10.30.17 — Still Bearing Witness

The art of Barbara Chase-Riboud should remind anyone to treat African Americans as critical to the mainstream, even were the followers of Donald J. Trump not determined to shut them out. Like Melvin Edwards, she is grounded in Modernism and resolutely abstract. Yet both in turn ground Modernism in a broader history, from slavery to Malcolm X.

They appeared in “Witness,” a show about the 1964 Civil Rights Act at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014, and both were in their mid-twenties at its passage. Fifty years later they are still bearing witness, in gallery exhibitions on a scale that a museum would envy, only much of what they see lies within. I wrote about them together in 2014 (along with an African American painter, Eugene J. Martin). Barbara Chase-Riboud's Matisse's Back in Twins (Michael Rosenfeld gallery, 1967/1994)Allow me, though, to revise my thoughts considerably in light of an incredible series by Chase-Riboud in memory of Malcolm X, at Michael Rosenfeld through November 4. It has me rethinking completely my hesitancy about her monuments. It also has me appreciating all the more her command of materials, her depth of color, and her play between a monument and its support.

Both artists have worked on public monuments, although Chase-Riboud also intends her series as sculpture for its own sake. Edwards completed his Homage to Poet Léon-Gontran Damas in 1981, for the State University of New York at Purchase. Damas, a founder of the Négritude movement of the 1930s, sought to affirm black identity in opposition to French colonialism. The monument’s circle, touched by uprights of welded steel, quite literally looks to Africa, taking its orientation from the sun. And his most recent work attests to over forty years of engagement with Africa, in his travels and with a studio in Senegal since 2000. He incorporates machetes and shackles in small constructions hung from the wall spanning fifteen years alone.

Chase-Riboud, too, has exhibited two broad bodies of work. Pencil sketches from 1997 proposed public monuments, while steles of bundled silk and bronze from roughly 2007 pay tribute to Malcolm X—as do bolder and larger monuments woven and cast in 2016 and 2017. A patina of black, red, or gold brings a shine to fine threads and thickly knotted cords, which mask the work’s support. Other steles take fabric as their subject as well as material, with a majestic robe for Chairman Mao or the stripes of a golden flag. She called her 2014 show “One Million Kilometers of Silk.” I lost count, but I can well believe it.

Both remain close, too, to late Modernism, much like another African American sculptor, Richard Hunt. Edwards relies on the same processes as Mark di Suvero. He also shares with di Suvero, a founder of Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens, a dedication to communities. For all his allusions to Africa and the slave trade, his materials belong to urban America as well. One recent series clusters its welded parts at the center of four-by-four wire grids, another on disks curving outward like hubcaps. They relate both to formalism and to the streets.

Chase-Riboud shares her dark mysteries with white artists herself, like the steles and Surrealism of Louise Nevelson or the craft and knotted fabric of Sheila Hicks—and she has lived in France for much of her career while casting bronze in Italy. Does she assert a woman’s pride as well as an African American’s in exile? Does all that blood red and shimmering gold have something to do with sex? A writer as well as a sculptor, she is best known for a novel about Sally Hemmings, Thomas Jefferson’s mistress and slave. And the subjects of those unfinished monuments run to the Marquis de Sade along with Nelson Mandela. Signs of bondage have more than one history.

Among the LA artists in “Now Dig This” in 2013 at MoMA PS1, Edwards was at his most abstract. Yet the title of his contribution alluded to the Watts rebellion. Chase-Riboud has her share of white role models, with proposed monuments to Lady Macbeth and Oscar Wilde as well as Malcolm X. Yet her overpowering sensuality also parallels African totems in women’s shoes for Willie Cole. Their reshaping of materials brings Edwards and Chase-Riboud closer to one another as well. Her silk takes on the solidity of his steel as if it were the work’s base, while he called a work from 1966 Cotton Hang-Up.

The question keeps recurring: is there a uniquely black abstraction, and is it then any less black or any less abstract? These artists move easily between Post-Minimalism and the world, with no apologies for either one. Her monuments may have no obvious relationship to their subjects, but her silk and bronze still trap one in their tangles and their shine. Both artists deserve much more credit alongside their white peers. Now, at last, Chelsea takes note.

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10.27.17 — A Marriage of Convenience

Omar Fast makes sure his videos are hard to follow. In fact, he makes it hard to know that video is even there.

Even if you have memorized the address and visited many times before, you may hesitate to enter, at James Cohan through October 29. Fast has restored a busy corner of the Lower East Side to its previous state, August Sander's Boxers. Paul Röderstein and Hein Hesse (ARS/Metropolitan Museum, c. 1928)as a mysterious business hidden behind a small convenience store. His gallery might have fallen off the earth or never come to be. Its sign is gone, apart from Chinese characters, and so is much in the way of space for a show.

Consider it a marriage of convenience between the fringes of Chinatown and of art. The resemblance to its past life is uncanny, earning him the anger of the Chinese American community for its “poverty porn”—right down to a glass counter for a token selection of cheap electronics and two ATMs, neither of which works. A monitor of the sort for bus schedules runs to no obvious purpose, not even to keep the shop’s owner halfway awake. The artist has redoubled the trickery, with the illusion of the illusion of an independent business apart from whatever lies behind a black curtain. He also redoubles the difficulty of his video, which plays continuously on that monitor. If you ever felt lost owing to walking into new media that were already running, here you have to dare yourself to walk in at all.

Fast’s videos are always hard to follow. In fact, they are so hard to follow that I can seriously question whether they are political art. That is quite a trick, given such past subjects as a suicide bombing, the interrogation of political refugees, and the generational consequences of the Nazi occupation. He combines deep focus and full color with shallow spaces and plenty of black. He also brings arbitrary cuts in time to the conventions of documentary realism—and documentary realism to the quandaries of the mind. A voice-over may explain the action without quite describing it, and the characters on screen may seem to have lost their voice.

Here the video dates from several years back, when the space might have held that very convenience store. It seems to be about a funeral, perhaps of someone you know. The voice-over describes not so much a particular funeral as the business, in lurid detail, but children flit in and out to make the loss theirs. Is it a matter of politics, real estate, business as usual, or life and death? The installation dances around much the same question. Is Fast dealing with gentrification, the fate of galleries, both, or nothing at all?

He is so infuriating because he is always holding out the urgency of politics and human lives—and never quite getting around to either one. He shares the puzzles of another politically inclined video artist, Artur Zmijewski, but in closer to a dream state. And here he gets dreamier still but just as morbid in a new video, in the back room. Something lies behind the curtain after all, only not the old neighborhood. August sounds like summer winding down and with it a greater optimism, but here it names a photographer. Where August Sander saw the Germany he knew as a catalogue of human archetypes, Fast makes Sanders one himself.

He shows the photographer at work in a wider landscape than the finished photographs ever show. The sitters look a little stiff but young and alive, and so does Sanders. And Fast frames them with Sanders as an older man, hardly able to raise his head from the ground. Further cuts add still another angle, something to do after all with Nazis and what they thought of his work. Politics and art could not get more urgent than that, not least since Sanders lost his son to the Nazis, but once again the video stops frustratingly short of their encounter. When the show ends, though, you may still feel haunted by what the gallery has swept away.

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10.25.17 — Continental Divides

When art turns to refugees, should it see more than lost lives and lost souls? Can it?

With Julio Bittencourt, it sees the dispossessed and homeless, even on the edge of a western city. With Paul Anthony Smith, it sees fences, with no going forward and no going back. With Richard Mosse, it sees camps in the harsh infrared gaze of their overseers. With “Perpetual Revolution” recently at the International Center of Photography, it sees a crisis. John Akomfrah has filmed a crisis as well, in the tide of races and peoples fleeing for Europe. Victor Davson's Jhandi Flag #5 (CCCADI, 2017)

What happens, then, when an institution sees not just the loss of a homeland, but the birth of a cultural resource? The Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (or CCCADI) dedicates itself to education and activism as well as the arts. And it sees those programs as the collective discovery of personal and creative identities. With “Liminal Spaces,” through October 26, it portrays that process as ongoing and uncertain, but hardly impossible. With space for just sixteen artists, all of Guyanese heritage, it finds itself between continents, on the way from Africa to South America and to a thriving community in New York City. It does not, though, think of that as such a bad place to be.

The institute’s very name sounds as if it has lost punctuation on its way across continents. Its location, too, places it on the border between Harlem and East Harlem. Its artists are not concerned for a post-black or post-African identity, since few of them have set aside the past and not all of them are African American. The curator, Grace Aneiza Ali, favors young artists, but for a diaspora spanning more than fifty years—since Guyana’s independence from the British in 1966. The exhibition title is ambiguous as well, with a sense of both thresholds and limits. Its vocabulary also shows it at ease with Postmodernism as well as tradition.

The artists have a vocabulary independent of both. A video by Mason Richards is neither a documentary nor new media. It follows a child’s arrival in a new land, moving between thoughts of his grandmother and the poetry of everyday life. Karran Sahadeo photographs a teenager immersed in her laptop, but in a dark interior out of a gothic romance. Red curtains blow inward without disturbing the stillness, crossed by shadows that align with those on the girl’s shirt. For all these artists, a liminal space includes both external forces and the mind.

Some speak directly of their roots and anxieties. Stanley Greaves adopts Surrealism for his Bread Man. Christie Neptune photographs a woman crocheting. “I had a hard time adapting to this culture,” the text says, but which culture? Keisha Scarville all but smothers herself in her mother’s clothes. Dominique Hunter allows a woman’s silhouette in wild flowers a graceful dance.

Some photograph literal borders, like a coastline for Michael Lam or the horizon for Khadija Benn, whose girl lies in a field out of Andrew Wyeth and Christina’s World. More often, though, they feel most at home in painting. Kwesi Abbensetts means his abstractions as This Old House, but one would never know it apart from the wood slats between canvases. Damali Abrams slips in a mermaid and Suchitra Mattai a woven fish, Donald Locke uses arrows for ascending and descending mountains, Victor Davson converts glitter into flags, and Carl Hazlewood compares his large canvas to a song, with perhaps the pins that cross it as notes. Arlington Weithers places acrylic and beads beneath a horizontal and empty wall—and he could be speaking for others when he calls it Crossing.

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10.23.17 — Mobiles in Motion

With his mobiles, Alexander Calder created sculpture so lively that one can use it to introduce Modernism to kids. Still, the stubborn child in me has always had a question: when are they going to move? The answer at last is now.

With “Hypermobility,” through October 23, the Whitney sets the mobiles in motion. One can see them as Calder intended—often for the first time since an initial display long ago. Alexander Calder's Circus, Tightrope Artists (Whitney Museum, 1926–1931)One can see, too, their central place in his art. Did his larger, static public sculpture introduce Modernism to corporate adults? When he hit on a back-formation, stabiles, to describe that work, he was reminding everyone what came first. So what if, by its very definition, it is already slipping away?

One really can use the mobiles to introduce sculpture to kids. They show that abstract art, too, gets to play around. The most familiar have the lightness of slim steel planes in black or fire-engine red, suspended by wire like a fancy chandelier on the verge of falling apart. Some incorporate imagery, such as fish, but all are teeming with life. One can take for granted that they do not even have to move, because of their potential for motion. It helps, though, to plan around the museum’s schedule, for when they do.

They move in more ways than one. The very first, starting in 1931, incorporate a hidden motor, and restoration took some doing. The show’s title suggests hyperactivity, but the changes are often barely perceptible, as a single ball rises while another just as slowly falls. Sculpture moves, but it demands that viewers slow down. Others respond to currents of ambient air, while still others require a museum staffer to give them a push, with a rod. Calder’s ingenuity or his early training as an engineer allows them to hold together during their not so simple harmonic motion.

Calder can seem a bit of a lightweight, but he started out heavier. The show holds just three dozen works, most from the Calder Foundation, with a stabile or two outside on the museum’s terraces. Double Cat from 1930, in carved wood, still lies face down on the floor, like a “primitive” totem that has come to ruin or taken a nap. The first mobiles make use of wood, too, along with motors and steel. One from 1941 looks like a boulder sprouting modern art. Only after World War II, with the artist approaching fifty, do they reach for the ceiling.

They also reflect his first encounters with abstraction. Their birth coincided with Calder’s Paris years—the subject of a larger show at the Whitney in 2009. Background planes make some look almost like paintings, perhaps of constellations. The curators, Jay Sanders with Greta Hartenstein and Melinda Lang, throw in a few static bronze spirals as well, to point to their affinity with modern sculpture. He got to know Fernand Léger and Piet Mondrian, whom he urged to experiment with motion as well. He kept returning, though, to the perpetual motion machine of New York City.

Marcel Duchamp himself coined the term mobile, with a pun on the French for motive, which makes sense. They not only move, but also derive their impetus from within. They also encourage the motives of others, like the staffer with a pole. In concerts during the show’s run, musicians and sound artists like Christian Marclay can use them as settings, themes, or instruments. They may still feel caught between clumsiness and lightness—like Calder’s Circus, long a fixture at the Whitney on Madison Avenue. Yet they refuse to sit still.

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10.20.17 — Between Colors

Joel Meyerowitz might seem an unlikely champion of color. He emerged from commercial photography only to set it aside, like Diane Arbus. He had discovered alternatives in the blacks and whites of Robert Frank and Eugène Atget.

He made his name in the 1960s with street photography, much like Arbus or Garry Winogrand—with people not for what they wear, but for the strangeness of who they are and what they do. A man in black and a woman in white kiss because opposites attract, because it is New Year’s Eve, Joel Meyerowitz's Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1977 (Howard Greenberg gallery, 1977/2017)and because the marquee above does say Kiss Me, Stupid. Another couple points at cross-purposes, as if in search of ways to deny the model whale behind them in, of course, shades of gray. Meyerowitz obtained exclusive access to Ground Zero after September 11, when mere appearances must have seemed beside the point when not ground to dust.

He prefers twilight to the steamy afternoons of William Eggleston, who did so much to make color respectable. For Meyerowitz, not even a rosebush looks plain red. It stands between a faded porch and withered ground, much as a 2013 publication (actually photos from the 1970s reprinted as recently as 2017) translates a French expression for dusk as “Between the Dog and the Wolf.” When he turns to still-life, he ditches the designer colors close to abstraction of Jan Groover. For him, the photographic object is an old watering can on a faded ledge against a pale yellow wall. He calls the resulting series “Morandi, Cézanne, and Me”—and who could have more exacting and understated colors than Giorgio Morandi?

Yet he was a champion of color, even before his first book, in 1979. A solo show celebrates the transition with an alcove for black and white and a small room for color. And then it assembles the two recent series out front, at Howard Greenberg through October 21. They suggest that color for Meyerowitz has less to do with surfaces than with objects and light. (He called that very first book, at age forty, Cape Light and another Tuscany: Inside the Light.) It also has to do with what Sigmund Freud called the uncanny.

Meyerowitz turned onto color in a big way, even before he turned to landscape and still-life. Try to decide which looks funnier or more unnerving in that small room—women in matching prints or in clashing one-color dresses. Maybe it freed him from the search for the creepiest personality or the creepiest incident. Maybe it freed him, too, from the search for the perfect moment. With twilight, it places him between moments, much as he called past series Bay/Sky and At the Water’s Edge. With Morandi and Paul Cézanne, it also places him between an earlier realism and Modernism.

Outdoors, his compositions come almost ready-made. While people are few, two girls pose on a wall without undue encouragement. Someone with an eye for real-estate values erected that rosebush or built a gate opening onto the ocean at Fort Lauderdale. Meyerowitz has only to place them in the center of the frame. Saint Louis placed its Gateway Arch nearly up against its cathedral. Provincetown ensured that a building looks suspiciously like the Bates Motel in Psycho, and nature ensured that the sun and moon could share a darkening sky.

They also share an unnatural light. Contrasting neon colors cover the sides of a house, and actual neon lights reflect in car windows at a food shack as rippling curves. Colors grow more nuanced in still-life, including a glorious array of scratches on the ledge. Both Morandi and Cézanne used color to construct space, and so does he. They also left the construction forever incomplete, much as Meyerowitz photographs more enigmatic objects in dark corners. A sign on a fence at sunset resembles the glaring white of an LED, because people are finally catching onto the enigma.

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