11.17.17 — Falling for Modernism

Let me wrap up a busy week of reviews that somehow never found space. It means looking back a bit, but give it a try.

John Singer Sargent delighted in attention, and he got it. Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children earned praise in all the right places, including a review from Henry James. Together with an earlier report on portraiture in the cause of revolution, it is also the subject of a longer review and my latest upload.

It drew scorn for “these over-civilised European Orientals,” meaning Jews, and caricatures by Max Beerbohm of both Carl Meyer and Sargent. Of the two, the artist appears more boastful and more stylish.  John Singer Sargent's Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children (Tate Britain, 1896)It provoked outright parodies, playing on the children with no evident place to stand and their mother, Adèle, perched so precariously as to have already fallen off the sofa. It cemented a bond between the painter and the family, strong enough that he returned to the girl in charcoal eight years later as a beautiful and intelligent woman.

One might expect the display of a single painting as part of the museum’s “Masterpieces and Curiosities” from its collection, like The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz last winter. Actually, that series now focuses instead on a Hanukkah lamp by Peter Shire, of Italy’s Memphis design school. Like Adèle Meyer at home in London, Memphis has its roots everywhere. It includes Shire, an American, with tilted planes in bright colors like the Bauhaus brought to LA. A candle would look in danger of tumbling off, much like Meyer as seen from below. Meanwhile Sargent’s 1896 portrait is on loan from Tate Britain and once again a center of attention.

Its display at the Jewish Museum, through this past February 5, is all about its reception. One might go expecting related paintings and studies, and the room does include portraits of Carl Meyer and his son, by others, in a manner more suited to a nineteenth-century library than to a modern museum. It has a photograph of the couple, but a quarter century after the painting. Mostly, though, it shows Meyer as a man of means, a German Jew who had become a British citizen, an aristocrat, and a representative of the London House of Rothschild—with the badge of a baronet and a silver cigarette case. And it attests to the artist as a man of his time and place as well. That only starts with the quote from James high on the wall.

It makes sense that James admired Sargent. As Americans abroad, both navigated realism and high society. Both, too, made their art a tour de force. Just listen to James. Writing in Harper’s Weekly, he praised the painter’s “knock-down insolence of talent and truth of characterization, a wonderful rendering of life, of manners, of aspects, of types, of textures, of everything.” The line moves from a touch of slang to a hint of the complex syntax in his own late novels.

Sargent can seem at once terribly old-fashioned and precociously modern. He pays tribute to a woman’s fashion while upending fashion. He wanted a portrait that could match Francisco de Goya, who did well by children, or Thomas Gainsborough—who saw his art as a “dialogue with nature.” Yet Sargent also wanted to push painting toward self-reflection. The settee’s upholstery shows a rural boy and girl after Rococo painting. They appear directly below the actual children, and who is to say who is commenting on whom?

The painting’s reception suggests art’s new place in the public eye. An artist still needs a patron, a role that Adèle embraced to the fullest, but his critics range from The Times of London to a woman’s magazine. James also tells more than he intends by his extravagant praise. He attests not just to the artist’s strengths, but also to their shared standards. Sargent is no longer after Renaissance idealization or Baroque movement, and he is not yet after art for art’s sake. He is in the game for characterization, manners, texture, and excess—and so is much of the public today.

No wonder New York never seems to lack for an exhibition of John Singer Sargent. He gets at psychology through the reaching of hands between mother and daughter, connected and apart while encompassing the shyer son. As for manners, the shimmer of the mother’s dress echoes even in the pages of a book, reducing its letters to a clash of pink and green. The perspective that destabilizes them all may have the last word. It brings the mother closer and the children further from the viewer, in paired triangles right up against the painting’s borders. It contributes at once to psychology, to manners, and to art.

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

11.16.17 — Breaking the Code

Let me pause this week to catch up, with some reviews that somehow never found space. It means looking back, but give it a try. I shall post a little extra, meaning Tuesday and Thursday, as well. Here is a show that puzzled, frustrated, and intrigued me earlier this year.

Sarah Morris has some of the liveliest abstract art going. Only one problem: it means something. Those bright, glossy colors rippling across the surface? They represent, she promises, “codes, systems of control, and power structures that characterize urban, social, and bureaucratic typologies.” Oh, right, I should have known.

But I did not, and is that really a problem? Not necessarily, not if you believe that a painting should speak for itself. You can then accuse her message of pretension and irrelevancy, but still allow the paintings to speak. The jagged color fields, their avoidance of easy primaries, and their love of black accord with a revival of geometric abstraction, with such artists as Gary Petersen and Don Voisine. Smaller works reduce to thin diagonals, while earlier series build on arcs and circles, in rows that rarely come to completion. They could be deconstructing Damien Hirst, just when he and his audience are souring at last on his mass-produced dots.

Even there, though, they refuse to stand apart from critical theory. They see painting itself, like Hirst’s, as wrapped up in shared codes and global markets, and they care more about the failure of markets than of paintings. They become, as the show’s title has it, “Finite and Infinite Games,” with the players keeping their hands close to their chests, at Petzel through this past April 8. It is only a short step to see them as diagrams of cities that Morris has visited, studied, and filmed—most recently, Abu Dhabi. An earlier film saw choreographed movements in both athletes and political leaders at the Beijing Olympics. For her, mass entertainment helps sustain political and financial empires.

She has an obvious precedent in an older code breaker, Peter Halley, who refuses to believe in the primacy and purity of self-expression. They have even exhibited together in what the Guggenheim called “The Shapes of Space.” Halley’s Cellblocks look abstract, too, and use commercial Rolotex, much as Morris sticks to house paint. He riffs on memories of a prison in the Spanish Civil War, in paintings by Robert Motherwell, but for a later and more domestic system of control. Unlike Motherwell, too, he has no sense of those memories as incidental to Abstract Expressionism on the one hand—or discernible without a cheat sheet on the other. Morris just happens to make code breaking a lot harder and a more overtly political act.

Still, Halley thrived when Postmodernism all but demanded an end to painting. Does it still work when the subject of critique mostly shifts from painting to politics? Is there a serious disconnect if one, like me, can walk through an entire show seeing only jagged colors—and still, for that matter, cannot make head or tail of their structures and typologies? When Morris paints on film posters for Dune and Exodus, is she continuing her assault on spectacle and tales of freedom, and how would one know? Does it help that older art, such as the Renaissance, depends on shared understandings, too, for its religious significance and the “truth in painting“? Allow me for now to have my doubts and then some, to look forward to learning more, and to indulge for now in the colors.

If these paintings serve as choreography for a highly constrained dance, Jorinde Vogt treats works on paper as musical scores for a collaborative performance. Song of the Earth, its title after Gustave Mahler, fills a long wall with drawing, painting, gold leaf, and text, at David Nolan through March 25. It also serves once during its run as the backdrop to music by Claire Chase and Pauchi Sasaki. Vogt’s previous work incorporates curves and donuts out of a physics class in electricity and magnetism, and here the bright, pale shapes look like portions of continents drifting across the sky.

Does it matter that I could not read, much less interpret, her all but indecipherable scrawls—no more than the codes for Morris? Maybe, but they are anything but systems of control.

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

11.15.17 — Lurking Within

Let me pause this week to catch up, with some reviews that somehow never found space. It means looking back, but give it a try. I shall post a little extra, meaning Tuesday and Thursday, as well.

Almost anything might be lurking in a photograph by Willa Nasatir, maybe even someone you know. She would insist otherwise, but should you trust her?

Much of the appeal of her images lies in the elusiveness of what they represent and the evidence of deception. There is plenty of evidence, all from the last year alone. Nasatir works large, on the scale of a person, and in layers of objects and spaces. Willa Nasatir's Butterfly (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2017)Walking into her exhibition recently at the Whitney was like entering a room in which not even harsh museum lighting can fully penetrate the darkness.

You might have stumbled on it earlier this fall coming off the large floor for Hélio Oiticica, the Brazilian artist, through October 1. They appear as different as night and day. Oiticica loved the plainness of simple geometry and wide open spaces for visitors, or “participants.” From his early constructions in Rio to photographs on a Manhattan rooftop, he wanted art to feel alive and free. Nasatir makes her work impenetrable, although she, too, likes the sensation of floating. Ghostly whites hover uncertainly over electric colors and sheer black.

They present at first a cascade of color, although nearly half the small show is black and white. Several color photos hang side by side on the wall facing the entrance, like a single unstable space. They hold more photographs parallel to the picture place, along with larger and equally cryptic objects. The work in black and white, most often smaller, looks denser to the point of abstraction. Both could seem primarily about the choice of chromogenic or gelatin silver prints for their own sake, all mounted on wood. Both, too, could almost pass for photograms.

Nasatir’s cascading shapes have much in common with work today between photography and abstract painting, like that of Eileen Quinlan, right down to signs of craquelure. They are, though, always about something. She starts with assemblages of found objects, and then the manipulation continues with photography and rephotography. A cart in the foreground of one image could be stacked objects or stacked images. A speckled rag running down that same photo repeats itself for sure. While she tends to avoid digital manipulation, the electric colors belong to a digital age, and it takes a moment to realize that they are almost all red, yellow, and blue.

What they are not are people, although they have every sign of life. A cart like that one could stand beside a patient’s bed in a hospital, and the rag, to judge by the photography’s title, has become a butterfly. Vertical shapes could stand for people or empty clothing, and shadows run beneath them. Most images look like interiors, and they do take place in her studio. Titles, though, speak of a bird, a hitchhiker, a sunbather, and Coney Island. Did I mention that installations for Oiticica include live birds and sand?

The ambiguity of inhabited and empty, static and busy, inside and out, helps explain why the spaces seem both deep and claustrophobic. They could be sites for forbidden experiments, like scenes for Everett Kane, and two are The Red Room and The Green Room. The interest in pre-digital equipment from an artist barely old enough to remember it resembles Kane’s as well. A photo in black and white might represent a control tower, and another appears to perch a bus on top of the bus depot. Mostly, though, they seem safe enough to enter. You never know whom you might encounter within.

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

11.14.17 — Wide Aisles and Tight Spaces

Let me pause this week to catch up, with some reviews that somehow never found space. It means looking back, but give it a try. I shall post a little extra, meaning Tuesday and Thursday, as well.

Kaari Upson spends way too much time shopping—and, she wants you to know, so do you. She is also fiendishly attached to what she finds. It takes her into tight spaces and dangerous territory, but then new media are supposed to do that. Yet the same media are also used to numb the senses and to sell you something, and she plays on that as well.

Kaari Upson's Untitled (1000 cans) (photo by Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of Massimo De Carlo and Sprüth Magers, 2015)Waif-like, with short blond hair, she sprawls on cartons of Pepsi, stacked like a supremely uncomfortable throne. She might have been wearing that plaid work shirt and those jeans for days now or even years. She might have been wearing them when she sculpted soda cans for the High Line in 2015. She might have been wearing them, too, when she arranged furniture like flayed skin for the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Maybe they provide the comfort of familiarity. Maybe they make up for the failed promise of her show’s title, “Good Thing You Are Not Alone.”

She dresses, she explains, as her mother, and her mother’s felt presence could provide a greater bond and a greater comfort or leave her still further alone. My mother never dressed like that or drank Pepsi, but then boomers and Gen-Xers are now mothers, too. She also dragged me on her weekend shopping tours through department stores, which terrified me—but never to Costco, where the soda resides. Upson is alone there on another video as well, driving her cart through its wide aisles. She could almost be stocking the shelves rather than shopping, as if too attached to them to see them empty. Sure enough, she stocks them in quite another way off video, in dozens of stuffed replicas piled high earlier this fall at the New Museum, through September 10.

Their materials include cat hair, Complete Idiot’s Guides, and pages from Artforum—only reasonable for an artist with attachment and achievement issues. The limp bodies look almost tragic, but the shelves invite one in to find still more video channels. In one, Upson drags a sofa through a watery landscape, the close-up making it all the more unintelligible. She is determined, one day, to drag the purchase home. If she does, she will find more soda cans in a second room, hundreds of them, cast in aluminum from the real thing. She will also find the inscrutable objects that rest on top of them, like twenty-first century fossils.

She may not make it home all at once, for another video has her checking out Las Vegas real estate, as In Search of the Perfect Double. There, too, she takes her lost original seriously, comparing home after home to it and finding them wanting. (Oh, for goodness sake, Formica!) Maybe she is addressing a human lost original as well—or her mother. Of course, taking the job seriously means crawling into absurd places, as if to replicate once more the stuffed bodies. She identifies the potential home buyer only as her.

The walls surrounding the aluminum cans contain more inscrutable sculpture, in foam shaped like sagging curtains or unmade beds. One bears the teeth marks of, she swears, her mother. Another bears the title Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue after Barnett Newman, for yet another kind of doubling. But then the very look of bedding splattered with paint goes back to a combine painting by Robert Rauschenberg—and “Wall Hangings” to women like Sheila Hicks. Another video closes in on Upson’s eye, split in two by a mirror, for a further equation of looking with doubling and of mothers with mirrors. The mirror’s touch brings tears.

The death of the originality of the avant-garde sounded downright liberating for critics like Walter Benjamin or Postmodernism, but here it takes on personal significance. Upson drives the point home in large drawings right off the elevator—as always, with repetition and overkill. More images of herself spill over one another, surrounded by words directed at herself or you. They speak of mediated and medicated experience, the endless reproduction of the self, guilt, and the difficulty of love. Their skilled realism in graphite, ink, and gesso helps to moderate the diatribe, as does their reflection of the video and sculpture. When all else fails, she can always go shopping.

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

11.13.17 — Listening Hard and Looking Good

Let me pause this week to catch up, with some reviews that somehow never found space. It means looking back, but give it a try. I shall post a little extra, meaning Tuesday and Thursday, as well.

Sometimes, they say, jazz had to set aside image in order to make music. Sometimes it had just those late nights in small spaces when no one was mugging for the camera. From the jagged intensity of bebop to the reserve of cool, this was serious business.

Herman Leonard's Fats Navarro, NYC (Robert Mann gallery, 1948)Then again, that, too, was an image, and no one made it as indelibly as Herman Leonard. “The Rhythm of Old New York” shows the photographer at work starting in the late 1940s. It also shows musicians in the act and, the show’s catchy title notwithstanding, never more modern.

Maybe jazz never lost its glamour, but many said it had, proudly. As big bands gave way to small groups, the case goes, jazz could set aside star power for tight ensembles and a direct connection with listeners. Musicians could disappear into their music—or a cloud of cigarette smoke. They could be overweight and on drugs, like Charlie Parker, or downright hostile to the uninitiated, like Miles Davis. They could break the color barrier in their acts. Stars like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman could take time out from the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall to sit in the audience, because it was the place to be.

Leonard makes the case himself, recently at Robert Mann through October 14. He asks not how they party, but how they perform. Sara Vaughn is seated in rehearsal, and Parker and Davis are just the start of a front line coming right at you. Buddy Rich is here as not a bandleader but a drummer in close-up, pouring it on. When they pause, like Dizzy Gillespie with a smile or Gerry Mulligan for a kiss, they have earned it. Tony Bennett hugs his mike like a loved one, and Chet Baker collapses into his trumpet, because he can do no more.

Not that many were as dapper as Bennett, Nat King Cole, or a young Frank Sinatra, and Leonard plays that up as well. The marquee at Bop City, with Artie Shaw above Ella Fitzgerald, is pretty sexy, too. The photos thrive on artificial lighting, the kind that turns night into day and day into night. They linger on the highlights of loosened shirt sleeves or that ubiquitous cigarette smoke. Even so, they subordinate the performer to the performance. Davis becomes mere hands on the valves of a trumpet, and a cigarette butt for Lester Young rests on an empty Coke bottle beside sheet music and his hat.

They marked the birth of an American art form, much like Abstract Expressionist New York in much the same years, and visual artists found a home in performance, too. Think of Robert Rauschenberg and dance, Jasper Johns and John Cage, Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman on cello, Pop Art and the jukebox, or formalism and free jazz. Maybe a new generation had new standards for what is hot and cool. Leonard’s photo of Fats Navarro for the Blue Note reissue series helped introduce a rock fan like me to jazz. Then again, maybe jazz and rock have had much the same standards all along. Goodman was the king of swing, but Eric Clapton was god.

One can dismiss Leonard as mere packaging, just when photography was finding an America beyond cool—like Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand in the city, Danny Lyon in a Texas prison, Magnum photography at an antiwar protest, or Robert Frank on the road. No matter. The glamour holds up, and so does the seriousness. Goodman sits behind Ellington to hear Ella Fitzgerald at the Downbeat Club, just as he integrated his big band because he cared less about approval than about making justice and making music. He sat in one of the bars on 52nd Street, like W. H. Auden on September 1, 1939, but unlike the poet he was anything but “uncertain and afraid.” He was listening hard and looking good.

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

11.10.17 — Unnatural History

It takes a big imagination to recreate a museum of natural history in a storefront gallery. Barring that, one might have to settle for eclectic interests and a healthy skepticism.

Under the guise of Future Retrieval, Guy Michael Davis and Katie Parker may not produce a museum. Yet they should have one pondering what they leave out. Their adopted name promises a time capsule, but for an age of data retrieval as automatic and impersonal as a museum Web site. Is the future already present?

For once, one cannot look for an answer from the street. A wood frame supports a curved wall barring views through the window. That seems only right. For a native New Yorker like me, the American Museum of Natural History holds not sunlit habitats, but darkened rooms and the chambers of memory. Inside, at Denny through November 12, things are bright enough—like the white cube of a proper art gallery or museum. It should be more than bright enough to dispel childish misconceptions.

The curved wall holds a diorama, but pretty much free of people or natural histories. It looks like a single scene, but with sudden discontinuities in content and color. Never mind, though, because the missing specimens stand on pedestals, including a wild bobcat and a rhesus monkey. Not that they make sense side by side either. The diorama has elements of the American west and old Europe, as if the Hudson River School and Nicolas Poussin in Rome were fighting over property and antiquities. The animals belong only to art.

For one thing, they are not stuffed but ceramic. In fact, a patterning more typical of glazed porcelain covers the bobcat. They also seem to have stepped right out of the domesticated wilds of a Rococo garden for Jean Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher. A finch on another pedestal is drinking from an urn more appropriate to a period room at the Frick. Then again, the diorama has the neutral background typical of a Chinese landscape, but with no room for calligraphy or weather. It, too, is a product of information retrieval.

The artists are engaged both in sampling and erasure. They bill themselves as ceramicists, but the ceramics end there. Other vases appear on the facing walls, Rococo decoration intact, but solely in cut paper. The diorama is cut paper, too. The wild animals could have stepped out of either or neither one. The whole display seems waiting for a museum curator to fill in the gaps.

The artists also boast of their care in sampling and reconstructing species from an actual natural history museum. That may sound odd, given that old ceramics and old museums alike took real work, with the digital as a suspect shortcut. As one exits, the wood frame seems more like a deconstruction of the scene within, and a few more urns sit on the floor beside it, but in wood. Rather than science or the imagination, they offer the lesser solace of a sense of humor. Has art lost access to the objectivity of a mirror of nature along with the fabled originality of the avant-garde? There may be limits even to future retrieval.

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

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