9.29.17 — Shore Leave

The Governors Island Art Fair celebrates ten festive years with an act of forgetting. True, Castle Williams has reverted to a display of the island’s history. Yet that leaves the fair to the former officer’s housing of Colonels Row, starting Labor Day weekend and continuing a month of Saturdays and Sundays through October 1.

Art as an encounter with the abandoned Navy and then Coast Guard base at the mouth of the Hudson has given way to the fair’s main concern all along—solo rooms for roughly a hundred participants. Does that make it just another art fair? No doubt, but one never knows what may have washed ashore. Biwei Niu's Evolution of Rhythm (Governors Island Art Fair, 2017)

Like any artist collective, the fair is an unholy mess, and it embraces artists who make a mess as well. It has the forgiving spirit of alternative art fairs like Scope and Fridge, with the emphasis more on funk than form. Peeling paint and decaying fixtures may identify the former bedrooms or kitchens, but the work aims for the site specific only in packing as forcibly as it can into what remains. Andrew Harrison transplants a tree indoors, accompanied by postcards overlaid with the tracing of imagined earthworks. elin o’Hara slavick uses cyanotype to conjure up architecture after Hiroshima, while Weiheng Qian uses sand and a video for a beach more sublime than the island will ever see. A projection through bell jars and model towers, by Alice Pixley Young, evokes a rural America far from the sea.

Getting in touch with the past takes patience, and Richard Sigmund calls his art a temple for daily practice. Peter Stankeiwicz uses welded steel in modernist tradition, closer to the Sculptor’s Guild in its quarters elsewhere on the island, in Nolan Park. More often, though, even abstraction runs to pleasure in excess. Acrylic circles by Gregg Emery have more in common with tree rings or optical disks than target paintings from Kenneth Noland, and Anna Frants may have a basis in Sol LeWitt, but her black lattice also holds monitors, robotics, and curios. Sculpture spills out further on the lawn outside, like spiraling wood slats by James Payne, an assembly of shotgun shells by Margaret Roleke, and a Visual Playground by Marek Jacisin. Thea Lanzisero starts with pyramids of shipping palettes, only to top each one with burlap and moss.

Art like this runs amok because the artists want it to come alive. Outdoors, that includes white spoors by Sui Park and a rearing cow by Will Kurtz. Indoors, it runs more often to the human. Painting sticks almost exclusively to it, in varying degrees of expressionism and primitivism. Ken Goshen straddles the human and the inhuman, with paintings of challah bread as In His Own Image. Others, too, stick to those they know, including immigrants for Zhiyuan Yang or nudes with flowers and, literally, egg on their face for Aleksandra Stone.

Where there are people, there is politics. And Stone does reserve egg on their face for men. The politics becomes explicit when Joshua Starcher and Melissa Estro cut away the outlines of people, leaving only text to attest to housing foreclosures. Eliot Greenwald renders “visitors” to America as stark photo IDs, and Richard Fleming combines text and borrowed imagery to document a Latino’s disappointed American dreams. Mostly, though, the fair has little patience for big ideas. It is having too much fun.

It comes closest to complexity across the lawn, in Liggett Hall. There it also departs from praiseworthy rooms for single artists, in favor of more creative encounters. Some allow only a peek behind closed doors, like David Nelson with pixilated family, close to color portraits by Chuck Close that refuse to cohere. A single room brings together wind chimes by Joseph Morris, dark paper lanterns by Jisook Kim, a nude out of Edward Hopper or George Segal by Lauren Carly Shaw, a ship wrecked in ice after Caspar David Friedrich by David Grainger, the animated Death of a Sun by Simona Prives, and a video Evolution of Rhythm by Biwei Niu. The brick hall separates the island’s historic north from its newly landscaped south. Maybe next year it will find its place between the past and future.

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

9.27.17 — North of Paradise

In December 1970, Hélio Oiticica moved to New York. Had he brought Brazil with him or left it behind? The Whitney shows him searching all his life for a sense of belonging and freedom, through October 1.

So what if now and then they got in each other’s way? So what, too, if the creator of an installation called Eden never found paradise. With an earlier report on Lygia Pape, a fuller version of this review is the subject of my latest upload.

With Pape and Lygia Clark in Brazil, Oiticica launched a movement. The Neo-Concrete manifesto of 1954 asserted their place in Modernism and geometric abstraction, and it connected both ideals to personal freedom. Hélio Oiticica's Tropicália (César and Claudio Oiticica Collection/Carnegie Museum of Art, 1967)Oiticica liked it so much that he used the movement, Grupo Frente, as the title for his early art. Works on paper break from the grid, with elements in motion in debt to Kazimir Malevich, Paul Klee, and Piet Mondrian. A painting in shades of red has a luminosity and rigor that would have done Ad Reinhardt proud. Just in case you have not had enough of the group, it appeared recently enough in a Chelsea gallery’s summer group show.

Not bad for an artist in his twenties, nearly fifty years before museums and markets embraced Latin American art. Yet he came to New York not as an apostle of modern art, globalization, or cultural identity. He came to belong and to create. He had already survived the dictatorship that took over Brazil in 1964. He had watched as friends suffered exile, jail, execution, or silence. As an artist and a gay male, he found new friends and new life in East Village art. From the wild and personal look of his work from the 1970s, he had left painting and politics alike all but behind.

Ten years later, he quit the city, under pressure from immigration agents and under suspicion for his sexuality. His proposed urban architecture had gone nowhere. Still in touch with Clark, he wrote that he felt “in prison on this infernal island.” He returned to Rio, but not to the formal exuberance with which he began. He died from a stroke just months after his return home, at age forty-two. In his short life, every discovery came at the cost of the abandonment of another—and every step toward release became confining once again.

The search for belonging and freedom appears from the start, along with their tensions. Belonging is obvious, given a moment and a manifesto, but so are the free-floating elements of geometry. Malevich became a hero to Minimalism in America for his spare paintings. The curators, though, suggest that he meant something else again in Rio—much as Soviet art in its time stood for new beginnings. Still, Grupo Frente quickly felt confining, and Oiticica sought to free his work from canvas and the wall. He adapted his planes to sculpture for others to enter, and he placed a mirror on the floor beneath one piece, so that others could see themselves.

He called smaller works Bólides, or fireballs, beginning in 1963, so that the explosions could continue. He gave wood cabinets movable shelves and filled glass receptacles with pigment, crushed brick, organic substances, and earth. They hint at his identity as a sexual being in a native landscape. That landscape expands, too, to include others, but refuses the labels that others place on him. Tropicália from 1967 allows “participants” to follow its pebbled paths or to wander on their own in sand. Its plants, TV footage, and caged birds place the work in the tropics, but allow for a recreation anywhere. It offers a place for reading and contemplation, while contemplating stereotypes that Oiticica abhorred.

Two years later, he created Eden at the Whitechapel in London. Now the paths are gone, leaving open sand and cryptic enclosures. You may stumble onto a floor of leaves, hay, or running water, so watch your step even in paradise. Then comes the fall from Eden and New York. At his death, he had left the infernal island for a hotter climate and death. So where did he belong, and was he ever free?

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

9.25.17 — Museum Mile

The architect of a mile-high building sought to rein in skyscrapers. He found the loss of light and open space soul deadening. He hated congestion and unchecked growth—but he never, ever shied away from contradictions.

Frank Lloyd Wright contained multitudes. He designed more than a thousand buildings in the course of seventy years, roughly half of them built. He left hundreds of thousands of drawings and other records along the way. Five years after their acquisition, the Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University are still sorting them out. “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive,” Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, photo by William Short, c. 1959)with a follow-up on Wright’s housing projects just opened at Columbia this fall, will have you doing the same—and it is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload. With some four hundred objects at MoMA alone, through October 1, it can feel congested and unchecked, but it dares anyone to tease out the multiplicity.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.” Wright was no Walt Whitman, but he was distinctly American. It shows in his egotism and optimism, even in the face of the Great Depression. It shows in his salesmanship, which lay behind his drawings and press events.

There is a lot to unpack, and the lead curators, Barry Bergdoll and Jennifer Gray, are delighted to tick it off. Fifty-five thousand drawings in the archives? (Check.) Three hundred thousand sheets of correspondence, well over a hundred thousand photographs, nearly three thousand manuscripts, and any number of films and models? (Check, check, check, and check again.) One can spend a long time amid the generous selection and wall text, dip in and out, or give up and turn away.

The show already follows a Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2009, plus “Frank Lloyd Wright and the City” at MoMA in 2014 (and my earlier reviews will fill out the story). If that, too, sounds like overkill, it has its advantages. It can avoid the Guggenheim’s focus on itself, and it can point more firmly than last time to Wright as an architect rather than urban planner. Yet it can also add to the confusion. It brings separate scholarly curators to each of twelve sections, arranged by theme. If one does not already know Wright’s achievement from past shows, one may not learn about it here.

Fortunately, the themes help pin down the contradictions. Were they even real? Maybe Wright just changed his mind, between his Skyscraper Regulation Project for Chicago in 1926 and Mile-High Illinois some thirty years later. Yet he proposed a high-rise for Manhattan back in 1927, next to St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, and that never got built either. Both towers had the same foundation at that, a “taproot” set deep into the ground as an anchor for cantilevered floors. To add to the seeming contradictions, the idea of a taproot borrows from botany.

The contradictions may never quite go away, but they are also nurturing. Wright was never the dictatorial capitalist out of Ayn Rand—not when he cared so much for people, design, and nature. “Unpacking the Archives” leaves a delight in textiles and table settings as well as buildings. It leaves the beauty of his drawings for their fine lines and soft orange, blue, and green. A large model for the Guggenheim, just as well crafted, will make you want to restore its cream color and to obliterate the toilet tank for tower galleries, added in 1992. It will, at least, until you return to Wright’s building and try to find a decent place for art.

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

9.22.17 — Friend or Faux

Florine Stettheimer had spectacular views from her living room. She did from her studio, too, overlooking the New York Public Library and Bryant Park—but nothing like the view in a painting from 1933 of her family at home. It opens a retrospective that presents her as always cosmopolitan and always at home—in New York, in Europe, and in modern art.

If you know her at all, you may think of her as halfway primitive and more than halfway mad, and frankly so do I. Not the Jewish Museum, through September 24. It shows a woman in command of her art and her place among artists. It shows her as not just a painter, but also a poet, a designer, and a choreographer, with stage sets to her credit on Broadway—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review as my latest upload. In that family portrait alone, she commands an entire city. Florine Stettheimer's Family Portrait, II (photo by Scala/Art Resource, Museum of Modern Art, 1933)

As so often for Stettheimer, the view goes beyond anything that she could ever see. It has her mother and sisters in the most elegant of furnishings and fashion. Yet it opens onto the Hudson River and Lady Liberty, adding untold square feet to their West 58th Street apartment. Flowers bloom in the foreground, large enough to eat them and their surroundings alive. And, wait, is that a second crystalline chandelier next to the first one? No, it is the Chrysler Building, bringing its Art Deco touches indoors.

It is funny and exultant, but also pure theater. (Does one sister pose next to a stage curtain or a domestic one?) It is also a woman’s world. Her father, a German Jewish banker, had deserted them long since, and they seem none the worse for it, whether emotionally or financially. It is also thoroughly up to date. The Chrysler Building had begun as recently as 1928, and it reigned as the world’s tallest building for eleven months, until the completion of the Empire State Building in 1931.

Stettheimer loved New York for its dry wit and sophisticated pleasures, and she says as much in poetry. “I like slippers gold,” she writes, and “oysters cold,” beneath a “sky full of towers.” She will be sending you out to tour the city as well. Family Portrait, II draws on the Museum of Modern Art, an earlier interior from the Brooklyn Museum, and costume designs from Columbia University, although not another floral river view in the Whitney. The show also includes an elaborate dollhouse with tiny paintings after artists she knew, a collaboration with a sister now based up Fifth Avenue at the Museum of the City of New York. You will have to continue to the American wing of the Met for her The Cathedrals—the cathedrals of art, Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Wall Street.

The show, then, comes as less a comprehensive survey than a correction. Stettheimer exhibited just once in her lifetime, at Knoedler, one of the city’s most elite and progressive galleries, and it bombed. She has gained new prominence from the recovery of women artists, the elevation of craft and design as art, and the dissolution of boundaries between outsider art and, well, everything else. Her most notorious paintings resemble folk art in their busy compositions, flattened perspective, and reduction of people to willowy wisps of paint. Their style made a sensation in a booth devoted to her at the 2017 Armory Show—and they have invited responses from such contemporary artists as Rosson Crow. This exhibition, though, has quite another story to tell, of a worldly woman and a world-class education.

Hers is a world of family, friends, and contributors. Does it seem biting or complacent to present Marcel Duchamp, the founder of Dada, as a dandy? So most often did he, posing in a suit and tie or as his female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. The show ends with Stettheimer’s greatest contribution to theater and most notable collaboration, Four Saints in Three Acts. She was responsible for the designs for the 1934 opera by Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein. She did so, much as in a doll house, not with paintings or drawings but figurines.

Collaboration changes everyone. The rapid-fire comedy of Stein’s “Pigeons on the grass alas” takes on the slower grace of an African American cast in sultry white robes. One might hesitate to call anything to do with Stettheimer mass culture, although her poetic ode to New York includes Disney cartoons and colored balloons, but the performance took place not in an opera house, but on Broadway. Who knew that one would ever see Stein’s name on a marquee? For the artist, too, complicity meant both self-interest and reaching out. She may have welcomed so many into her home as a strategic alternative to public exhibitions, but it was still quite a party.

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

9.20.17 — Victims of Success

Topics:

By this time, with galleries in full swing for the fall, you might be asking: how are they doing? How, for that matter, about the rest of us? For a partial answer, allow me a reply to the gossip this summer.

The New York Times makes it official: galleries are closing. At the very least, they are under pressure from wary collectors, rising rents, perpetual art fairs, and ever increasing competition.

That should come as no surprise. Galleries are a business, a bigger and bigger business, and anyone can see the turnover. I have already reported on a 2016 panel discussion that opened with an ominous slide, listing just some that have called it a day—Alix Pearlstein's Talent (On Stellar Rays, 2010)and I have added this as a postscript to that longer review, for my latest upload.

No, the surprise is not that galleries die, and others hurry to fill their spaces—in real estate, if not always in one’s heart. The surprise is who. That panel included three of the most successful dealers over decades now, and now Andrea Rosen has shut its doors as well. Even The Times has to take notice. And the toll extends to more recent successes on the once gritty Lower East Side. As the June 25 headline put it, “Art Gallery Closures Grow for Small and Midsize Dealers.”

Are there lessons? I think I got this right a year ago, but consider the points again. First, the closings really do come less from artist collectives and others on the margins, who serve a smaller community, or from the very largest dealers with money to burn. That leaves midlevel dealers with every sign of growth and every fear of a market shake-up. I never cared for the splashy displays at Mike Weiss, but they had started to get reviews, even as the gallery aggressively expanded its roster. Lisa Cooley, Laurel Gitlen, and now On Stellar Rays had all moved into bigger and more prominent spaces—in the case of On Stellar Rays, a space that a still more upscale dealer, Sue Post, had abandoned as well.

Second, they may grow sick of the struggle, but often as not they are not going away. The panelists touted a “hybrid model” of working behind the scenes, art fairs, and exhibitions in conjunction with surviving institutions. One of the three had cut back to handling an estate, and Rosen will do the same on behalf of Félix González-Torres, who died in 1996. The Times cites one dealer who will work with Paula Cooper, no spring chicken either. Lori Bookstein and Molly Krom are working the fairs. Others, like Hionas or Rooster, are taking stock, casing out other neighborhoods, and just plain wondering what comes next.

Third, the first two points are connected. Success breeds alternatives. That panel could afford to look ahead because it had the connections to do so—including clients, artists, estates, museums, and (yes) “brick and mortar galleries.” Others soldier along because they have no choice. Without exhibitions and reviews, artists and collectors alike may quickly defect. I have already reported on a dealer who cried for days after losing first a lease and then a prominent pop-up.

Last, the closings come at a cost—and not just to the dealers. Their former artists may now have a healthy CV and a deserved reputation, but others to come will go unnoticed. Rosen’s last exhibition introduced me to video, performance, and sculpture by Martha Friedman, but it will introduce me to living artists no more. Older dealers cannot serve the living forever anyway, not if they want to stay loyal to their artists, as they should. And that is why smaller midlevel dealers have an irreplaceable role, even in a ridiculously bloated art scene. Have they survived Hurricane Sandy only to become the victims of their success?

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

9.18.17 — A Cult of One

Alan Vega was always a cult figure. He was the front man for Suicide as early as 1970, shrieking and wailing with only Martin Rev behind him on keyboards or a drum kit, but few had yet heard of what they called punk music. They issued their first album in 1977, when CBGB’s was in its heyday, but he was more likely to perform at Max’s Kansas City or in a gallery.

Alan Vega's Stars (Invisible-Exports, 2016)He studied art, joined museum protests, and exhibited with one of Soho’s earliest and most influential dealers, O. K. Harris, but then he gave up his art for years. He found champions as powerful as Jeffrey Deitch, but at his death in 2016 he was not on the upscale dealer’s roster. As his wife put it, “He was never really part of the ‘art world.’ ”

Vega sought cult status not just in his music, but also in his art—and I have wrapped this in with a report on another who toyed with madness, Carol Rama, as longer review and my latest upload. Everything looks like a religious relic, but from a cult of one. A shadowy canvas could pass for a Byzantine icon, as seen just this summer at Invisible-Exports through July 29 (although, as you will see in a moment, you get a second chance to catch up with him). Scrap wood takes the shape of crosses. One assemblage incorporates Christmas lights. Titles speak of Prayer, Prophecy, Vision, and Screaming Jesus.

Vega had only recently returned to art, for portraits of what he called “old guys.” Are they saints or sinners? The gallery has a strong focus on conceptual art, gender, and the body. And it is hard not to encounter a room of men from the waist up and not think of all three. Many reduce to little more than empty clothing. They could be torn and stained fabric in its incarnations from Robert Rauschenberg and Magdalena Abakanowicz to Iva Gueorguieva and others today.

One can divide the work into portraits and light sculpture, but they come together as variations on a single installation. Additional lights train directly on the paintings. Seven portraits hung side by side, touching, could mark a shrine. Two works on paper from 1965 have the more crowded look of outsider art, but the same air of mystery. It is hard to know how is worshipping, who is worshipped, and why. It is hard, too, to know who is among the living.

Vega has entered self-abnegation territory, but then he did sing for Suicide. Art knows that territory well from bad boys like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, who loved the band. The lack of obvious humor takes Vega closer still to Andres Serrano and the latter’s “Piss Christ,” and the Jewish kid from Brooklyn did identify himself as Catholic. The installations, though, also suggest stage lighting. Does that make Vega’s subject only and always himself? At least he has the kindness to keep the viewer out of the spotlight.

Deitch may be late to the party, but he has helped a Lower East Side gallery get some serious press. A few weeks later, he also supplies some useful context. What counts as context for the spare insistence of punk rock? If you are thinking “more of the same,” Deitch Projects has still more lights and crosses, through September 30. A row on the mezzanine feels like a repeated pounding. So do images of a boxer.

The pounding might have crushed the faces in drawings from 2015 as well. It also translates into photographs and film. They show Vega as an art student and a rocker. They show him, too, reflecting on his critics, his cult, and his music. There as in life, he could claim a happy ending rather than a suicide. He died in his sleep at age seventy-eight.

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

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