1.17.18 — Crossed Channels

Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and along with the memories and the wonder came a question: how could they ever have done it?

How did the Beatles turn away from the increasing inwardness of Rubber Soul or Revolver only to become still more experimental and wondrous? How does an album filled with what John Lennon half dismissed as “Paul’s granny music” top almost every list of the greatest of all time? Daniel Neumann's Channels (Fridman gallery, 2017)And how could they have achieved all this right down to that still-resonant final chord with only four tracks? What might they have done with a fifty-six track as a mixing board?

How about hang it from the ceiling, as a massive work of art? Daniel Neumann does, as the center of an “immanent concrete sound field,” at Fridman through January 24. It also hangs between past and present, much like that very first concept album. Half filthy and interrupted by its flickering lights, it looks barely functional, even as it looms over a West Soho gallery emptied of almost everything but sound. So do its co-conspirators in sound art, the vintage speakers. It takes work to verify that they are the source of the music, as “Channels.”

A couple of bulky shapes rest on pedestals, more like relics than like studio equipment or sculpture. Two contain their own music stands, like high-hats from an unresolved percussion section, and Neumann’s favorite hangs on the wall, where one could mistake it for an old box radio. They might be struggling to produce the rising and falling deep hum, interrupted now and then by high and low bleeps. The results might be site specific, or they might hardly matter at all. Still, Neumann thinks of the mixing board, speakers, and music as equal partners in an installation. The gallery has shifted hours for the occasion to evenings, to bring out the sense of a concert.

The artist insists on its structure as fifty-six channels crossing the gallery. One may not believe him from the sound of it, but they do so visually. Dark cables from the back of the unit draw together as they vanish into the back wall, casting slim but heavy shadows. One may have to step around to see them, but they pack the greatest impact. That leaves the dilemma of how seriously to take anything else, as sound art or appropriation. Then again, The Times panned Sgt. Peppers.

Much the same dilemma haunts Julianne Swartz, along with her place between sculpture, installation, and sound art recently at Josée Bienvenu through January 13. If anything, it takes even more work than for Neumann to appreciate that she has a sound component. Irregular shafts of paper, magnets, and whatever else function as makeshift speakers, as Bone Scores, while wire embodies the aural patterns as Void Weaves. It matters almost as much that they offer a contrast between floor and hanging sculpture or between solid and void. They have more in common with the Minimalism of Ruth Asawa in wire or Richard Tuttle in thread than of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, although without their keen sense of form. They resist grand claims, in favor of the transience of sound. As with Tuttle or sound art by Christian Marclay, they make a point of their fragility—the fragility of loose weaves or bare bone.

So does their source in sound. Where she based a work in the 2004 Whitney Biennial on “Over the Rainbow,” here she claims to incorporate breathing, dying, a beating heart, and (sure enough) the Beatles. Marjorie Welish at Artcritical sees an affinity to the Modernism of musique concrète, but also to the birds of Paul Klee and his Twittering Machine. As with Klee, Welish notes, Swartz points at once to the living and the mechanical. Klee’s machine, though, is only watercolor and ink, and Swartz’s sounds are barely a rustling in the wind. As with Neumann, they succeed most by crossing in time into the visual.

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

1.15.18 — The Gates to Modernity

Auguste Rodin is the great artist that you pass on the way somewhere else. His sculpture punctuates the south corridor at the Met, on the way to the Impressionists to one side and Modernism straight ahead.

You pass Rodin on the way to Modernism just in looking at that. He opened the way to an art not of appearances, but of unstable masses and unsettling feelings. Yet he loved Gothic cathedrals, moral fables, and half-remembered myths, with the sheer theater that modern critics as late as the 1960s took as a term of abuse. Now “Rodin at the Met,” a modest show on the centennial of his death, brings still more of his work out of storage, but as an invitation to linger, extended through February 4.

Auguste Rodin's Balzac (Museum of Modern Art, 1897)Born in 1840 (the same year as Claude Monet), Rodin shocked contemporaries with the naturalism of his early work, like the carefully modeled male nude of The Age of Bronze, and his head of Honoré de Balzac takes care for the novelist’s wrinkled brow and pug nose. Yet a local man sat for the portrait, and the nude awakens onto an age. Rodin wrote that “character is the intense truth of any natural spectacle, beautiful or ugly.” Yet his characters are types, and for him beauty or ugliness is fate. His nudes come in two varieties, young and old—and an old courtesan is just one more emblem of sin and despair in a monumental sculpture, The Gates of Hell. Titles identify others as merely The Tempest and, most famously, The Thinker.

Much of his modernity consists in the collision between frankness and inarticulate depths. The thinker is very much the artist, but his art is about not reason, but fragmentation and feeling. His monument to Balzac nearly hides the man in the physical presence of his cloak. His carvings put their subject on an equal footing with their heavily beaten pedestal. The Hand of God, holding inchoate human life, identifies godhood with artistry. Yet it also comports with an art that enlarged hands and feet as an expression of inner pain or physical entrapment.

Rodin evolves from classicism and polished portraiture to the calm of a bather. In between lie the twisted, deformed, and sexually charged major works. Yet he looked to Michelangelo as a model for the agonies of Adam and Eve after the fall, and anyway he defies simple dating. Often he modeled a work in the 1870s, in terra cotta or marble, only to add multiple bronze casts as much as thirty years later. That multiplicity, too, is part of his modernity. Rosalind E. Krauss took it for a critique of the “originality of the avant-garde.”

Here, too, Rodin is always a work in progress—including progress toward the museum known as the Met. It commissioned casts from him in 1910 and gave him its first gallery for a living artist. He donated more works to the Met soon after. He had already influenced modern art in New York. Edward Steichen photographed Balzac at all hours of the night and convinced Alfred Stieglitz to give Rodin drawings a show. And then there is his corridor in the Met today.

In truth that corridor is always an embarrassment. It showcases academic art before a first glimpse of something else. For the occasion, the paintings hew more closely to Rodin’s influences and friends. They include the allegories of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau—whom Rodin did not like but who marks a similar transition from Symbolism to Modernism. A nude by Pierre-Auguste Renoir accompanies one by Rodin, and the Seine for Claude Monet accompanies his bather. Together, they make the older art more relevant, but also leave Rodin more firmly in transition from the past.

No one is more of an embarrassment than Jules Bastien-Lepage. Yet sure enough his Joan of Arc has the raised hands of Rodin’s agonized creations, and her flatness points to Rodin’s frontality, even in sculpture fully in the round. Her patriotism also parallels Rodin’s colossal Burghers of Calais (the tale of men who gave their lives to lift an English siege) in the European sculpture court a floor below—a bit of tawdry postmodern architecture on the way from the south wing to the Met’s center. It, too, is on the way somewhere else. Still, try to stay long enough to watch passing detail spill out into myth. As Rodin boasted, “Even the most insignificant head is the dwelling-place of life.”

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

1.12.18 — After the Fever

Je ne demande plus qu’à sentir mon cerveau: for Antonin Artaud, “I ask no more than to feel my brain.”

Can art, too, ask no more? In 1972, Nancy Spero created her Codex Artaud. On its thirty-three scrolls, the words of the French poet and playwright float amid crude figures in a field of white, in a desperate attempt to recover sensation. For “Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason,” contemporary art is still emerging from a clinical disorder.

Hanne Darboven's Konstruktion (Dia Arts Center, 1998)Let me tell you about the 1960s. In art, it was a culmination of everything rational and modern—in formalism, spareness, and the logic of the grid. For others, it was the summer of love. It was a time of expanded opportunities and long overdue demands, most especially for blacks and women. When the logic shattered and the love gave out, in the 1970s, the horizons could only expand still further, taking in Latin American art and the resurgent individualism of Neo-Expressionism. The cynicism of the 1980s was still to come.

Or is that all a lie? The Met Breuer, through January 14, sees only art in the throes of a bad trip, and I have added this to previous reports on art and madness as a longer review for my latest upload. The show divides into four sections as “Vertigo,” “Nonsense,” “Twisted,” and “Excess,” to locate the breakdown in drugs, language, physical sensation, and the very impulse to abstraction that had promised so much clarity. It includes dark voices speaking for the oppressed like Spero or Nancy Grossman, but also the cheery spectacle of Yayoi Kusama. It includes the Post-Minimalism and body parts of Paul Thek, Bruce Nauman, and Eva Hesse—but also the Minimalism of Sol LeWitt and Al Loving, the Pop Art of Claes Oldenburg and Philip Guston, the cartoons of Jim Nutt and Peter Saul, and the experimental videos of Gary Hill and Stan VanDerBeek. By the time you exit, you, too, may be delirious.

It starts innocently enough, with what looks like standard fare in abstraction, including Loving. Yet he has peeled and flattened a cube, much as Agnes Denes seeks alternative projections of the 3D geometry of planet earth. The next room brings in Robert Smithson, who devoted himself to entropy, and Lygia Clark, for whom The Inside Is the Outside. Grids include LeWitt, but also Dara Birnbaum with clips from The Hollywood Squares, Andy Warhol with Electric Chair, and Paul Sharits with Cellular Disorder. The terrors of the body are already in evidence, even before Anna Maria Maiolino presses her mouth to the camera and Ana Mendieta her cheeks to glass. For artists like these, delirium means abjection.

The breakdown of language begins with Léon Ferrari and his Tower of Babel in wire, tin, and lead. It includes VanDerBeek’s fragmented poetry and Mira Schendel, with unreadable graffiti. And it all gets an unhealthy boost from drugs, only starting with a book by Timothy Leary. Lee Lozano declares herself Stoned Drunk Sober, Henri Michaux has his Mescaline Drawing, and Dan Graham charts the side-effects. When Carolee Schneemann confronts the atrocities in Vietnam in grainy film, she takes as her soundtrack the Beatles and “We Can Work It Out,” because she no longer can. Still, something gets lost in the fever dream.

Museums are feeling a welcome pressure to display the permanent collection, after so many blockbusters and wasted atriums. They are also feeling the pressure to keep up with contemporary art—which is, after all, what drew the Met to lose money by taking over the Met Breuer. Here it borrows two-thirds of the show, but the same factors are at work. Is it fair to the period and to art? As curator, Kelly Baum includes too many lesser artists and unrepresentative work. She also needs way too much wall text to fit it all into a thesis, but it breaks away, often movingly, all the same.

To force the work into excess, the show has to separate Warhol’s electric chair and Saul’s by an entire floor. It also has to see disintegration, where a collector like Hanne Darboven or a black woman in abstraction like Howardena Pindell saw freedom—or where Jennifer Bartlett saw Rhapsody. It includes illustrations by LeWitt and Jasper Johns with text by Samuel Beckett, but does that reduce them all to apostles of nonmeaning? As its saving grace, the show eats away at the distinction between Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, along with the privilege of the prosaic. For Smithson, “Here language ‘closes’ rather than ‘discloses’ doors to utilitarian interpretations.” Yet it allowed him to open doors to perception.

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

1.10.18 — Breathless

Elizabeth Murray takes my breath away. She did so when I was first discovering art in the late 1970s, and she did so again with a MoMA retrospective in 2005 and with her drawings on the Lower East Side just last year.

Her principal gallery, Pace, has been conducting its own measured retrospective over the years, including work from the 1970s in 2011 and now work from the 1980s, though January 13. It builds on four paintings from museums in and beyond New York, with a dozen others of nearly equal size and stature. Notebook pages confirm their origins and her restless imagination. With nearly every painting running across several fragments of shaped canvas, who can speak of her art as ever coming together once and for all?

Elizabeth Murray's Breaking (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1980)She is taking my breath away once more, for I am at a loss for more words. Instead, I have revised the earlier reviews, especially the long one on her retrospective and the 1970s. I try to incorporate what I am seeing now, and I can only ask you to read more there. Here I shall just offer a teaser. The reviews also touch on contemporaries, including Joan Snyder, and the revival of painting ever since. If painting has survived or even exploded, she deserves credit. As I conclude, no one painting has the iconicity of black stripes from Frank Stella, but her work has served as not even his could, as an iconic starting point for painting today.

She came late to formalism and early to Neo-Expressionism or Neo-Pop. A painting from 1982 outlines a shattered teacup, but the tea still lets off steam. Who, though, can accuse her of inconsistency, when she pushed the logic of the frame for twenty-five years? Murray embraced both abstraction and shaped canvas, but she gave them a shape or shapes all her own. She wields those shapes freehand, and she dares one to keep track of how they come together. She welcomes illusion, but as a further reflection on painting.

At the same time, her work suggests a commitment to the past. That includes sheer skill, although she delegated a frame’s construction to her studio. A furniture maker would take pride in curves like these. An older painter would admire her blended surfaces and hints of human anatomy. Like Cubism, she supplies multiple cues to space as well, from the cracked surface to overlapping planes, while contrasting colors smear into one another, creating new openings for brightness and darkness. A dark tentacle, like a small head from Edvard Munch’s Scream, looks back to Surrealism, but through the eyes of a knowing child.

Her circling back includes the literal layering of canvas, in twists that recall waves or Möbius strips. One work from the 1980s has four pieces, each propped at one end on the next, like M. C. Escher’s eternal waterfall. Other pieces stand just apart, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether the canvas is coming together or apart. When she returns to earlier motifs, she is still taking stock. One can describe her career as the alternation of continuity and disruption. Just try to tell them apart.

If all that makes Murray a figure of her time, it also makes her a disturbing force. Where Stella or Judy Pfaff announces a break, she assimilates everything. Where Stella treats even the wildest turns as predetermined, she always finds one too many determinant. Where Stella’s time marches on, her images and shapes keep circling back. Was she the best painter of her generation? Like Jasper Johns or Gerhard Richter, she makes it hard to define what one means by a painter any longer, but even harder not to care.

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

1.8.18 — Silence without Censorship

To pick up from last time on “Art and China Since 1989” at the Guggenheim, Xu Bing filmed the pigs back in 1993 as A Case Study in Transference, Aun Yuan and Peng Yu the dogs in 2003, but they still drew hundreds of thousands of signatures in protest. Huang Yong Ping knows that his habitat, too, is not for the squeamish. Now that we can look back, did the Guggenheim make the right decisions?

Huang Yong Ping's Theater of the World (Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, 1993)If one thing unites the roughly seventy artists, it is reaching for the big, the brash, and the obvious. Ai Weiwei built an international reputation with spectacle and performance—such as shattering ancient urns, marking others with a Coca-Cola logo, and salvaging art from the trash. Cao Fei earned a show only a year ago at MoMA PS1 for animation with the look of anime and the pace of a video game.

And that leads once again to the issues of silence and censorship. The Whitney kept Dana Schutz in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Should the Guggenheim have stood its ground as well? Even before Theater of the World, Huang ran histories of Western and Chinese art through a washing machine, and the show displays the results. Surely he and the museum should know censorship when they see it. Maybe so, but then why does the outrage at the museum’s compromise leave me so uncomfortable?

For one thing, everyone deserves a voice, but not everyone deserves a show at the Guggenheim. While bad art can never excuse censorship, each of the works now withdrawn has that obvious message that makes me reluctant to feel sorry for it. It is also a confused message. Huang may speak of “survival of the fittest” as life under capitalism or communism, but how far can science serve as a metaphor for society? And while it is hard to pity cockroaches and tarantulas, he and not Darwin, China, or the global economy were going to put them to an early death. The other two works are still more of a mess.

For another, censorship implies government or institutional power—much as when a senator tried to crush Robert Mapplethorpe or a mayor tried to remove Andres Serrano and Chris Ofili. It also implies fear of a point of view. In the case of Schutz, it turns on a white artist’s right to speak to out about racism. Here a public protest objected not to a work’s message or its artist, but to cruelty to animals. That is something else entirely, and it does not take treating animals as human (another lame defense) to object. I do not strangle cats and call that museum-quality art either.

Defenders of the art have pointed to football players as victims of abuse much like the dogs. That sounds to me like a child in a playground pleading “he did it first.” Then, too, humans, one can hope, have a choice. Defenders also speak of the dogs as using the treadmills for the pleasure of a run, but that hardly accords with their pursuit of each other to the point of exhaustion. And the museum can fairly claim not to have quashed debate, but rather to encourage debate through its compromise, retaining the monitors and cages while adding artist statements. Unlike a censor, it is not trying to forget.

Still, the outcry has a point. Animal cruelty only barely defines display of a video more than twenty years old, one that hardly approves of cruelty, and it does not define the other two works at all. The museum also made a decision to display them, and that decision should not come up for a vote, not even from an informed and passionate public. It speaks of protecting its staff from danger, but the only danger I see comes from scorpions, not PETA terrorists. In the end, I support the outcome but with fears that it, too, like so much of the work, may be repellent. With luck, the debate over contemporary Chinese art can now look beyond the silence of the pigs.

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

1.5.18 — The Silence of the Pigs

And so a quiet has come to the Guggenheim—and to “Art and China After 1989.” The pigs are no longer copulating for the camera. The gibberish stamped on each, in the Western alphabet on one and in pretend Chinese on the other, can no longer reduce Sino-American relations to nonsense or lust. The prurient male viewer will have to settle for himself as a sexist pig.

The pit bulls are no longer charging at each other, again on video, for the chance to maul or to kill. The treadmills that kept them inches apart have stopped, although the metaphorical treadmill of a Chinese factory worker continues, along with confrontation in the Pacific Rim. Zhang Hongtu's Kekou-Kele (Coca-Cola Six Pack) (courtesy of the artist/Queens Museum, 2002)The monitor that marked the show’s conclusion has gone dark. Angry voices on both sides only multiply, decrying the abuse of animals or censorship. And so they should—only now they can start asking which most typifies museum politics or China. In withdrawing the disputed works, the Guggenheim has left the monitors in place and added artist statements that raise much the same issues, through January 7.

The work that opened the show and gave it its name has gone, too. The insects and lizards of Theater of the World have departed, and so have the live snakes that would have shared a separate cage above with bronze animals out of Chinese myth. Or rather, they never arrived, leaving only a stately metal bridge over an empty wooden theater in the round. Nor will the creatures meant to replace them as they die under the heat of museum lights. The set has taken on an air of meditation more fitting to Chinese art of the past. The entire show should have one asking what that says about the loud, courageous, and often superficial art of the present.

No bull (or pit bull), but those three works threatened to overshadow the rest of the show, and they may still. To my mind, the Guggenheim made the right call in exhibiting not them but the controversy, and I do intend to weigh in, as you will see in a post next time. First, though, one had better get a handle on the show. It covers just twenty years, from the Tiananmen Square massacre to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but it is about contemporary artists and events all the same. It may overwhelm visitors with a huge back story and unfamiliar names. Yet those same three works help pin down its themes, as I explain more fully in a longer review and my latest upload.

First off, they are crying for attention—and getting it. It appears in a mammoth black dragon in the rotunda overhead by Chen Zhen, with the head of crushed bicycles, the body of a seed case, and a tail of inner tubes and plastic cars. It appears in Mickey Mouse toys, helium balloons, a bathtub, and a Mylar bed by Xu Tan—all, of course, made in China. It appears in the sheer futility of a performance by Cang Xin and others, To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, or by Song Dong, Stamping the Water. Visitors may respond with wonder or frustration, but one thing is certain: I get the message.

Yet this is political art, and its message sounds a lot less frustrating in light of its politics. The three disputed works concern entrapment and scrutiny by a higher power. A newscaster reading the definition of water for Zhang Peili makes more sense if you know that she recited the party line on Tiananmen Square. And the tanks that day still roll for Zheng Guogu, if only in deep-fried plastic. Painting is rare, apart from a surge of realism in the early 1990s, virtually all of it colored by German Expressionism—like a meat locker for Zeng Fanzhi and a dreary New Year’s Eve for Zhang Xiaogang. Still, the message is often oblique, as may befit dreams of fine art or life under censorship.

By the same token, their art has roots in both east and west. Wang Guangyi digs a tunnel in his living room, as if to bring them together, while Zhang Hongtu adds his Warning: You Are Still Traveling in the United States. It is no accident that Huang Yong Ping calls his creepy-crawly habitat, first exhibited in 1993, a theater not of China but the world. Yet that bridge between east and west is a displacement as well. In all these ways, from politics to culture, artists still have to wonder what to call home.

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

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