1.31.18 — The End of Her Rope

Laura Owens takes the museum’s proverbial white cube literally, as a room within her midcareer retrospective at the Whitney, and paintings wrap around its top. In one painting high on each exterior wall, a single hand sweeps along like a clock that has lost track of everything but the precious seconds. The rest might be counting off the hours more figuratively, even if having fifteen rather than twelve in each row disrupts space and time once again.

Another partition cuts off all but the top of a few more rows on a back wall. Sneak into the narrow corridor behind it for the rest, should you dare arouse a museum guard’s vigilance. Two more paintings face one another as mirror reflections, give or take the artist’s imperfections.

Laura Owens's Untitled (detail) (Whitney Museum, 2014)Still another installation treats its paintings as bedroom furnishings, with a painted couple in bed hung just around the corner. Given three beds, five dressers, and two bedroom mirrors to multiply them, this would be quite a slumber party. Jorge Pardo, her boyfriend at the time, contributed the stiff and seemingly mass-produced furniture. And then there are the paintings within rooms within rooms within paintings, like the one with an easel and a perspective onto other galleries at back. Either this imaginary museum welcomes copyists, or Owens has enlarged her studio. She does so implicitly every step of the way.

Owens pays tribute to a great museum. Still cherish the moveable walls and flexible galleries of the old Whitney on Madison Avenue, now the Met Breuer? The 2015 architecture by Renzo Piano extends them to larger spaces downtown. Now the Whitney brings them to much of two floors, through February 4. And yet Owens began her paintings more than twenty years ago, and she and the walls are still on the move. Do not believe her one minute when she says that she is at the end of her rope.

Despite all appearances, her retrospective is anything but site specific. The curators, Scott Rothkopf with Jessica Man, base its rooms on her past shows—and that painting of a museum, first exhibited in London, contains her distorted memory of the Art Institute of Chicago. She plays freely, too, with boundaries in taking Minimalism’s grids into wood slats that may extend beyond a painting’s edge. She plays just as much with memory, with a style out of children’s books and subjects out of the lives of her children. Her son contributed a homespun fairy tale to four freestanding panels. As a likely museum first, she brought her little girl to the press preview.

The childishness extends to mythic lovers and warriors, nature scenes, and slapdash abstraction. And the overt sophistication extends to the illusion of thick brushstrokes on classified ads—or knots of paints that stand for birds and bees. Owens has lived in LA since attending Cal Arts, where John Baldessari made conceptual art the order of the day. She reasserts painting, in accord with its revival nowadays (like her appearance at MoMA in “The Forever Now“), but conceptualism is still on her tail. It follows her even to the naïve and the painterly, like the circle of light from a table lamp. Who knows whose eyes or stars peek through as blurred circles of light in a dark forest?

Owens does not often do darkness or depth, and the space aliens in her son’s fractured fairy tale may have leveled cities. She is more at home with her grandfather’s sailboat or the birds and the bees. As the text of one painting puts it, “When you come to the end of your rope, make a knot, and hang on.” A cartoon boy and baboon take her advice, happily ignoring the irony. So much LA whimsy can wear quickly, but one can still enjoy the exuberance—not to mention a painting’s way of referring to itself and others. Go ahead and feel impassive, but the museum walls have given way.

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

1.29.18 — Acquainted with the Night

Edvard Munch had his share of sleepless nights. Is it any wonder that his Dance of Life takes place beneath a full moon?

Munch’s sleepless imagination shows in his earliest Nocturnes of figures trapped by moonlight or a storm, unable to find a way to shelter or to rest. It shows in caregivers at a sickbed, their heads sunk in exhaustion or grief. It shows in Sick Mood at Sunset, where the sky cannot relinquish its flame. It shows in Munch as The Night Wanderer, leaning to make eye contact because he cannot trust a viewer who would share his acquaintance with the night. It shows, too, in his final self-portrait, Between the Clock and the Bed. That portrait anchors a small but not unrepresentative survey of his work, at Met Breuer through February 4—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review in my latest upload.

Munch makes it easy to lapse into melodrama in describing his art. As I wrote when he appeared among unfinished prints at the Frick in 2004, I find him easy to love but harder to like. There is plenty of Victorian sensibility in his sick children, threatening women, and Madonnas between innocence and whores. Edvard Munch's Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (Munch Museum, Oslo, 1940–1943)Born in 1863, he made a leap forward from late Romanticism and realism when he encountered Symbolism, but that movement valued melodrama, myth, and sentiment, too. Yet it also paved the way to Modernism, and none of its fellow travelers traveled as far into the new century as Edvard Munch. He completed that last self-portrait in 1943, the year before his death.

It has become still more modern since his death, thanks to Jasper Johns. The American has borrowed its title and, repeatedly, a motif. The diamond pattern of a bedspread becomes a starting point for near abstract paintings and prints. The patches for Johns keep failing to line up in color or direction, but so they do, too, in the bedspread. I would hesitate a long time to call it a comforter. The borrowings hint at sleepless nights for Johns as well, as in the studio wall of his 1983 Racing Thoughts.

Johns always stops short of auto-biography, in the most literal but also most elusive body of work in modern art. One might never know that he ever had a lover, much less a life as a gay male, or one might have to know to appreciate the depth of his allusions. Munch can be just as enticing and frustrating. When he shows himself with a model, his studio contains a bottle of wine, but not an easel in sight. Another bedspread rises up in the foreground, with a life of its own. Who can say whether the unmade bed hints at sex or just art on the verge of chaos?

The same question haunts Between the Clock and the Bed. Munch stands erect but hardly at ease in the narrow space of its title. The grandfather clock without hands attests to his counting out the hours without rest, and it looks as unnaturally gaunt as does he. He stands in front of past work that he cannot take time to admire and behind a section of flooring so shiny that he might slip if he dared to take a step. A door at back cannot quite fit with the doorway beside it, looking onto another room that one cannot quite see. One last tall painting, above the bed without a pillow, could be a nude study, a lover, or a ghost.

Like the hatching, the painting is far more colorful than its overt subject, which only adds to the tensions. The artist’s glum expression is bright orange, with the down-turned lip of an emoticon, but with red for a patch of hair and his ears. Munch has become ever so popular for his six versions of The Scream, beginning in 1893, but he had a breakdown in 1908 and had to start his life anew. Not everyone admires half as much what came after, but the Met quotes him as saying that he got serious only in his fifties. And the curators, led by Gary Garrels, tend to agree. Like Johns, they place his last self-portrait at the center of his work.

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

1.26.18 — So Many Masks

Who would not have wanted to be there at the Louvre on an afternoon in 1910, with Amedeo Modigliani and Anna Akhmatova? Modigliani, an Italian as fluent in French as in the very latest literature and art, had brought his favorite model, a young Russian poet. And they came to a citadel of western culture to look at Egyptian art.

Max Jacob (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 1916)Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906, determined to modernize himself and to expand his world. He had to set aside painting for the most part, merely to keep up with everyone he met and everything he saw. Besides, he was too ill and too proud to do the dirty work of seeking commissions. For the Jewish Museum, he was nonetheless at a creative peak, on his way to a renewal as painter and sculptor in limestone. It focuses on his drawings before World War I as “Modigliani Unmasked,” through February 4. It might just as well say that he had too many guises and too many masks—and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

Few artists were as cosmopolitan as Amedeo Modigliani. Born in 1884 to an Italian father and French mother, he begged her to take him to see the Italian masters, and she did. The child of Sephardic Jews, he admired Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote that God is dead. He survived pleurisy, typhoid, and the collapse of his father’s business. Ever after, he determined to see the world before he died, and he came to the right place. He found Paris in turmoil.

Modernism was then not quite a movement but very much a community. He found a studio in Montmartre, in a building that Max Jacob, a poet, called Le Batteau-Lavoir (or the boat-laundry)—along, it must have seemed, with everyone who mattered. It held Jacob and Gertrude Stein, but also Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Henri Matisse. Other painters were pouring into the community, including Gino Severini from Italy and Juan Gris from Spain. Jacob Epstein helped turn Modigliani’s attention to Greek antiquities and to sculpture. They planned a shared studio as a temple to beauty.

It was a rough-and-tumble temple and a rough-and-tumble beauty. He struggled, the museum notes, with poverty and tuberculosis, which cost him his life at age thirty-five. It does not note that he made the odds far worse with drinking. He went wild one night, his daughter recalled, and set fire to the work of others. After a brief return to Italy, he found another studio but continued a life on the edge. Besides, he had to know suffering, too, as a Jew in France (as the longer review takes more time to explain).

When Modigliani looks at another culture, he always finds another mask—whether at the Commedia dell’Arte in the present or in Egypt, West Africa, Tibet, and Thailand in the distant past. Ancient Greece supplies the idea of a caryatid, or kneeling figure supporting a column. Yet the caryatids here quote practically anything that Modigliani saw. Even the change from Greece’s kneeling women to a mix of genders attests to ambiguity and eclecticism. Where Picasso looked to African art for “the primitive,” he goes out of his way to deny a single human essence. Even if he found one, it would lie behind the mask.

While he came to think of himself as a sculptor, the postwar portraits come as a delightful payoff. They are flatter than his early paintings, but also more painterly. The same person may look, to quote the museum, youthful or moody—and the same painting can look polished or unfinished. A smear of color enlivens the bridge of a nose. The green of an eye can suggest a jewel or the character behind the mask. The tension of near abstract brushwork, figure painting, and archetype looks ahead to art today.

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

1.24.18 — Unnatural Disaster

If you think that Penn Station is a disaster area, you should visit a gallery only a couple of blocks away. Something has devastated New York, in photographs by Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber, but without touching its everyday grandeur, at ClampArt through January 27.

Lori Nix's and Kathleen Gerber's Sentinel (ClampArt, 2017)Indeed, they enhance its beauty, making it hauntingly familiar but unlike anything you ever knew—and I have added this to previous reports on photography’s menacing fictions as a longer review and my latest upload. Where the commuter terminal is cramped and overcrowded, their city is open to the skies and devoid of human life. Where the first has harsh artificial light reflecting off dreadful public toilets and dreary flooring, their apparent sunlight lends the plainest of buildings a comforting warmth. And where the first suffers from one delay after another, their empire after a disaster has all the time in the world.

Empire, you ask? That word supplies the show’s title, and it dominates the inscription on an arch much like that in Washington Square or Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, but somewhere else entirely. It is one of many signs that this New York has an alternative history, more like science fiction than the course of actual real-estate empires. The ravaged shell of what could be the Flatiron building lacks access to Madison Square as well. A street sign marks Division Street, but it leads not to Chinatown but to a dead end. Could division be a metaphor for whatever brought this on?

No doubt, but this empire looks to have been reasonably benign, give or take its end. It did not censor the newspapers that litter Manhattan streets. Rather, whatever invasion or insurrection brought on this devastation has blown up a cluster of those plastic dispensers for a free press, leaving their surroundings intact. The papers scattered about announce gloom and doom, but that, too, disrupts history. Did they see this coming, or do they somehow add commentary after the fact. And what fact is that?

Nix and Gerber are not saying, although the gallery mentions art and climate change. The show also opened just as Donald J. Trump prepared to ditch his secretary of state in favor of someone still crazier. The selective devastation may evoke nuclear radiation’s way of destroying lives more than architecture. It must have done so some time ago at that, judging by grass flourishing on a street that has blown apart. It has uncovered a watery infrastructure that no one knew was there, turning the street into the edges of a canal. Where, though, are the bodies?

If the dead have not had time to rot away, do not blame the artists. This is their fiction, in photos of painstaking miniatures in 3D. Other artists have used dioramas to suggest the “Otherworldly,” and so do they. Their sunlight is as artificial as Penn Station, even if its crispness is closer to Rome for Camille Corot than to a brave new world. A few of their models are also on display, including the kind of viewers that stand with coin slots in front of many a tourist attraction. In their photo, the viewers face western vistas with, I shall venture, Native American monuments to the dead.

The show’s subject may well be looking more than politics. Does its vague history trivialize real problems, from Penn Station and real estate to global warming and the threat of war? Does its appeal have its limits for anyone not obsessed with Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, and disaster porn? Again, no doubt, and the gallery has a fondness for photos that make New York incredibly sexy or sex incredibly strange. Still, credit the artists with equal care for their dioramas and their exposures. Then walk another couple of blocks to Hudson Yards and the High Line, and try to decide whether that empire has a future.

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

1.22.18 — Join the Club

Groucho Marx would not join a club that would accept him as a member. Jimmie Durham feels the same way about citizenship in a nation.

Make that at least two nations, counting what Anglos might call a tribe. Born in 1940, Durham grew up in the American South but left for Geneva to study art. He showed in New York in the glory years of alternative spaces, but left again for Mexico and then Europe. By his own account the most prominent Native American artist, he gave up activism in 1973, and the Cherokee will not recognize him as their own. Either he could not document his ancestry or he could not be bothered. In each and every case, he never once looked back.

Jimmie Durham's Self-Portrait Pretending to Be a Stone Statue of Myself (ZKM Center for Art and Media, 2006)If it gets tiresome to keep track of his movements and affections, he embraces the charge. Wherever he goes, he says, he is the “center of the world”—and the Whitney adopts just that as the title of his retrospective, through January 28. He might be there only in spirit, but he finds his spirit everywhere. He could not make it to the United States for the opening, but he does leave the polished branch of a “saved tree” to open the show and to mark its location. If it looks like a flagpole, it accompanies text art from 1992 labeling it an Anti-Flag. Try not to salute.

If something here sounds phony, he embraces that charge, too. His art boasts of its artifice, not least when it consists of pretend Native American artifacts. Even when he sets real animal skulls atop New York police barricades, they look like something left in the garbage. Maybe he hoped that they would join his 1982 Manhattan Festival of the Dead. He lived uptown in those years, not far from the Cathedral of John the Divine, which he revered as fake Gothic. Even when he displays what may or may not be his blood, he labels it “color enhanced.”

If he also sounds awfully self-involved, he would be the first to question himself, sincerely or not. His self-portrait looks like flayed skin, with a paper head and an opening onto his fragile heart. The penis of found plastic is anything but erect. He could be the consummate New Yorker after all, always doubting, always complaining, and always demanding that one listen. His Six Authentic Things include turquoise and obsidian, but also words. But then, as more text has it, “I forgot what I was going to say.”

Durham is in constant dialogue with others, but he has scripted the voices, not least his own. Works on paper speak up for Caliban from The Tempest, and one can never doubt that he identifies with the ignoble savage. Another complains that he “made me without regard to his art career or I am sorry to say the sensitivity of the general art public,” but soon enough he interrupts. The text on his largest work, from 2005, advises humility: “we worry . . . but the world has already moved on and has forgotten us.” Do not believe that he has forgotten himself for one minute.

Those words precede an odd assortment of exhaust ducts, a spare tire, and dated electronics. Durham has some of the trash and macho of contemporary installations, some of today’s identity politics, and a touch of outsider art as well—but the work’s heart is appropriation as improv, with a debt to Robert Rauschenberg. His moose’s head sprouts one antler like the wings of Rauschenberg’s eagle, but with steel pipes in place of the other. Art as an ongoing ending experiment drew him in the 1990s to science, but again as sheer subjectivity or comedy. “Boy! Those are pretty colors, aren’t they?” Yellow Higgs Transmitting Apparatus from 2013 sounds meaningful, but do not count on results.

He quit the American Indian Movement after just four years to make art, but he could not resist a dig at its leadership on the way out. One could accuse him of faux politics, much like his faux everything else. It can infuriate people, including me, and it has kept him on the margins, although he appeared in the 2014 Whitney Biennial—his first in decades. He plays the saint or sinner well enough, pounding an old refrigerator with stones, as if stoning Saint Stephen, but his “homages” have veered from Native Americans to artists of other races, like David Hammons and Alexander Calder.

No doubt he would just as soon pay tribute to himself. Yet his work has at least one thing going for it, in its insistence of self-reference and artifice as inextricable from art.

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

1.19.18 — Your Mother Should Know

“My mother was right. Suffer and die.” It sounds like a final plea from the heart, from a woman long past the need for compromise.

Not that Louise Bourgeois was ever one to compromise, and MoMA has every right to call more than two hundred and fifty prints “An Unfolding Portrait,” through January 28. Still, for all her thoughts of dying, she had lasted well into her nineties by the time of My Inner Life, a print just two years before her death in 2010. Like her sculpture, it combines frankness with just enough detachment to make anyone squirm—and I have wrapped this into earlier reports Louise Bourgeois's Spider (Dia:Beacon, 1997)on two other American sculptors, David Smith and Alexander Calder, as a longer review and my latest upload.

Ma mère avait raison, it runs in French, just outside the show’s entrance. Souffrir et mourir. And Bourgeois shows a standing nude with a big belly, swept up in lighter curves—never entirely comfortable in her own body, but also never once willing to prettify it or to disown it. She is smiling way too much to play victim, not to mention too busy observing her surroundings and making art. By the show’s end, she has become a female Saint Sebastian with a big butt. The arrows that pierce the first Christian martyr are the least of her problems, and anyway they come from her.

Who knew that she had her mother in mind with her spiders and Femme Maison (“house woman”)—and not her fears? Yet she insisted that spiders take care in weaving, and her mother kept a tidy home. Then again, the spider is as scary as ever, and the mother who told her to suffer and die sounds pretty scary, too. A homebody can be homey or cut off from the world, and art for Bourgeois can an act of self-assertion or a nightmare. Better still, it can be both, just as the spider’s legs can morph into the tendrils of her hair. As she says in another print, “You can get twisted and tangled in your emotions.”

Enjoy the tangle. A show of prints sounds like a small matter, and I shall not attempt to recap larger matters from a 2008 Guggenheim retrospective (so do give my earlier review a look as well). Yet it has plenty to keep one guessing, including two dozen sculptures. Bourgeois even gave her etchings the look of freehand drawing—and then supplemented their slim curves and splotches with brush and pencil. The sculptures, in turn, run to studies for other work. An exception, a chair barely visible through encircling doors as one of her many Cells, is suitably comforting or confining.

Bourgeois may not compromise, but the curators, Deborah Wye with Sewon Kang, do seek a compromise—between chronology and an arrangement by subject matter. It is not easy, given an artist who could not get enough repetition and variation. The room titles, such as “abstracted emotions” and “forces of nature,” can be more cryptic than the prints, but then her thoughts and feelings always flow together. Those spider legs may spiral inward as a tightening of the chest or outward as a release. A bell jar can suggest natural history, but she may herself be the subject of an unwanted experiment. The Sky’s the Limit, runs another title, but it is a difficult climb (or Montée Difficile).

The prints date mostly to the 1940s, before she turned once and for all from painting to sculpture, and to her last twenty years. They look back to her childhood in France and ahead to life in New York, not far from today’s Chelsea galleries. Their obsessive repetition also connects to both Surrealism and Post-Minimalism. A small figure bulges every which way like a prehistoric fertility goddess or the female body for Kiki Smith. Segmented sculpture can rear up like a horse for Raymond Duchamp-Villon—or weigh down like dreams for Eva Hesse. Prints on parallel staff lines may evoke forgotten melodies or formalism.

Artist books also allow her to tell stories, with a command of both French and English. Her words have the simplicity of fairy tales and the complexity of a family history. She is always waiting for the man who got away—or the man who finally had the nerve to slam the door on her mother. The show concludes in the museum’s atrium with larger prints and a large spider, its legs tightly encircling a steel cage. Does Bourgeois partly cover the cage with tapestry? She is still finding her way home.

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

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