12.29.17 — The Second-Best Bed

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Did you know that Shakespeare left his wife the second-best bed? Maybe he did not love her all that much, which would explain his long absence in London, or maybe that was their bed, the one they shared on his retirement—from the theater and for the night. He had made his bed as an artist, and he could now lie in it.

Michelangelo's The Dream (Il Sogno) (photo by the Frick Collection, Courtauld Gallery, c. 1533)Or maybe he just hated “best” lists, and he wanted to put them in their place. I know I do, and I leave it to others to pick winners. If I can help you see, then after that, truly, you know best. Once again, then, allow me the quirkiest of listicles—and you can see a full recap in a longer review and my latest upload. As you will see, 2017 had many highlights, and I link whenever I can to past reviews. As you will see, too, if you ask the right question, then it can be hard in a year of sometimes bitter controversy to tell the worst from the best.

For starters, as another year comes to an end, is there a best way to look back? When it comes to art’s history, the year had few blockbusters. It had Robert Rauschenberg among friends, not to mention among more art forms than you can count. As he suggests, though, some of the best looks back have come in other media than painting. I offer some highlights in paintings, photography, design, and drawing in my longer review. And best of all are Michelangelo drawings.

What about the best show I almost overlooked? It happens every year. I try to see too much, and often I turn away without a word. I have to respect silence, because I want to write only when I have something to say beyond the listicles. My longer review catches up with several shows that I mentioned only in passing or not at all. Care to guess which to deem the best, from among such artists as Mel Kendrick, Ad Reinhardt, Lee Krasner, Arshile Gorky, and Elizabeth Murray?

Then there is the best artist I could no longer overlook. Diversity has become an obvious priority, and so has recovering often overlooked artists from the recent past. Call it the one-two punch of political correctness and the art market, but also call it a relief. Nor is it solely a matter of political art. Indeed, the real breakthrough may well be the diversity of artists who have entered galleries and museums for no other reason than themselves. Anyone used to decrying the paucity of women in museums would have found them everywhere in 2017—including Belkis Ayón between Africa, Cuba, and her own private myths.

Last, what was the best or overheated controversy? The year did not lack for loud voices at gallery and museum gates. Surely the most justified and rewarding were African Americans confronting the still louder sounds of gunfire. Arthur Jafa, Lonnie Holley, Sanford Biggers, and Nina Chanel Abney all reflect the urgency of Black Lives Matter. Kara Walker called her own show “The most Astounding and Important Painting” of the season—and she could well be right. She also spoke out to defend another woman whose art cries out against racism and a mother’s loss.

That woman, of course, is Dana Schutz—and a reminder that art does not just address live issues. It also generates controversy and then wades right in. Does a white woman like Schutz have what it takes to represent the death of Emmett Till, the subject of a painting in the best Whitney Biennial in years? Can the Guggenheim fairly represent art in China since 1989 without live animals fighting and dying? Can the Met stand up to protests against Balthus, with a morally and sexually ambiguous depiction of adolescent awakening, and should anyone take seriously a truly vapid Salvator Mundi attributed to Leonardo da Vinci? Things can get awfully silly, but take it from me that art can still be about more than money, or take it from the best of 2017.

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

12.27.17 — Fact and Fiction

If orange is the new black, where does that leave you if you are black? You may have no choice.

Sherrill Roland spent sixteen months in jail for a crime that he did not commit. Back in grad school, where he did have a choice, wearing orange became a testimony to black lives, not least his own. His performance also appears in “Fictions,” the fifth in the occasional shows of emerging artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem, through January 7. It coincides as well with the artists in residence in “We Go as They.”

One might not wish to put too much weight on a fiction. “Fictions” comes after shows of “Freestyle,” “Frequency,” “Flow,” and “Fore” as just one more F-word. The title notwithstanding, fact and fiction become hard to disentangle. One need not even put too much weight on a roundup of emerging artists, in competition with MoMA PS1, the New Museum triennial, and more. One has to welcome, though, a show willing to stick to just nineteen artists—from a museum that cares about emerging talent and African American art. From its opening wall text, it lays claim to a given for both fact and fiction, a context in culture, place, and history.

In practice, fact intrudes on fiction and the treachery of memory on fact. In practice, too, context gives way to displacement, just as Roland kept returning to a life apart from what he knew as his own. Sable Elyse Smith spent time in prison, too, for 7667 Nights–Falling and 7667 Days. That translates to twenty-one years of undesired culture, place, and history, as seen in Polaroids isolated against black suede. For accompaniment, Nikita Gale wraps a guitar in towels. Political art is supposed to provide feedback, but not that kind.

Art here seems more than a little lost. It can leave one as high and dry as animal skulls on clear plastic shelves and benches, by Matthew Angelo Harrison. It can leave one as fighting mad as female boxers and sleepwalkers on video, by Deborah Roberts. It can leave the subjects of a painting just out of reach in the lush colors of an unspecified great outdoors, by Walter Price. Patrick Martinez sees LA through neon trees and artificial flowers. Landscape becomes more encompassing but stranger still for Allison Janae Hamilton, in a room of birch trees, animal heads, bird calls, and projected eyes dancing across projected waters.

Installation cannot guarantee a sense of place, not even when Roland tapes an orange rectangle to the floor. It entraps visitors in the boundaries of his performance, but with a device that museums more often use to keep visitors at a distance. Maya Stovall displaces the visitor, too. One can view glass shards and mason jars that she scavenged in Detroit—or just oneself on a bench, between two mirrors. Krista Clark leaves her studio empty on moving day, while Genevieve Gaignard leaves a living room uninhabited except for a porcelain Aunt Jemima in a bird cage and an empty chair. A sickly green clock does, though, tell the right time.

In portraiture, Amy Sherald and Devan Shimoyama adopt the glitter that serves Mickalene Thomas or Kehinde Wiley as a token of glamour. Yet they have a thoroughly mundane, humane, and individual subject matter—and, at times, only eyelids or ceramic flowers in place of eyes. Christina Quarles is more painterly, but just whose hand is whose? For Paul Stephen Benjamin, Lil Wayne and Aretha Franklin perform “God Bless America” as the counterpoint of incantation and soul. Nearly fifty monitors allow black America its triumph, but in a virtual sea of colored ghosts. Texas Isaiah calls his shadowy photos My Name Is My Name, and that conclusion will have to do.

Among the 2017 artists in residence, Julia Phillips makes the museum the setting of a dangerous experiment, with sculpture that could pass for broken shields, instruments of torture, or chastity belts. Andy Roberts has a more reassuring context. His Nocturnes have their setting in Harlem and their style, like their title, an allusion to James McNeill Whistler. When Autumn Knight promotes cockroach milk on video, warnings about side effects mention systemic racism, but he, too, lives halfway comfortably between fact and fiction. When a woman’s hand moves across a wall, it displaces paint, but her heels move gracefully across the peelings on the floor. Harlem appears through a haze of soap bubbles, but with a persistent motion that may yet outlast this year’s culture and history.

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

12.25.17 — To the Max

If your idea of Christmas is the evidence of things unseen, welcome to the mind of Max Ernst. It took art from Dada to Surrealism and then some.

Max Ernst's The King Playing with the Queen (Museum of Modern Art, 1944/1954)For a time, Ernst styled himself Dadamax, and no wonder. He threw himself heart and soul into Cologne Dada, which he had helped found. He shared its disdain for audiences that expect a “proper” form of art—the kind, no doubt, bearing the more dignified signature of someone named Ernst. He also made the transition with others to Surrealism, rushing to join them in Paris in 1922. Besides, he did everything to the max. MoMA catches up with him in medium after medium and subject after subject, through January 1.

Ernst believed in movements and in the collision of art and words. One can see his disdain and disciplined excess in prints from 1920. Let There Be Fashion, the title proclaims. Down with Art. The series looks like a textbook in design or in higher mathematics—right down to unclothed mannequins, geometric constructions, and more or less meaningful formulas. Artist books also allowed him to work with everyone from Paul Eluard, the poet, to Antonin Artaud, the writer and provocateur.

Friends also allowed him multiple identities, as in To the Rendezvous of Friends Become Flowers, Snakes, and Toads. He produced that series alone, but with the help of countless quotations. It also points to his fascination with natural history as another field for transformations. A collage positions a boat with steam pouring out, beneath what might be a fish or a beetle—and who is to say which gave birth to which? The show ends with 65 Maximiliana, ou l’Exercice Illégal de l’Astronomie. Again he is competing with science, and again he is taking things to the max.

“Beyond Painting” in fact has paintings as its high points. They bring still more to the science project, with images after microbes. They also introduce Ernst’s most disruptive media. Frottage, grattage, and decalcomania amount to rubbings, scrapings, and transfer from glass plates. Like collage, they replace the artist’s hand with a process of addition and erasure. More composed paintings do not come off half as well, for all their pursuit of the luminous.

The Modern attempts a career survey solely from its holdings. It accords with a greater attention to its collection, as in exhibitions of “Dadaglobe” and women in abstraction. It could serve as a plea for its expansion now in progress—billed as a way of giving space at last to its core. Yet it risks an aborted retrospective. It has little background beyond the dates of his move to Paris, his escape to New York in 1941, and a return to France in 1953, more than twenty years before his death. Late work and books threaten to bury the more revolutionary painting, sculpture, and collage.

One could well define Ernst by what he is not. Born in 1891, he served in World War I but returned consumed not by the horrors of war, but by his art. Guilliame Apollinaire, who later coined the term Surrealism, had thrilled him as early as 1913, the year of Ernst’s entry into the Berlin Salon. His postwar collage lacks the scraps of combat in Kurt Schwitters, the brutal face of the machine in Francis Picabia, or the poetry in Man Ray. His Surrealism lacks the existential puns in René Magritte or the dreams in Salvador Dalí. He turns his pointed sense of humor on high culture and the psyche.

He comes closest to terror in 1924 with Deux Enfants Menacés par un Rossignol (or “two children menaced by a nightingale”). Its heavy frame holds a gate onto a landscape of the mind, including a girl fleeing with a razor and much the same blade affixed to the front of a house. Yet its boy holding a small child has a toe on the roof like an accomplished dancer—and the outstretched arm of a football player barreling ahead. Terror and agency blend together again in the finest of Ernst’s later sculpture, The King Playing with the Queen. The king is caught up in the game, perhaps a reference to a greater chess player in Marcel Duchamp. Who knows who is playing or playing with whom?

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

12.22.17 — They Have More Money

The rich are different from you and me. Yes, they have more money—and a show at the International Center of Photography, through January 7.

Not that Lauren Greenfield means it as a compliment. For twenty-five years, she has been pursuing the wealthy, in order to take their pretensions down a notch. With two hundred photographs, plus no end of interviews with the accused, she lets them damn themselves and the consumer culture that, in her view, sustains them. Yet she ends up falling for the glitter all the same, as “Generation Wealth.” Allow me, then, to pick up from last time on the theme of photography in nice bright color.

She ends up, that is, like F. Scott Fitzgerald in that famous exchange with which I began. If it ever took place, which I doubt, Fitzgerald was merely stating the opening of his most damning and memorable short story, “The Rich Boy” from 1926. With his reply, Ernest Hemingway may have had the last word, but he surely missed his rival’s clear-eyed portrait. He may well have been jealous—of that and of an entire paragraph that spins out as relentlessly as a human life. Still, he must have taken pride setting aside an American myth to describe lives scarred by war and seeking a greater peace. He would not have wasted time on shopping.

Greenfield does, because she sees it as the key to class divisions from California to China. She sees not the truly deserving who power the economy on behalf of everyone—to take seriously, for a moment, Republican ideology. Rather, she sees people born into privilege, basking in it, and anxious to sustain it, with an anxiety that demands the biggest house, the biggest wedding, the biggest bar mitzvah, and now the biggest solo exhibition. She pretty much reprises Thorstein Veblen and The Theory of the Leisure Class. Published in 1899, it may explain even now a country that fell for a wealthy fool in the guise of a populist. They could hardly hold his money, his vulgarity, or his several bankruptcies against him, since they aspire to ever so much more.

Not that ICP falls for the rich and powerful either. Since its move downtown barely a year ago, it has had shows of the surveillance state, political activism, and photojournalism on behalf of the angry and displaced. It has also been trying to keep up with the times, by incorporating new media. Greenfield does much the same, with documentary film as well as the pairing of photographs and text. She had a dedicated critic, like yours truly, jotting down quotes from the wealthy as fast as I could. Wow, are they ever juicy, and so is the pageant in her photographs.

At least it seems so for all of a minute. The next morning those quotes sounded repetitive and predictable, and so are the photos. One could slam them for cheaply condescending to her subjects, although no doubt they deserve it. One could slam her, too, for reducing their sins to lifestyle choices, as if they could atone by a vegan diet and fashionably clean closets. Her real problem, though, is that she falls for them completely—and mirrors their clichés in her work. As a certain president might say, this is hu-u-uge.

Her pairing of image and text comes right out of magazine spreads, much like that of Teju Cole, and she has worked for style magazines often enough along the way. So does the imagery—crisp and colorful, but bland and barely composed. Where Cole is after something profound and spiritual, Greenfield is after something profound and critical, but they are superficial all the same. As it happens, ICP will discard its investment in the Bowery for a move still further into the Lower East Side, where construction aims to include culture along with fancy apartments. It might consider its present quarters, mostly downstairs, a bargain basement by comparison. Luckily for ICP, the rich have more money.

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

12.20.17 — Modernity and Revelry

The Met Breuer introduces Raghubir Singh as “Modernism on the Ganges,” through January 2, but the photographer knew better. Modernism had long preceded him to India, and its advent seemed fated to remain incomplete.

Raghubir Singh's Pavement Mirror Shop, Howrah, West Bengal (Cynthia Hazen Polsky collection, 1991)The mammoth steel frame of a cantilever bridge looks down on a wedding party by the river in much the same spirit as Shiva the destroyer looks down on an electric fan. Lenin looks down on the diminutive Communist party leader in much the same spirit as Kali, the malevolent mother goddess, looks down on a barber shop where a man, naked from the waist up, flexes his muscles. An equestrian monument looks down on storefronts and filmgoers in much the same spirit as the Bollywood posters behind it and the wires that hold the statue up—or threaten to tear it down. Yet the spirit is not altogether willing, and the flesh is not altogether weak.

Singh thrives on juxtapositions, because they put modernity in perspective. They describe how art enters into life and past into present. Here he can rely for his presences on statues and the poster at a campaign rally. They also pack in that much more of a caste- and class-ridden culture. He traveled the length of the Ganges starting in the late 1960s to see it all. And he liked the panorama so much that he took to the Great Trunk Road in the 1990s for more.

He likes juxtapositions, too, so that no one has the last word. The colonial era weighs down on the present, but Singh views its institutions through green mosquito netting. Modernity promises to lift the weight of the past, but commuters have to settle for a run-down excuse for a bus, while peacocks carry on in the foreground much as they have for a long time. Past and present struggle for primacy within lives as well. The wedding party follows the rules for the occasion, but they serve as an excuse for rejoicing. The barber and his customer kneel face to face as if poised for a fight.

Singh keeps returning to rituals, and it is hard to know where the rules end and the display begins. Young men sparkling in the spray from a fountain are taking part in a rite of immersion. A diver enjoys the flood waters that have all but submerged ancient architecture. Singh sticks to color, too, for its own display. He avoids broad fields of clashing colors as in William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz, in favor of pulse and variety. He admired glowing prints by Anish Kapoor as well as old manuscripts, but he prefers motion and spectacle.

Modernism did indeed precede him, and he found a model in Henri Cartier-Bresson. He also found a friend in William Gedney, and he may have seen a parallel between India’s uncertain modernity and Gedney’s rural America. Not coincidentally, both Gedney and Cartier-Bresson also worked in India (and Howard Greenberg in midtown brings together Gedney’s and Singh’s work there for the occasion, through December 9), while Singh also lived in Paris, London, and New York. He did a stint in the north of England as well—to teach, but also to photograph, of course, Indian immigrants. Still, he has little talent for the French photographer’s decisive moment or the American’s vivid portraits in a crowd. These are revelers first and second, slum dwellers or workers a distant third, and individuals hardly at all.

Singh saw India not as individuals, but as jostling for space. It can leave him as conventional and picturesque as most photojournalism, and he worked for the New York Times Magazine, Life, and National Geographic. (The last supplied him with Kodachrome and those nice bright colors.) The curator, Mia Fineman, integrates work by others, also including Helen Levitt and Eugène Atget. She even excerpts films by another friend, Satyajit Ray. Singh looks clumsy by comparison, but in search of a nation’s indecisive moment.

He was still trying to see it all at his death in 1999, at age fifty-six—often from the windows of a car. The Ambassador looks like a real clunker, but India and Hindustan motors were proud of it. The device also recalls “America by Car” for Lee Friedlander, whom he admired as well. He associated windows and mirrors with Modernism, for both the formal constraints and the fragmentation. By the end, his gestures and juxtapositions were loosening. At least one photograph could pass for photocollage, but its colors, frames, and images belong to an actual mirror store—and they mirror a bustling but often stagnant nation.

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

12.18.17 — Clothes Make the Man

They say clothes make the man—unless, that is, clothes unmake him. Both came to pass in the darkest hours of World War II, when some of LA’s growing minority population dressed for the jazz age.

White resentment then, fed by thoughts of others living to excess amid wartime austerity, led to the mass assaults of the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943. History has largely forgotten, but not Troy Michie, who creates a chronicle of racism and high style, at Company through January 21. It also cuts across past and present, to the demands of Black Lives Matter. American servicemen led the assault then, just as another point of reference for “the man” has now.

Troy Michie's Fat Cat Came to Play (installation view) (Company, 2017)But really, the Zoot Suit Riots? Their invocation in the press release sounds like a hoax or maybe conceptual art, but they were all too real. They also brought a swift response that puts the present Republican administration to shame. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote of the need to address race in America, and Earl Warren, then governor of California and later the chief justice who presided over Brown v. Board of Education, appointed a commission. The contrast with today underscores the persistence of prejudice and the threat. For Michie, though, it is also a matter of art and style.

His larger collage has the bright fragmentation of Stuart Davis and American Cubism, already a stepping back to the jazz age. The Whitney has called Archibald Motley, the black artist, “Jazz Age Modernist.” Smaller work becomes thicker and muter, thanks to button-down clothing and tailor’s specs. Both incorporate photographs of black men and women that could belong to then or now. Michie often excises faces, miming acts of enforced anonymity and violence. Chain-link fences divide the gallery, along with bundled newspapers and an empty suit, and more fencing lies on the floor, rolled up around what could be forensic evidence.

They could be deeply evocative or merely confusing, especially for those like me who had to turn to the Web for a point of reference. They also shift the focus awkwardly from Chicanos and LA to blackness and Harlem. Michie’s title speaks of “Fat Cat Came to Play,” and he quotes Malcolm X. Still, in all fairness, the fences bring in not just racial barriers, but also barriers to immigration. Then, too, that quote is double-edged in its appreciation of dress as identity or rebellion. It describes the zoot suit’s “killer-diller coat” with “shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.”

Implicit, too, is another barrier, in gender. All those shows of fashion designers at the Met revolve around not just whites and wealth, but also women, no? Talk of “the black male” may seem provocative, as in a legendary show curated by Thelma Golden at the Whitney—or dated to the point of embarrassing, as at times with the Whitney’s current “Incomplete History of Protest.” It takes on more currency, though, for the LGBTQ communities, and Michie also appears in “Trigger” at the New Museum. That show’s account of “gender as a tool and a weapon” can itself seem slippery enough to encompass immigration and race. As with Cubism, though, sometimes it pays not to keep one’s head straight.

Yet another problem for male identity extends to white males, like the ones that voted for Donald J. Trump. Right next door to Michie, Alex Mackin Dolan evokes automation and a crude form of AI as “Particle Accelerator of Angels,” at David Lewis through December 22. His constructions could pass for slot machines, juke boxes, or robots, not least with a mechanical humanoid slumping listlessly forward. It might have replaced workers, or it might share their anxiety. Men, too, might have pushed any number of protruding buttons, illustrated with photos and schematic images, expecting another button to pop out. Then again, men these days are expecting a lot.

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