9.15.17 — When Great Artists Borrow

Robert Rauschenberg did not traffic in stolen property. Yet few have taken more risks in the name of art.

Everything may seem, barely, above board. Rauschenberg bought the toilet paper of his black paintings over the counter, and he rescued the soiled bedding of a shocking combine painting from the trash. Yet no one else can bring art so close to criminal conduct. And no work comes as close to a defacement of private and public property as his Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953. Robert Rauschenberg's Canyon (Sonnabend Collection, gift to Museum of Modern Art, 1959)

At least critics at the time thought so, but Willem de Kooning handed over a drawing knowing full well what would become of it. The older artist did not just go along with the game either. He got into it, selecting a composition with several figures that he knew would be difficult to erase. In Rauschenberg’s recollections, the number of erasers and the time it took kept growing with each retelling. Jasper Johns got into the game, too, supplying a frame and a label as integral parts of the work. If Rauschenberg committed vandalism, he had partners in crime.

The Museum of Modern Art takes collaboration as its theme, for a mammoth retrospective—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review in my latest upload. It places the artist “Among Friends,” through September 17, including work with and by others along with the breadth of his career. It argues for his art as interdisciplinary, egalitarian, and open. It helps in understanding his frequent shifts in substance, style, media, and materials, as he kept up with friends and influenced them in turn. People like to say that good artists borrow, but great artists steal. MoMA sees Rauschenberg as not just borrowing, but repaying the loan with interest.

The line about stealing comes in several versions (sometimes with copy in place of borrow), and Pablo Picasso may or may not have coined it. That confusion only adds to its assault on the “originality of the avant-garde“—and who more than Rauschenberg led the assault? Robert Hughes long blamed Andy Warhol for ruining modern art, like the Huns descending on classical civilization, but Rauschenberg was the consummate vandal. He took the readymade from Dada, with all its refusal of art, and turned it into appropriation, with all its refusal of art apart from the world. It made him a founder of Pop Art and a leading influence on the turn away from painting with the “Pictures generation” after 1980. It allowed him to work, as he liked to say, in the gap between art and life.

For MoMA, it also makes him a natural collaborator. Right out front stand classics of Pop Art from the museum’s collection, like Warhol’s Marilyn and a soft telephone by Claes Oldenburg. Already Rauschenberg is among friends. The exhibition proper then opens in 1950 with ghostly blue photograms by him and his wife at the time, Susan Weil. They took turns posing and photographing the other. For one, she adjusted the light sources so that he appears twice in collaboration, as if holding his own hands.

Collaboration sounds ever so reasonable and cuddly. Maybe great artists do steal, and none more than Rauschenberg—and I was more cogent in reviews of the Rauschenberg retrospective twenty years ago and his combine paintings in 2006, so I hope that you will have time to read about them as well. Still, this show is overwhelming for good reason, because so is Rauschenberg. It may even overturn one version of him, along with its own theme. I had always written off the lightness of cardboard boxes from the 1960s and the seemingly endless late silkscreens to reliance on assistants, but maybe they represent a falling off in collaboration instead. Starting in 1962, he spent much of the year in Florida, to recover the “isolation needed for productivity.” He began delegating more than collaborating. By his death in 2008, he could steal from no one but himself.

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

9.13.17 — You Say You Want . . .

We Wanted a Revolution.” It sounds like an expression of failure or despair. It sounds, too, after John Lennon’s “Revolution” (or on the centennial of the Russian revolution), like a declaration of what no one should have wanted at all.

Instead, the exhibition celebrates twenty years of black women artists in context of their radicalism. It opens in 1965, when revolution was in the air, and ends with political art as the mainstream. In between, it hints at uncertainty as to where art or politics begins or ends. Beverly Buchanan's Untitled (Slab Works 1) photo from estate of the artist/Jane Briggs, private collection, c. 1978)

The Brooklyn Museum displays just forty artists, through September 17, few of them household names. Yet the show stretches in all directions from just outside The Dinner Party, by Judy Chicago, where a history of women seems all encompassing and all affirming, to the point of sentimental. It can because the names keep coming, including the names of collectives in art, in performance, and in protest. Spiral, AfriCOBRA, the Art Worker’s Collective, the Black Art Movement—it gets hard to remember them all. The first began with black males, but Romare Bearden, Normal Lewis, and Charles Alston invited Emma Amos to join them, and women assumed a greater and greater role. Ana Mendieta curated “an exhibition of Third World women artists of the United States” at A.I.R. in 1980, including broken columns by Beverly Buchanan, and Linda Goode Bryant founded her gallery, Just Above Midtown (or JAM).

At the center of the room outside The Dinner Party, Elizabeth Catlett combines curves and hollows out of Constantin Brancusi, an arm raised in a salute to black power, and the cedar of folk art and craft. Modern art, it says, can get along just fine with politics and community. Betye Saar says much the same with an assemblage akin to a Joseph Cornell box but mirrored, as Black Girl’s Window. So do Jae Jarrell’s fashion designs, paintings by Faith Ringgold that recall quilting, and Ringgold’s mural destined for the prison on Riker’s Island. So more obliquely does the show’s largest work—including a cloak of black bronze and wool by Barbara Chase-Riboud, black wire sheaves by Maren Hassinger, or (in a photo) hosiery sagging down from an open window as Rapunzel by Senga Nengudi. More often, though, artists seemed way too busy protesting to think of art.

They had a lot to protest, including the paucity of women in museums. Posters have the psychedelic colors of the 1960s and harsh edges closer to woodcuts. Jarrell’s husband depicts Angela Davis in the style of an album cover by Jimi Hendrix. A torrent of documents appears throughout. Whatever is near monochrome by Howardena Pindell doing here at all, for all the density of color and cut paper like crushed eggshells? Well, she did lead a protest against “The Nigger Paintings” by a white male at Artists Space in 1979.

Like “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” before it, the show works better as history than as art. It is also a narrow history. One might never know that a black male, Tony Whitfield, joined Pindell’s protest—as did Lucy Lippard, the white critic, and Ingrid Sischy, entering her term as the white editor of Artforum. One might never know, too, that art addressed poverty, apart from etchings by Kay Brown, or that Mendieta was Latino. Still, it is a lively history of race and gender. Catlett’s Target zeroes in on an African American male head, while a woman with her breasts swing open to reveal a red light, thanks to Alison Saar.

The curators, Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley, gain from the mix of media. Blondell Cummings treats the drudgery of housework as modern dance, before it induces a seizure. They also gain from the politics of the “Pictures generation“—although “Pictures,” the 1977 exhibition at Artists Space, had no black women at all. Three years later, Lorraine O’Grady subverts standards of beauty as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, while Coreen Simpson brings the glamour of fashion shoots to a Harlem church. Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems have their caustic encounters between photography and text. There is a lot to remember and, as Weems concludes, “Don’t you forget it!!!”

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

9.11.17 — Emissaries to a Common Culture

Ian Cheng and Maureen Gallace invite you on a journey through time and space. Cheng’s animations and Gallace’s paintings unfold in unfamiliar landscapes and disturbing times, or so they would like you to know—and I have grouped them with past reviews on landscapes with less than transparent meanings as a longer review and my latest upload.

His Emissaries took him just three years but covers untold millennia and the course of civilizations. “Clear Day” took her twenty-five years in search of “our common culture” and New England. Maureen Gallace's Summer House/Dunes (MoMA PS1, 2009)Robert Frank and The Americans have nothing on this project. Yet the real shocker is how little is going on.

Cheng’s leisurely pace is all the more surprising since he worked in a platform for the design of video games. He is also streaming the trilogy on Twitch, known for games that test a player’s reaction times, successively over the course of the exhibition. It plays out simultaneously at MoMA PS1 as well, through September 12. The LA artist has worked with Paul Chan and Pierre Huyghe, and he signals the work’s importance by its sheer size, with projections up to ten feet tall—two of them roughly as wide as The Last Supper. He signals it, too, with such evidently profound titles as In the Squat of Gods, At Perfection, and Sunsets the Self. If that sounds in need of translation from the original artspeak, they also come with enough wall text to occupy civilization for a long time to come.

They have something to do with the very idea of “cognitive evolution” in the face of “social and ecological forces.” In the first, life on the edge of a volcano suffers from brutal conquests while a duly cute heroine finds her way. In the second, the active volcano has given way to a more comforting crater lake, but the living destroy one another anyway. In the last, the life force has become oceanic, but not enough to stop further collapse. They involve leaders by the name of AI and Mother AI, presumably not the three-toed sloth native to South America and crossword puzzles. Artificial intelligence never quite lives up to its name in the present century either.

For all that, the look is welcoming and progress is glacial. People wiggle, fires burn, and something much like an uprooted shed or tree tumbles closer to earth. Birds fly past and dogs wander in, but no one seems to be going anywhere special. Snow-capped lands give way to gentle contrasts and warm colors. Cheng’s true gift may lie in creating a space for contemplation—more like Doug Wheeler and his Synthetic Desert than anime. Let me know when the emissaries arrive.

Gallace has a lot on her mind as well. She speaks of genre painting, although it looks nothing like the Mississippi for George Caleb Bingham in the nineteenth century. She speaks, too, of disturbances and disconnections in rural America—and a reflection of everything from a divided nation to the economics of home ownership and powerful financial institutions. In reality, she keeps returning to familiar territory, in the Connecticut suburbs and on Cape Cod, and nothing much seems to change over the years. A grouping by subject only heightens the similarities. The creamy textures, spare colors, bare geometries for shelters, and looser brushwork for vegetation are reasonably skilled but thoroughly conventional.

They stick to the daylight brightness of summer and snow, from shorelines and beach houses to barns and suburban homes. True, Gallace bars access, with no people, no clear roadways, and a near absence of doors or windows—but that simplification is common enough in Modernism or realism today. I could see it again recently with Sweden for Rita Lundqvist or with gallery exteriors haunted by pillars of light for Adam Gordon, at Chapter NY through April 23. Gallace’s most evocative landscape may well be MoMA PS1. More than fifty panels as small as notebook paper spread out across eight rooms, ceding space to the surrounding white walls. When it comes to the politics of art and real estate, “too big to fail” has nothing on the museum.

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

9.8.17 — To Make You See

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Does that make Joseph Conrad a painter, and what of a near contemporary from across the Atlantic? With “Henry James and American Painting,” through September 10, the Morgan Library would like you, too, to see.

Conrad wrote those words in 1897, on the verge of his greatest works. From the preface to “The Nigger of the Narcissus,” they attest all by themselves to the urgency of the written word. John Singer Sargent's Henry James (National Portrait Gallery, London, 1913)Could they apply to a somewhat older novelist, then also in England and soon to enter his major period as well? It may sound unlikely, if Henry James makes you think of a disdain for appearances. He hated Impressionism and took only the faintest interest in what came after. He seems more determined to make you confused, to make you mired in his syntax, and before all to make you think.

Yet James did write The Portrait of a Lady, and he sure knew portraits. He sat for John Singer Sargent, and he knew Sargent’s New England, London, and Italy by heart. He knew another American expatriate in James McNeill Whistler as well. He took art lessons when young, compared writing well to artistry, created an aspiring sculptor in Roderick Hudson, and lived and worked among artists. He paid a studio visit to William Morris Hunt, advised a sculptor on how to find a market, and shared impressions of Europe with John La Farge. He wrote “The Aspern Papers” while paying frequent visits to Frank Duveneck—a portrait painter whom James called “the unsuspected genius.”

Duveneck married a student, Elizabeth Boott, and James encouraged her, too. According to the curators, Colm Tóibín and Declan Kiely, she also served as a model for the vulnerable heroine of Washington Square, the illegitimate daughter of a treacherous husband in The Portrait of a Lady, and the increasingly suspicious heroine of The Golden Bowl. She may or may not have recognized herself—or felt halfway flattered. The exhibition has portraits by all these artists, with several of James. It has scenes of Florence and Venice by Sargent, London fog by Whistler, photographs, and documents. To underscore its theme, Tóibín is a novelist and critic.

It is less than convincing all the same, as either the key to the novels or as art. James moved among wealth, and much of the show reflects the conservatism of American art entering the twentieth century. Many of the artists on view are half-remembered and conventional—including the sole American Impressionist, Lilla Cabot Perry. Boott’s gilded funeral effigy, by her husband, is downright embarrassing. The sole hint of Modernism comes in a photo, with James inspecting a painting by Arthur B. Davies. Try to convince yourself that he was learning rather than judging.

Nor should it should come as a revelation that writers mingle with artists. Michelangelo as a poet, anyone, or the expansive circles of Gertrude Stein, Florine Stettheimer, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol? It deserves more attention, too, that those relationships change with the times—from shared patronage by the powerful to the shared alienation of the avant-garde. James lies somewhere in between, and it shows in the anxiety and betrayals of his novels. But then Conrad had his greatest success in the murk of characters, morals, and language as well. Think of that verbose and badly punctuated run-on sentence.

Still, the parallels between literature and art extend beyond the slow emergence of the American modern. Whistler could almost have been speaking of James when he titled a portrait Arrangement in Black and Brown. The sudden glimpses of light amid theater and darkness in Sargent suggest the later fiction as well. His portrait of James in 1913, three years before the writer’s death, is the most penetrating in the show. Then again, a sentence or two further into his preface, Conrad could have been describing them all. He may seek appearances, but for “encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”

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

9.6.17 — The Savage Mind

Carol Rama liked to say that she painted to cure herself. Do not believe it for a second. Over seventy years of her art, she kept finding new ways to sustain and to relish the disease.

Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease, and her busy retrospective at the New Museum, through September 10, opens in an asylum. The only surprise is that she is not an inmate. A self-portrait at age twenty, in 1937, already takes a wry look at herself and her madness. Carol Rama's Appassionata (photo by Studio Gonella, GAM Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin, 1940)Its flat colors and yellow background recall German Expressionism, but she leans on one hand with a mix of girlish innocence and composure. The rest of the room, though, tosses both to the winds. Dozens of watercolors from 1936 to 1944 revel in the madness.

Men and, especially, women bare their flesh, in contortions that thrust their breasts and butts at the viewer. They seem to have no substance beyond their skin and no background beyond a wheelchair or hospital bed. One woman lies beneath an ominous rack of belts, like a massive instrument of torture, but the watercolor’s title speaks of passion—or rather Appassionata, as in Beethoven. It could have existed in quite another room of the asylum, as storage for nasty means of restraint, or entirely in her mind. Other women draw snakes into or out of their bodies. They could be turning pleasure into sin or sin into pleasure.

Rama had every reason to question her sanity. She lost her father to bankruptcy and suicide and was visiting her mother all those years in the clinic in Turin. Somehow, though, she had found a home. In her watercolors it has shoes, for clothing or a fetish, and shovels, to clean up after the mess. “The entire world looks like this,” she told herself. “That helps me a lot.”

Her world continued to look like this until well into her eighties, when her output slowed ten years before her death in 2005. She followed the watercolors with more detailed, flat, and grisly etchings of much the same things, as “bodies without organs,” and she returned to etchings near the end. By then she was also designing clothing and, yes, shoes. Earlier the snakes and restraints had become rubber belts slashed off of used tires, recalling the bicycle factory that her father had owned, protruding limply out of more abstract paintings—and now the tortured flesh had become tortured black oil. “I like to paint everything black,” she added. “A wonderful joy.”

The curators, Helga Christoffersen and Massimiliano Gioni, quote Rama often in wall text. It helps in pinning down the continuity and contradictions in her art. Between her self-taught style and her mad subjects, she can seem the ultimate in outsider art. She had, though, shifting encounters with the latest European art, only starting with German Expressionism. She associated with the Italian version of Art Concrete, which encouraged her move to abstraction, although she had little patience for plain geometry. Her heavily worked surfaces give her a place with Art Brut and Arte Povera as well.

Not even madness was entirely out of her control. She moves to murkier canvases in the 1940s, with seeds and rice mixed into paint. Eyes and stars merge with blackness. She approaches geometry again in the 1970s, with those rubber strips, before a final return to representation. Materials include textiles, raw canvas, syringes, and human teeth. The naughty bits alone mark her as a feminist. They bring her closer to Lara Favaretto and Marisa Merz, also in Italy, as well as to Joyce Pensato or Betty Tompkins in New York today.

When she speaks of bodies without organs or of a cure, the museum takes her at her word. It calls her retrospective “Antibodies,” for a pun on both. Still, I wonder. “I love fetishes,” she also said, and she finds new versions of painting as fetish with each decade. She may allude to that as well with a series of Bricolages, a word that Claude Lévi-Strauss in anthropology used to describe “the savage mind.” It means making do with the materials at hand, rather than following the rules. Frustrating and wearying as it can be, it also describes her art.

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

9.4.17 — A Museum’s Visions

The Guggenheim Museum has every right to speak of visionaries. It built its collection on early Modernism, and it has a wing for Wassily Kandinsky alone.

Its building, too, is the work of a visionary. It might have descended on a city block from above, and it attracts crowds who would otherwise feel more at home with Hollywood special effects than with modern art or Manhattan. Wassily Kandinksy's White Line (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1920)It even looks like a UFO. For a time, though, the artists and architect must share credit with others. With “Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim,” through September 6, the museum pays tribute to its founders—and itself. Even if you know the collection by heart, you will encounter an unfamiliar vision.

The show opens with Kandinsky, but successive levels then pick up the small circle that helped Solomon R. Guggenheim build the collection and take it public—and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. By introducing one collector at a time, it presents a short history of modern art as well. Despite itself, the museum also calls attention to its limits. The exhibition comes to an abrupt end with the opening of that six-story spiral on Fifth Avenue and the birth of Abstract Expressionist New York. Could their vision belong to a now distant past? Maybe not by accident, it also comes just a few months after the Guggenheim positions itself in today’s global art market, with a gold toilet by Maurizio Cattelan.

The Guggenheim is no ordinary museum, quite apart from its round peg in the urban grid’s square holes. The Whitney has moved, in no small part to display its growing collection—while MoMA has grown, slighting its collection on behalf of flash and real estate. The Guggenheim, in contrast, still depends on its quirky origins and architecture. The ramp puts temporary exhibitions at a disadvantage, while the permanent collection has to settle for two modest tower galleries. One displays the Justin K. Thannhauser collection of art from Camille Pissarro to early Picasso. The other limits itself to Wassily Kandinsky and inventing abstraction.

With “Visionaries,” looking gets a little easier, although the focus has hardly changed. The Guggenheim has congratulated itself before, with exhibitions centering on its first director, Hilla Rebay, and its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Now they become just two points in a complicated time line. Just keeping track of the museum’s precursors, locations, and changing names takes some doing. It is also worth the effort. The show becomes the story of half a dozen individuals and an expanding vision of modern art.

It starts, though, on familiar ground, with Kandinsky at his grandest and most lyrical. His abstraction holds the ramp off the rotunda and the adjacent High Gallery. For a moment, the museum looks like a pretty decent place to view art. That will change, but Kandinsky will reappear more than once as a touchstone of abstraction in the twentieth century. Wall text throughout mostly sticks to the work, too. This is about visionaries, but first and foremost their vision.

Does its abrupt end with Jackson Pollock leave the story just incomplete—or is a museum dedicated to the new no longer able to spread the news? One need not decide, for the show ends with a sparkling turning point. Pollock’s 1947 Alchemy, on loan from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, has the impasto of his Surrealist phase and the all-over impulse of his drip paintings. Newly cleaned, its colors gleam amid the thick black oil. For all the points in the show’s time line, it has no floor for Solomon R. Guggenheim alone. As Pollock attests, he could defer to competing visions.

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

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