8.8.17 — A Banquet of Antiquities

The roof garden of the Met is set for a feast, but do not expect to dig right in. Oh, drinks and light snacks are still for sale, for those long summer evenings with views of the park. Banquet tables are there as well, with enviable place settings. Still, everything has the same ghostly white, from overturned goblets to mismatched knives. Coins lie strewn across one table, like mints or crackers—but with a sleeping child in place of dessert or a dip. Other tables bear restless, dead, or sleeping bodies.

from Adrián Villar Rojas's The Theater of Disappearance (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017)Besides, this is art, with clear directions not to touch, much less to dine. Pierre Huyghe changed little in 2015, beyond a few floor tiles, while Roxy Paine filled the roof with a forest after a storm some years before. This year’s summer sculpture offers a treacherous compromise, as “The Theater of Disappearance,” through October 29. Adrián Villar Rojas leaves room to wander, while undermining hopes of where to sit. His checkerboard flooring rises up to form two short benches, but also a barrier on the way to the bar. He sets standing sculpture in black, like guards distracted by stories of their own.

Already at age thirty-seven, Villar Rojas has a habit of raising obstacles. He set a concrete box on the High Line in 2015, as The Evolution of God, and he directed a dark restaging of MoMA PS1 in 2013, as The Innocence of Animals. He has animals and gods here, too, all of them from the Met’s collections. He selected nearly a hundred objects, in conversation with the museum’s curators, for a theater of repeat appearances. He then combined scans of the antiquities with scans of live people to produce his seventeen sculptures. He also took charge of the tiling and planting, with twisted vines that fit right in with the twisted bodies and twisted narratives.

The dialogue extends from the artist and curators to the visitor. It just happens to lack subtitles. Turning the corner from the entrance, you might mistake additional wall text for a list of source material, but nope: it is the bar menu. It would take a smarter critic than I to name much more. The museum goes too far in calling this a critique of collecting practices, but it is still a feast for historians.

That feast belies a genuine melancholy—for much of the art began in commemoration of the dead. An Arthurian hero from the face of a tomb has a second sword as a pillow and a young man by his side, lending him a maternal side and an uneasy new life. A man stares at an empty plate in search of his image or a meal. A kneeling soldier could be constructing a statue of lovers or separating them. A man with African figurines on his shoulders, a body in his backpack, and the bent head of a homeless person stands guard over the southern end of the terrace, where the checkerboard gives way to metallic flooring. Judging by the Met’s photo of Villar Rojas, the figure’s pose and hoodie match the artist’s.

One can tire quickly of art’s bad boys, like Maurizio Cattelan or Paul McCarthy. One can tire, too, of the drive to anoint the next superstar with a 3D printer and the cutes. A figure with hunting horns for a hat and wild animals for shoulder pads may sound cringe inducing at that. Credit Villar Rojas, though, with a creative dialogue. A woman sleeps beside an alert cat, while a sleeping boy holds a horse’s head like a scene out of The Godfather. Meanwhile the visitor stares at the work of seven continents—and a living Argentine.

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

8.7.17 — The Feast of Summer

On a hot summer day, New Yorkers might wish they had a backyard swimming pool—if only they had a backyard apart from the city’s parks. And there, in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Anish Kapoor sets out a pool for anything but wading.

In place of his usual sweeping curves, it has a whirlpool at its center, sucking water in and churning the water up at its edges. Nestled almost beneath the bridge, it exists between the Scylla of gentrification and the Charybdis of art. Fortunately, it looks more meditative than threatening, and its title, Declension, sounds more out of Latin grammar than Greek myth. It could evoke a gentler slope as well, toward the East River and sea. Of course, in grammar a declension means running down nouns and adjectives, so how about a run through more of a New Yorker’s backyard?

My posts this week continue through 2017 summer sculpture. The tour starts with an extra post tomorrow, when the sun comes out, on the Met’s roof with Adrián Villar Rojas and a stiff drink. I then detour to Socrates Sculpture Park, for Nari Ward and a herd of goats. Last, I return to Manhattan for the grand boulevards, the High Line, and quieter parks. Together, they offer the feast of a New York summer. Enjoy.

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

8.4.17 — Making Space in Abstraction

Maybe the Museum of Modern Art is finally getting the point. It has begun focusing on its collection, which got short shrift in its 2004 expansion.

It has done so with special exhibitions to illuminate movements in modern art. And now it headlines not a period in history, but women in abstract art. While the show pays only token attention to African Americans, take heart: as I noted in an earlier report, a Chelsea gallery has William T. Williams ripping through many of the same years. Together they belong now to a longer review and my latest upload.

Magdalena Abakanowicz's Yellow Abakan (Museum of Modern Art, 1967–1968)Making Space” does not try to pick winners in the contemporary scene, through August 13—although women have done plenty to drive the resurgence of painting. MoMA has been picking winners for a long time, but that is starting to look more suspect in a hot market with a short memory. Rather, it tackles the glory years of postwar abstraction and Minimalism. With “Women of Abstract Expressionism” in Denver or Carmen Herrera at the Whitney, maybe other institutions are getting the point, too. The display of the collection quite generally will be changing as well—and the changes are rubbing off on men.

The show calls attention to past practices as well. When critics object to a paucity of women in museums, they almost always mean MoMA. Recently women have seemed to be everywhere, but here mostly as Marina Abramovic staring off into space. The good news is that more than third of this show consists of fairly recent acquisitions. The bad news is what that says about the last forty years, after paintings by Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Agnes Martin shaped a generation’s understanding of postwar art. With shows like this, they could shape a new generation’s understanding now.

Not that MoMA was ever out of the picture. It says as much with the exhibition title, which recalls the standard history of abstraction as formalism, as well as the need to make room for women. It says so, too, in mentioning exhibitions going back to 1951. It cites “Abstraction in Photography” when it comes to Barbara Morgan and Gertrude Altschul, “The Responsive Eye” when it comes to Bridget Riley and Op Art, and “Wall Hangings” when it comes to Sheila Hicks and Anni Albers—who had served as acting director of the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus. It opens with big gestures in red, blue, and green by Grace Hartigan, whose work toured the country in “New American Painting” starting in 1956. She was the sole woman present.

Coming late to the game has its advantages at that. Like prior shows of “Dadaglobe” and “The Revolutionary Impulse,” it allows the curators, Starr Figura and Sarah Hermanson Meister, to bring history up to date. They devote nearly a room to Latin American art, including Altschul, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Gego. They incorporate design with ceramics by Lucie Rie and again with tapestry in a room for “Fiber and Line,” including a grand cape of rumpled sisal by Magdalena Abakanowicz. They can even distance themselves from formalism by calling the last room “Eccentric Abstraction”—for such figures as Lee Bontecou, Jay DeFeo, Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis, and Eva Hesse. The very first room bows to globalism with Etel Adnan, born in Lebanon, and to African Americans, with Alma Thomas.

A revisionist history is bound to bring surprises, even with work acquired long ago. That first room counters the epic scale of Abstract Expressionism with collage by Anne Ryan and Janet Sobel, perhaps the first drip painter. The show leaves out Hesse’s large work in favor of hanging paper-mâché and cord, created at an abandoned German textile factory. I already hear cries to move all this immediately to the regular galleries, displacing as many men as possible, to get a revisionist history going there, too. That would be a mistake. This is not a zero-sum game at the expense of men who changed the rules—and it is not another round of puffery and pop stars.

Does MoMA have a distinct vision of women in art? Maybe or maybe not, and either can be the point of giving them their due. One can argue that all along, as with Mitchell or Krasner’s Gaea, they have rooted abstraction in both subjectivity and nature. One can again argue for riffs on craft, such as polyurethane Belly-Cushions by Alina Szapocznikow. One can also argue for women as outsiders, including Jews who escaped Europe—with Szapocznikow a Holocaust survivor. Male immigrants like Arshile Gorky would understand.

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

8.2.17 — Uncritical Theory

Teju Cole does not settle for photographs. He makes magazine spreads, with or without the magazine.

Cole’s closeness to magazine spreads shows in the bright colors and perfect stillness—even with a woman walking the street or boats headed every which way at sea. It shows in clear skies and sunlit vistas, the kind you know even before you have seen them, perhaps from last weekend’s travel section. It shows in the certainty that each scene, however marvelous or however ordinary, is where you want to be. Teju Cole's Capri, June 2015 (Steven Kasher gallery, 2015)It shows, too, in the text facing each and every one, at Steven Kasher through August 11.

A pairing of photos and text has another history as well, in conceptual art, and Cole has big ideas. The woman and the boats make him think of sailing for Troy in the Iliad. (He leaves unsaid whether Agamemnon will have to sacrifice this young woman first, which is just as well.) This is not, though, the pairing in Barbara Kruger and the “Pictures generation,” with their insistence on politics and gender. Rather, it takes the critical out of critical theory. It leaves only the comforting certainty that something profound is going on.

Cole has made that certainty the subject of his essays for the Sunday New York Times Magazine. They deal in generalities, to reassure readers that this is serious art and that these are these are indeed universal truths. So, too, does the text accompanying his photos. “Regularity becomes invisible.” “Color is the sound an object makes in response to light.” “A stone contemplates a stone.”

A vent on shipboard makes him think of “the alphorn at the beginning of the final movement of Brahms’s First Symphony.” A ladder and its shadow are “crossing each other on the way to heaven.” No, make that “a shadow and its ladder,” as duly ineffable. “I think the Annunciation must have happened on a day like this one.” (And no, that fabric hanging from a ship’s railing is not the Virgin Mary’s robe or someone else’s exposed underwear.) “Photography means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Well, I made up that last one, but you get the picture. In at least one respect, Cole’s prominence is a triumph. He shows that an African American artist has every right not to speak to racism or identity, just as he has every right to speak frankly about them. Recent years have had major exhibitions of Alma Thomas, Jack Whitten, William T. Williams, and black abstraction, with much the same insistence. When they bring their experience to their art, they may well speak to racism and identity after all—and Cole’s Times essays insist that photography must not paper over real lives. Yet he carries a far less provocative message as well.

It may sound odd to speak of his art as middlebrow. Surely that label belongs to a distant past, before Pop Art and street art, when highbrow art and popular culture faced off rather than intermingled, making even some with a college education feel left out. Back when, they found Modernism puzzling, the movies a guilty pleasure, and both as soulless as the threats from fascism and communism. Cole, though, is a throwback—just as he can photograph a woman from behind without anyone, including me, thinking of sexism. He still believes that Homer, the Bible, Capri, St. Moritz, and Brooklyn occupy the same space outside of time. Maybe it is about time that he all left that space behind him.

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

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