10.16.17 — Massive or Spare?

Was Minimalism massive or spare? Was it an art of big boxes and steel plates—or bare lines and empty rooms?

How about none of the above? For Kazuko Miyamoto, it could could hold the wall or spin out across a gallery. Dating from a time of industrial materials, it could insist on the handmade, the irregular, the repetitive, or the imagination. Work from the late 1960s through 1980, at Zürcher through October 22, helps recover a woman in abstraction for today. Kazuko Miyamoto's Star Piece, 9th Precinct (Zürcher, 1979)

Born in Tokyo, Miyamoto came to New York in 1964 to be a painter. She studied at the Art Students League, already past its prime as a nurturer of Abstract Expressionism. Like others then, she retained broad brushwork, while stripping down to simpler geometries. She also began to engage the wall. Maroon on black from 1969 resembles brickwork, like paintings by Sean Scully, but as Progression of Rectangles. From that point on, she treats the art object as a solid, but also as a source of optical activity and motion.

Massive and spare went together in those days, much as work by Carl Andre kept to the floor under its own weight. When Frank Stella turned the wood of his stretchers sideways, so that it comes further out from the wall, he insisted that painting can bear weight, too. When Richard Serra flung lead, he had begun to spill out into space as well, but one had sure better get out of his way. When Richard Tuttle bisected a gallery in thread or Sol LeWitt drew a dizzying array of lines, they were making wall paintings. Rosalind E. Krauss included all these artists in a legendary show of “Line as Language,” at Princeton University in 1974, along with Mel Bochner, Robert Morris, and Dorothea Rockburne. Miyamoto should have one seeing the line as much as the wall or the language.

She had already discovered a concern for line in LeWitt. They had studios in the same building in 1968, along with Adrian Piper, and met outside during a fire alarm. (She still lives on the Lower East Side at age seventy-five, and she exhibited nearby at Invisible-Exports in 2014.) As a studio assistant, she worked on his wall paintings and open cubes. She began to incorporate parallel marks into her drawings, including grids of dabbed ink and plus signs, too. They may allude to traditional Japanese calligraphy and the game of Go as well.

Galleries and museums have been looking for parallels to Minimalism in other nations, such as Grupo Frente in Brazil and Mono-ha in Japan. They have also been seeing these movements as sites of personal expression and gendered identity. (Hélio Oiticica, a gay from Brazil, spent the 1970s in New York.) Gender enters Miyamoto’s art with a break from the wall. She described dense arrays of string nailed to the wall and floor, from 1974 and 1978, as female and male, and do not go thinking of the “purity” of white as female or blackness as male. The show includes recreations of both.

They build on her drawings, but they take their full shape only as one walks past them. They also nearly dissolve into light. Paper ladders hang instead from above. They recall Joan Miró or a rope ladder to the moon. The gallery accompanies the show with a Japanese poet’s tribute to Miyamoto, as if she lived only in memory. If her imagery is any indication, she has already moved on.

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

10.13.17 — Gentlemen and Giants

Before you get too far into French drawing at the Morgan Library, you might stop to compare two striking examples on facing walls. If you think of the Baroque as high drama or ornate, they seem to set you alone with their subjects. If you think of the classical age as academic, the Royal Academy was still years away.

Pencil outlines by Jacques Bellange barely contain his brown ink washes and the paper’s creamy whites, as they alternate freely down the page. Nor can they quite contain the blinded giant leaning on his cane—or the goddess on his shoulder, leaning down to offer him a smile, a hand, and a guide. Claude Lorrain's Hilly Landscape with Bare Trees (Morgan Library, 1639–1641)They might extend to you as well. Just a turn of the head away, Daniel Dumonstier uses four colors of chalk for the portrait of a gentleman. They bring clarity to the arc of an eyelid, the glint of an eye, the pursed lips, the bridge of his nose, and the points of his mustache and goatee. They also bring a high flourish to every curl of his hair and fold of his ruff collar.

Poussin, Claude, and French Drawing in the Classical Age” is an overflowing study in contrasts, through October 15. You can see the erudition of artists and audiences familiar with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, poetry, and myth—and sharp eyes concerned for nature and appearances. You can see competing bases for art in Versailles, the royal palace at Fontainebleau, and the ducal court of Lorraine, at Nancy. You can see the growing importance of drawing as central to an artist’s working methods and as finished product—for patronage, for sale, for mounting in albums, or for production in series. Dumonstier had a reputation for his four-chalk technique and for entertaining his sitters while he worked. You can see why he was in demand.

Think of them not as conflicting impulses or as tensions within the art. Think of them rather as the nexus of beliefs and practices that define the high style of the 1600s. Throw in the devotion of French Catholics—and try not to worry that the Inquisition had Sébastien Bourdon, a Protestant, on the run. This was the Grand Siècle, or great century, for both royal power and the Baroque. It drew on Italy, from Caravaggio to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, even before the king recalled Simon Vouet to France in 1627. Overwhelmed with commissions and intrigues at the French court, Nicolas Poussin hightailed it back to Rome in 1642 as fast as he could.

The Frick went into greater depth fifteen years ago, with loans from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. (Pardon me if I leave a fuller and more helpful look to my review then.) The Morgan has turned to the same century with “Rembrandt’s World” in 2012—and to later French drawing with “Fragonard and the French Tradition” in 2006, “Rococo to Revolution” in 2008, and Théodore Rousseau and the Barbizon school in 2014. Here the curators, Jennifer Tonkovich and Marco Simone Bolzoni, trace the influence of the court, the birth of a print culture, and a budding market in collectors (like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe more than a century later). They end with the consolidation of artistic practice in the Academy and the royal collection under Charles Le Brun. Fewer than fifty drawings, almost all from the Morgan’s collection, make a compact introduction.

As the show’s title suggests, they give the most space to Nicolas Poussin and Claude Gellée, better known as Claude Lorrain. Nowhere else is the mix of classicism, piety, observation, and creativity more apparent. With Poussin’s Death of Hippolytes from 1645, real horses run wild past a crag, a mythic chariot overturns, and a tidy pyramid collapses with them. In his study soon after for The Holy Family on the Steps, black chalk adds stabs of insight, and shadows are a torrent of ink and wash. Anne and the infant Saint John have a greater activity than in the painting, and such props as a towel and plant life have not yet given way to its eerie perspective. Claude lends Apollo with a herd of goats both a greater naturalism and a higher polish, while the crossing diagonals of hills, clouds, houses, and trees take on both a greater depth and a supernatural energy.

Claude may have worked from the view out his studio window in Rome or on the spot, only to enhance clouds and reflected sunlight later on. An artist known only as Lagneau may have sketched a peasant’s raised hair and crooked mouth, much as August Sander sought social and psychological archetypes in the twentieth century—or he may have posed a workshop assistant and added his imagination. Charles Mellin definitely played with actual and trompe l’oeil architecture in designing a fresco over an arch. Building on a The Visitation by Pontormo from 1528, Laurent de la Hyre allows Mary and Elizabeth a very human warmth, but also a Renaissance bulk and a perfect balance. Earlier, Vouet treats Louis XIII informally, but also apart from details of clothing that might make him a mere mortal. Gentlemen, too, might be giants.

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10.12.17 — Understated and Overstood

Sanford Biggers wants you to listen. He punctuates his latest work with gunshots—and his images with torn bodies, towering fields of black, and colors running every which way. With one major party giving aid and comfort to bigots and Neo-Nazis, he evokes everything from African totems and decorative arts to Black Lives Matter.

Yet he also challenges one to pin any of his images down. On top of that, he calls the show and its centerpiece Selah, at Marianne Boesky through October 21. Sometimes it takes courage to resist interpretation, so permit me (after last time on another African American artist, Kara Walker) another extra post this week to keep up with the busy early fall.

That centerpiece is larger than life, but only barely, and other work may run comically small. Selah stands nearly eleven feet tall, but only because the human figure has its hands raised, either to avoid a deadly police response or in the throes of death. Patches of red, white, black, and blue heighten its jagged outlines, and one lower leg is entirely shot away.

A bronze head on a pedestal shows off a bullet hole more directly, in place of an eye. The flat bronze recalls African art and the “primitivism” of early Modernism, and the single eye more reasonable in a profile connects to Cubism as well. Someone might have taken a gun to a museum artifact or a human being, but then art may disfigure the humanity of others, too.

Overstood combines the show’s scales, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether Biggers has overstated or understood. A black triangle connects three small African gods on the floor to the black outlines of four men on the wall, like enormous cast shadows. Do they draw on iconic photographs of black activists forty years ago? Should one be worshipping gods or men? Gunfire rings out regularly in a video of still more totems, its five channels blinking on and off in a further rhythm. Yet the monitors receive a kind of demotion, too, relegated to leaning up against a corner.

They also bear glimpses of landscape and the title Infinite Tabernacle. Registering the past does not exclude the possibility of renewal. The bright colors of Selah derive from tapestry, and actual tapestry goes into wall pieces—along with charcoal, acrylic, mirrored tiles, and gold leaf. Sources range from Japan and Egypt to America more than a century ago. To trust the artist, they served as markers for the Underground Railroad. With work so all over the map, I can promise only so much.

Speaking of resisting interpretation, you may remember selah as a refrain of uncertain meaning in the Psalms. After years of rock concerts, I want it to signal a guitar break or an invitation to audience response. And his show at SculptureCenter in 2011 went for volume. Maybe Biggers is learning eclecticism from Rashid Johnson or reticence from David Hammons. Maybe he could agree with Walker in refusing to stand for a people or a generation just a few blocks away. Still, selah.

Leslie Wayne has a taste for African tapestry, too. She appeared just this year in “Africa on My Mind” at the Houston Museum of African American Culture. Still, she is using the decorative arts much like Biggers, to unsettle abstract painting, with its own refusal of interpretation. A white artist born in Germany, she paints and rubs away at her painting, crinkles it up, and attaches it to more painting. It may fold over the top of the backdrop, as if hanging out to dry, at Jack Shainman through October 21. Even routine geometry and gesture can be an opening onto multiple cultures—or an opening into the third dimension.

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10.11.17 — After Subtlety

Kara Walker is out to try your patience, through October 14. Her very title sounds like the words of a carnival huckster, and one hardly knows where the boasting stops and the irony begins.

An absence of lowercase letters turns up the volume that much more, but allow me to supply them to stay halfway sane: “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!” So there. The funny thing is that it may well be true. Kara Walker's A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (Creative Time, 2014)

It is hard to say, too, where the long title leaves off and the press release begins. “The Final President of the United States will visibly wince,” she concludes. “Empires will fall, although which ones, only time will tell.” Plainly she, too, is losing patience, like so many others in the age of Trump. Sketching in ink, often on mammoth sheets of paper, she seems barely to keep up with events or her outrage. Her loosely assembled figures become collectively a game of “Where’s Donald,” as in “Where’s Waldo” for a child president.

Walker is just as impatient with her audience. “Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media.” She speaks as the artist whose plantation stereotypes in silhouette made her career, but seemed to critics a passive acceptance of what she hated. She has defended Dana Schutz, a white artist who tackled the death of Emmett Till in the 2017 Whitney Biennial—and Till’s corpse, wrapped like a mummy, may pass through this show as if rescued from a burning building. Walker spoke as a defender of artistic freedom, but she was speaking from experience. And experience is a harsh master, because the lynchings and other violence in her drawings seem all too contemporary and all too real.

Her critics have always missed the point. Not every African American has to offer role models in her art. Portraits by Titus Kaphar or Kehinde Wiley are cheerful enough, but racism is not pretty—no more than Till’s mutilated face in an open casket. Neither, for that matter, is anger. Walker has a respect for history, but also the fierce energy of now. She has not lost her sense of humor, but she is feeling the pain.

How much has she changed since her plantation days? She is glad you asked. “Art Historians will wonder whether the work represents a Departure or a Continuum.” The silhouettes reappear in one work, but on white linen whose ripples shine. A few drawings appear on linen, with oil stick. Dredging the Quagmire puns on Trump’s promises to drain the swamp, but its opaque background makes a woman’s struggle to escape the quagmire seem that much more desperate. They make a point of their hasty or unruly assemblage, with hardly a trace of color but with plenty of heat.

They also make a point of their knowledge of art history, including white art history. Titles allude to Edward Kienholz and Albert Pinkham Ryder, in a spirit of tribute as well as mockery. The Pool Party of Sardanapalus combines the tawdry affairs of suburbia for Eric Fischl and an Assyrian king’s harem for Eugène Delacroix. Christ’s Entry into Journalism has a predecessor in Christ’s Entry into Brussels, by James Ensor in 1889. Walker’s carnival of death looks almost restrained by comparison, but barely. Just try to spot Martin Luther King, Jr., and Frederick Douglass with a black power salute—and try to decide who has the last word.

Work like this has to bear a lot of weight, and Walker has mixed feelings about that, too. After the boasting comes an “artist’s statement,” in which she sounds “tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.’ ” If her compositions fail to cohere, she may have meant it that way. A prominent critic’s demand that the work go on permanent display opposite Washington Crossing the Delaware, in the Met’s American wing, sounds downright laughable. After a sphinx-like sculpture in sugar, as A Subtlety in 2014, she may be happy to dispense with permanence. With the factory that housed it lost to gentrification and the powdered sugar lost to the winds, who knows how long the authority of art or this administration will remain?

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

10.10.17 — The Baroque in Mexico

Who would have thought to rank Puebla alongside the great cathedral cities of Europe? Yet Cristóbal de Villalpando left his mark there as, says The Met, “Mexican Painter of the Baroque.” Permit me an extra post this week to keep the theme from last time of art history and extremely tall installations.

The Mexican city was barely fifty years old when Villalpando completed The Transfiguration in 1683, and the bishopric had moved there just thirty years before. Even now, it hardly comes to mind after Mexico City, not far to the northwest. (Wikipedia does credit it with exquisite tiling and mole poblano, so count me in its debt.) Look to a history of painting in the Americas, and you are likely to begin in Philadelphia or Boston on the eve of revolution. Demand to look back further, and you may learn about ancient civilizations. The Met, though, asks for more.

Maybe rank the Met’s Lehman wing up there, too. Now it, too, resembles a cathedral. At twenty-eight feet in height, the painting spans two levels and presents a stunning view right from the entrance. (For the record, The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel is half again as tall. But then Michelangelo did have at his disposal the Vatican. It makes a difference.)

One can almost look Jesus in his glory directly in the eye—or look down to see the scene’s unexpected pairing with Moses in the wilderness. One can walk downstairs to look further at the Israelites, as the brazen serpent spares them harm from a swarm of real snakes. One can contrast the brightness of one scene with the murkier mix in the other. One can contrast the shallow space of the heavens with the indeterminate and crowded space below, the golden wash with the more fluid handling of color, or the rapture with the terror. One can also step back upstairs for ten more paintings, all but one on loan from Mexico. They offer as much of a retrospective as Villalpando is likely to get, through October 15.

The drama may well be better in New York at that. The Mexican cathedral lacks an upper gallery, and the painter (like Michelangelo) intended views of a god and human trauma from below. He also planned the painting around its site. There it stands not as an altarpiece, but on a side wall—where windows above the altar illuminate its heavens, while candles barely penetrate the darkness. If that makes Villalpando a master of architecture and space, like Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Italy, he was also a creature of doctrine and of habit. He turns again and again to a shallow burst of yellow and a crowd.

As a Catholic and by disposition, he loved rapture. He also was indeed a Mexican painter, although with little regard for native peoples or culture. He was born in Mexico City, of presumably a Spanish family. One cannot say for sure when, but he was still in his early thirties when he undertook so large a painting. The Met can identify a likely teacher versed in the Baroque, but he knew Europeans like Peter Paul Rubens only from prints. Still, he internalized the art of Spain and its empire.

One can see Spanish and Flemish painting in the poorly defined spaces and often harsh colors. One can see, too, the persistence of Mannerism in his occasional choice of oil on copper. He must also have known The Transfiguration (also in the Vatican) by Raphael, the first to add a lower scene. The terror of snakes picks up Raphael’s child possessed by a demon from the Gospels, but moves the scene to the Old Testament. The artist signed his works Villalpando inventor, but he must surely have bowed to the inventions of Puebla’s bishop—just as Michelangelo must have had a theological advisor for all his boasts. Maybe they liked that Moses appears in the vision above, too—holding a staff with a serpent that stands for medicine even today.

Villalpando often returns to the contrast between the old order and the new. He paints a cross growing out of the Tree of Life—and then he pairs it with the Annunciation. He also sure loves those crowds. Even the Annunciation comes with tiered stadium seating for its cast of thousands of angels, and even Adam and Eve have plenty of company in paradise, if only other versions of themselves. Villalpando combines multiple events in a single painting, with god’s repeated attempts to nurture and instruct the first couple. (Spoiler alert: it does not end well.)

He is resolutely upbeat, and the positive emotions run wild. Israelites at the foot of the brazen serpent appear less in fear than in ecstatic worship. As curators, Ronda Kasl, NYU’s Jonathan Brown, and Clara Bargellini of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico describe the Virgin Mary beneath her holy name as a painting of sound itself. When Villalpando depicts the holy family, he cannot settle for a manger with Joseph half asleep. He makes Jesus an unnaturally mature boy, while Joseph becomes a vigorous young man very much like a traditional Jesus. Amid the triumph of doctrine and deliverance, Villalpando’s Baroque can still privilege humanity.

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

10.9.17 — Stepping Up to Michelangelo

It was never easy to take in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo himself labored on scaffolding of his own design, while struggling to reach the figures taking shape overhead. Others, like Raphael painting the very next room, could see nothing of the work in progress behind locked doors.

It may be harder still today. It means braving the lines and craning one’s neck to see the ceiling, around crowds as never before. Imagine, then, Pope Julius II joining the artist for a closer look. Forget the scenery chewing of The Agony and the Ecstasy, the 1965 movie with Charlton Heston as the artist and Rex Harrison as the pope. Julius, always engaged and always supportive, visited often, stepping up from a ladder—and Michelangelo lent a hand. For a while, New Yorkers could put themselves in his place, without so much as a ladder or a trip to Rome. Michelangelo's Creation of Adam (Sistine Ceiling, 1511)Up Close: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel” brought thirty-four photographs to the World Trade Center PATH station this summer, on their way to a second showing at the Garden State Plaza in New Jersey, ending October 15—for maybe, just maybe, a closer approach to art.

Instead of locked doors, the PATH Oculus presented the obstacles of hype, an upscale shopping mall, and a healthy admissions price, but one could choose not to pay it. A walk around the mezzanine took one close to the upper registers of The Last Judgment, much like the view of a two-story painting by Cristóbal de Villalpando at the Met. A walk round the perimeters of the lower level filled in the gaps. With decent enough eyesight, one could even read much of the accompanying text. Besides, even at a distance one can appreciate the unfolding drama of the Sistine Ceiling. One can appreciate, too, broad areas of highlights on blue, red, orange, and naked flesh.

Michelangelo thrived on obstacles. Misanthropic as ever, he banished assistants and started again after the first of his frescoes began to mold, and he executed them his way—transferring full-scale drawings, or cartoons, with a stylus. In the process, he created an ideal of the artist as stubborn, lone creator that endures today. He thought of himself only reluctantly as a painter, which may be why he put off the pope’s first request, for paintings of the twelve apostles. They would be poor work, he explained, because the apostles were poor as well. The pope, he later wrote, replied that he could paint what he liked (so long, presumably, as he liked the Church’s program), and off he went.

That, too, presents an obstacle. Even scholars have trouble making sense of the scheme—which includes prophets and oak leaves (from the pope’s family crest) along the edges, ancestors of Jesus in the lunettes between them, violent acts from the Hebrew Bible and rams’ heads in the corners, and the great scenes from Genesis down the middle. (Michelangelo removed a section or two in order to add The Last Judgment many years later.) The opportunity to get close adds its own difficulties. One cannot see the ceiling’s architecture as a whole, in all its colliding messages and rhythmic borders. One has not a hint of other frescoes either, by such leading lights of the early Renaissance as Pietro Perugino and Domenico Ghirlandaio, on the chapel’s walls.

One can never forget, too, that one is looking at reproductions. Erich Lessing’s photos stand in arbitrary groupings, on the sides of blocks on the floor. They even resemble magazine spreads in their pairing of text and image on the same surface. Instead of the ceiling’s tunnel vision ending in the chaos of an early universe, they also present something of a maze. For all that, they have their advantages, even apart from the chance to get close. They combine the resolution and luminosity of contemporary prints with the depth and luminosity of paint.

As a painter, Michelangelo had a lot to learn as he took the Renaissance into a new century. More and more in the course of things, figures fill the frames. The prophets take on bulkier forms, sharper and even terrifying features, and more pronounced gestures beyond the picture plane, while the ancestors of Jesus withdraw into a greater anxiety. That leaves the proverbial agony and ecstasy of Adam, Eve, and their god in the trademark scenes of creation and expulsion. More and more, too, they display the sweeping brushwork of a real painter, with a translucency rare in fresco. Italian art restorers tend to overclean by American standards, but they have shown Michelangelo as a bold colorist capable of reaching out to his viewers—suiting that view from a distance.

Unlike Santiago Calatrava with the transportation hub, he also completed the job pretty much on schedule and under budget. When the doors opened at last, on Halloween of 1512, the whole came as a shock to, among others, Raphael. The younger man had never seen the combination of mass, motion, psychology, doctrine, and narrative. He had all but finished his own bridge to the High Renaissance next door, The School of Athens, but he added a portrait of Michelangelo as Heraclitus, morose and withdrawn, but more prominent than anyone around him and with a greater inner life. People looking for artistic rivals might see it as a slight, but a book on Michelangelo uses it for its cover. It also returns the painter to his self-image in the smock and shoes of a sculptor, and he was soon to resume work on the pope’s tomb.

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