brighter room with costumes for the drama, along with the horse’s headless body.

A longer lesson comes after that, with further objects, this time the originals—as well as documents, period photographs by A. L. Coburn, and prints by Edmund Dulac. Starling explains more in person on a second video and also diagrams the connections as his “mind map,” a collage. It gets complicated. Yeats wrote At the Hawk’s Well for Dublin’s Abbey Theater, which he had founded with Lady Gregory. He wrote in 1916, during World War I and amid Vorticism, the English version of Cubism indebted to Wyndam Lewis. Jacob Epstein built on the damage of war and the triumph of Modernism alike in sculpture, with his Rock Drill.

Starling describes the Hawk Dance as the Irish poet’s Noh “reincarnation,” but he is charting a torrent of influences and collaborations. Michio Ito choreographed and performed the dance, and the designs of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a follower of Epstein, lie behind more than one mask. Isamu Noguchi paid his own tributes to East and West, and Ezra Pound, as secretary to Yeats, turned him on to Noh theater. Nancy Cunard brought many of them together in London’s fashionable Cavendish Square and served as their muse. That horse turns out to be Eeyore, because A. A. Milne found comfort and ideas in the same Irish woods as Yeats. Whew!

Starling, an English artist who appeared with “Ostalgie” in 2011 and the Wagner collection in 2016, adds influences and collaborations of his own. He credits still others for his music, his choreography, and even his masks and costumes. They include a mask of Yeats, jaws sewn shut and his features almost Asian. They also include a mask of Cunard after Constantin Brancusi, who abstracted away from her in bronze. They can evoke mythic terrors, terminal whimsy, or both at once—like the head from Winnie-the-Pooh. Trust me that Pound did not have them in mind when he later wrote off Noh as “all too damn soft.”

You may find yourself quoting him anyway. Starling’s theater can approach archeology, and his history can grow arbitrary. Still, it is hard to turn away. His sheer scope reflects the turmoil of Modernism and its greatest poet, and the central room recreates their power. One passes through the masks on their bare trees as if through a real forest, an eastern mystery, an Irish legend, or a metaphoric dark woods. One wants to sink to the ground with the dancer and to spread at last one’s wings.

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

8.25.17 — Photography as Agency

When the founding members of Magnum Photos raised a toast in 1947, they knew that they were making history. They had founded a photo agency as a collective, giving the photographers agency in every sense of the word.

They even divided the world among them, with three to pursue their vision in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and Europe and the Americas while the fourth could roam at will. Seventy years later, Magnum still invites new members, with a screening process that takes years. Marc Riboud's Teheran: Women Supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini (Magnum Photos/International Center of Photography, 1979)And its archives continue to grow, feeding a database of more than half a million items.

They thought that they were creating a global history as photographers as well. Three had followed troops into combat in World War II, and the fourth had photographed prisoners of war. Now, over (naturally) a magnum of champagne, they saw themselves as harbingers of a lasting peace. With “Magnum Manifesto,” through September 3, the International Center of Photography takes stock of both histories—that of Magnum Photos and that of the world, and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review in my latest upload. It finds members (ninety-two at last count) still in pursuit of political change, but with a faith in themselves as global citizens or at the center of photography largely gone. My longer review also wraps in an earlier report on August Sander before them, who looked for archetypes but found individuals as well.

A packed opening wall demonstrates just how vital and perilous that faith was. It holds some of the last century’s most memorable images—a dogged troop of refugees like an inexorable human wave, an Indian mother and child pleading for relief from famine, an assertion of international law under the American flag at Buchenwald, a lone Vietnam war protestor on the Washington Mall, and a black power salute at the Olympics in Mexico City. They play out against text from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 in Paris, but with none of its certainty that justice will apply to all. Rather, they already attest to the turmoil of the 1960s. They also see that turmoil in human terms. That war protestor holds a flower just inches away from the massed bayonets of the National Guard.

They present Magnum as greater than the sum of its parts. Labels appear only around the corner, making it by no means easy to assign credit. (For the record, I have mentioned photographs by Robert Capa, Werner Bischof, Chim, Marc Riboud, and Raymond Depardon.) Beyond them lie extended projects by a single photographer—such as migrant workers for Eve Arnold and family portraits by Elliott Erwitt. Each of the show’s main sections has the same mix of opening overview, with text, and individual concentrations. Together, they describe Magnum Photos as both collective and agency.

Capa had come up with the idea, and George Rodger, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Chim joined him in the cafeteria at MoMA for a toast. (David Seymour took his nickname from Szymin, his family name back in Poland.) In returning to that moment, ICP is recovering its own history as well. Cornell Capa, another Magnum photographer and Robert’s brother, founded it in 1974 with much the same dream of socially concerned photography. That concern guided the first two shows at ICP’s new home on the Bowery, but “Public, Private, Secret” and “Perpetual Revolution” were heavy on new media, as if photography could no longer keep up with the times. Now it gets back to basics.

Still, the entire show comes as a succession of photo collages, on video and physically on the museum walls. Even the concentrations on a single artist have their collage element—clippings from the publications in which they first appeared. Photographs of prisoners in Texas by Danny Lyon ran under the headline “Our Prisons Are Criminal.” Like the wall text opening each of the show’s segments, they describe photography as a series of “Magnum manifestos.” They are also changing manifestos, as iconic images give way to more intimate encounters in a vastly diverse and troubled world. Then again, Cartier-Bresson hated the label photojournalist all along.

In each case, the photographers see events through individuals. That can mean marginalized individuals, like “hermits and mystics” for Alec Soth, strippers for Susan Meiselas, addicts and hookers for Jim Goldberg, occult practices in Spain for Cristina García Rodero, or a masquerade for Inge Morath—but not necessarily. When Paul Fusco follows Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train and Peter Marlow the last SST, they turn their camera on those watching from the sidelines. When Richard Kalvar follows a campaign for Senate, he takes it one handshake at a time. Gypsy children raise their painfully gaunt biceps for Joseph Koudelka. They are not mere stage performers or anthropological specimens, like disaster areas for photo spreads in today’s New York Times, but they could almost be raising a toast.

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

8.23.17 — The Enigma of Blackness

A portrait by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye presents an enigma. Why are those black women watchful—and what are they watching? One takes her ease in a steel-backed chair, while the other stands behind her with opera glasses, like the audience to their own lives.

What has brought those men together, in their identical green jackets and white shirts? Are others, slumped backward or hands raised, restless or at ease? Why is one man holding an owl and another a smaller bird, as if questioning it? Is that lean man standing against a wall, one hand crossing to rest on a shoulder and one foot crossing to rest on its toes, a dancer, a prophet, or a thief?

Yiadom-Boakye loves enigmas, at the New Museum through September 3—and I have added this to earlier reports on Teju Cole, Umar Rashid, and blackness as a universal for a longer review and my latest upload. They appear in her titles, like Matters, Ropes for a Clairvoyant, or A Cage for the Love. They appear in her dark palette, broken only by a dancer’s white against a dark background, the heavy orange backdrop to a man’s dark silhouette, or glassy eyes. Much of her cast finds its double in shadows, including that small bird. A man in profile looks toward the light that casts his shadow behind him, like a nude for Edward Hopper. She, though, stands fully exposed and fully in the sun, a subject for the male gaze or an Annunciation, while the black man is isolated and self-composed.

These are heavy enigmas at that, to the point of collapsing under their own weight. Born in London of West African descent, Yiadom-Boakye portrays private moments and intimate acquaintances, often lost in thought. Yet she wants to make them protagonists in a vaguer but grander narrative. She sees them as at once casual, otherworldly, and universal. That belief in life as a vast theater may explain her fondness for performers, quite apart from who an artist’s friends are likely to be. The green jackets may belong to a musical act, while the owl rests on an artist’s palette, like a stand-in for the dark wisdom of his brush.

They sure have a lot to bear. Part of the weight derives from the literal side of British realism, part from the awful demands on the black community in England or America. It appears in the prouder stances of African American artists like Barkley L. Hendricks, Titus Kaphar, Mickalene Thomas, or Kehinde Wiley. It plays to the feel-good side of politics for many white artists as well. Just think of the price that Dana Schutz has paid for presenting the death of Emmett Till as horrifying in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. But then Kara Walker has taken her licks, too, for dredging up discomforting racial stereotypes.

Are the enigmas insipid or inspiring? One can admire a realism that does without the precision of one tradition, like Philip Pearlstein and Chuck Close, or the snappy brushwork of another, like Alfred Leslie and Alice Neel. One can admire, too, the litheness of dancers in action or at rest. Still, Yiadom-Boakye ends up with mostly academic painting in place of the ordinary or the universal. She makes things heavier still with low lighting and painted walls out of old-fashioned drawings rooms. She could do with fewer enigmas and a lot more deception.

Wiley, as it happens, was back at Sean Kelly through June 17 with some deceits of his own, as “Trickster.” And his deceits, too, turn on a dark palette and friends in the arts. He inserts black artists into a parody of Regency or Victorian realism, sometimes with direct quotes—and then he sinks the whole thing into night. He even includes Yiadom-Boakye as a person of property dressed for the hunt, with a landscape behind her and dead rabbits at her feet. Even humor, though, can fail to lighten things up, especially when the players and the references alike amount to inside jokes. He, too, left me wanting a little less pride and a lot more outrage.

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

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