Boys and Girls

John Haber
in New York City

Gallery-Going: Chelsea in Spring 2002

Joan Mitchell

Boys will be boys. This spring, male bravado fills the galleries. Meanwhile such artists as Joan Mitchell, Susan Rothenberg, Kate Shepherd, and Eileen Brady Nelson seem all too eager to lay back and comply. Or do they? Art has a way of slipping the good stuff past you. But this is art, after all, so let me start with appearances.


What is it about those men? After years of increasingly user-friendly installations, Richard Serra gathers those early prop pieces and other work, as phallic and frightening as ever in their lead or dark steel. Frank Stella, meanwhile, adds his own steel posts to the shock and flexibility of color on aluminum and Stella's stripes on canvas. Joan Mitchell's La Grande Vallée IX (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1984)The work pieces grow so assertive that his gallery has to borrow the warehouse next door. It had better, as he pursues the ultimate boy's novel for sober intellectuals, borrowing titles from Moby Dick.

If New York and Frank Stella long ago "stole" the idea of the avant-garde, out in Williamsburg the Paris-Brooklyn gallery exchange lets Europe fight back. Dominique Gauthier, for one, remaps Stella's colorful overlays in two dimensions. In virtually an encyclopedia of painting's tools, techniques, and history, Stella's mammoth constructions insist as ever that "what you see is what you get." Gauthier, in contrast, revels in the play of raw paint and illusion. With his squiggly line of acid green on top, he could be a little boy squeezing toothpaste right out of the tube.

Bruce Nauman acts less overtly confrontational than back in the days of Clown Torture and other early videos. In fact, nothing at all happens in his latest, beyond the casual movements of his cat or the Southwestern light. And he dares you to sit through it all—for hours, in multiple projections, and in two different versions, to boot, color and hazy black-and-white. I think of those Web sites that give one a choice of downloads for fast or slow connections. Here slow is definitely the operative word.

Art this bold leaves even a wimp like me on a high. But what about the women? At her Whitney retrospective, critics did their best to sustain Mitchell's feminine mystique. Forget the clichés suited to male artists, about agony and self-expression—or formal structure, and pure art. This time one heard only about indulgence and pleasure. But then you noticed my choice of the verbs lay back and comply back at the start. We cavemen must stick together.

Women have, thankfully, shaken up art pretty thoroughly by now. One had better expect feminist challenges, from critics and artists alike. Still, face it: the art world manages to absorb pretty much every avant-garde and every challenge. So why not one more? Just this spring, the same old museum politics put a 2002 retrospective of Eva Hesse on the skids.

Of course, art hardly exists in isolation, and I live in reactionary times. Indeed, a feminist critique will note how often men and women alike play to stereotypes. But one can see what the stereotypes leave out. Instead of returning to the good old days, when men were men, artists find their own future. They may live in the present, but they can still represent it in unsettling ways. As they slip in and out of gender roles, the roles themselves can easily start to slip.

Absent landscapes

Joan Mitchell is asking for it. Starting in the 1950s, her often pale colors and feathery touch turn from the agonies and ironies of Abstract Expressionism. The many white spaces can easily sound precious compared to a formalist's grid. Hints of landscape can make her the gentle mother after a generation of implied figure painting. Think of Vir Heroicus Sublimus, Woman I, Lucifer or a drip painter's automatic self-portraiture. In the heritage from Surrealism and the sublime, forget the background in favor of objects to be worshiped, ogled, or feared.

In an excruciatingly male domain, it hardly helps that Mitchell bears the label "second generation." Hardly a year or two earlier, one took such gutsy women as Janet Sobel and Lee Krasner for granted. Mitchell became a follower of Modernism, just when art was moving to a theater beyond painting. Besides, she literally followed a man, a prominent Canadian painter, to settle in the Paris suburbs.

Her retrospective—well, okay, her gorgeous retrospective—should rescue her once and for all from the role of abstract art's push-over. In its very first room, Mitchell takes on the boys. The dense, irregular tiling recalls Krasner—but also the enamel patches of Willem de Kooningfrom de Kooning's first solo show, the somber browns of Arshile Gorky after a terrible fire consumed his happiness and his work, and the assertive brushwork of Jackson Pollock in his own earliest abstractions.

In no time, too, she is clearly her own woman. Her canvases start with the background as a thing in itself, the carefully slathered white paint creating wide-open spaces or coming forward in crusty, subtle relief. Big horizontal strokes then define a painting's structure. Against all this, drips descend vertically, and finer drawing in oil weaves the layers together. She has taken each of the elements of a drip painting, but recombined them in a totally conscious construction. As the layers intermingle, the idea of feminine background and male foreground slips away as well.

A decade later, much as in the course of a career for Pollock or Mark Rothko, too, colors darken into black. She also discovers symmetry. Paired shapes and separate panels stare back at one another, as if daring paint to define an object after all. In her final decades, canvases open up again, often on a monumental scale, but the play of symmetry continues. A single block may take up different positions in three panels, like a house recalled from long-faded snapshots and distant stories. Her scrawls of color, like unreadable handwriting, attain a final lushness, not unlike late work of Cy Twombly and far from the later sensibility of Jean-Michel Basaquiat.

Mitchell, then, she has no trouble taking on the guys, but she does so without the heavy baggage of male competition. If women appreciate only flowers and finery, fine. If Pollock drips down to the floor to leave his mark, her drips carry downward within the field of art. They orient the painting, but her blocks of color, by sheer contrast, float free of its gravity. If Pollock makes one identify the painting with his presence, the loose, open spaces identify her and painting alike as absences.

The beautiful light

"The thing that really makes me want to puke is these artists who feel like they have to go to the South of France because the light is so beautiful. I find that bogus. The light in California is hotter than the light in France." Speaking to the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Ed Ruscha might not have had Mitchell in mind, but I wish I had them together with me in front of her works three years after her retrospective, in 2005. It would have made for a lively argument. I guess her affront to macho perspectives extends even to the battle over freedom fries.

Actually, Mitchell moved to Paris, not the Midi. Besides, in her work from 1960 to 1962, again on view in New York, she may come closest to the ideals of the New York School. One can see landscape in her open backgrounds of the 1950s. One can see it in the regular shapes, like ponds or garden plots, in her late paintings. Not even Jennifer Bartlett before her "Hospital" pastels has created such an elusive garden idyll. However, in what her gallery calls her Frémicourt paintings, after her studio address, she puts paint literally front and center.

Mitchell prepares a light ground, its white itself a lush beginning. Over that she uses broad horizontal brushwork to assert symmetry, clarity, and an overall tonal range. Last, palpable swirls of oil all but leap off the canvas. The work has the dense layerings and sharp colors of de Kooning in the late 1950s. They have the strongly centered compositions and improvisatory air of earlier Pollock. And, as with Pollock throughout his life, black becomes the most intense color of all.

Perhaps Mitchell needed a certain distance from New York and the 1950s to make it her own. Perhaps she needed to work through it alone, before assimilating it to her earlier, more horizontal compositions. Perhaps she was unleashing the sheer joy of returning full time to France, a decade after her student year abroad, and of taking up with Jean-Paul Riopelle. Perhaps, but in the depth of oil and bright color may yet have something to do with a new light. They could recall that Claude Monet had set a prescient earlier pattern for all-over paintings and for the modernist impulse to work in series. Then again, those de Kooning abstractions struggle with the piers, lots, highways, and open air of New York City.

In those same years, Ruscha was observing, too, and he was seeing a much less natural light. His early paintings bring to Pop Art the artificial light and black skies of the California highway at night. In 1965 he paints the Los Angeles County Museum on fire. Now there the light was hotter than in France.

Maybe it says something that Mitchell asserts her independence of first-generation Abstract Expressionism without Ruscha's combativeness or the harsh, agressive reality of traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway. Her light definitely never recalls puke. Mitchell has often escaped labels, just as she once escaped the art scene. With his laconic precision, along with his own distance from New York, I hope that Ruscha would understand.

X marks the spot

Yet whether he would or not, Postmodern tactics have insistently sought her absences. They have allowed women artists to embrace illusion, play, and disguise. They can tackle art and images from a male tradition, make these their own, and refuse to be simply the leftovers. Paradoxically, all the while they can make these tactics speak specifically for women.

None of this will surprise anyone these days. Remarkably, one sees the same interplay of gender and tradition in older art. From Artemisia Gentileschi on, recent exhibitions have brought those antecedents alive. I thought of them all, but especially Mitchell, as I hit the galleries. There Kara Walker was showing women as literal blanks in history—black cutouts, projections, and the whiteness of refined sugar. Pat Steir carries Mitchell's structure of grid, drips, illusion, and scale into a subject matter of mist and waterfalls.

Steir came up in a fad for "new image" painting, an implicit affront to years of No Image painting. Another of its star actors, Susan Rothenberg, plays the other to Nauman in her personal life—and in her latest show. If his video leaves people as mere hints of a larger world, she lets them intrude directly—but on a painting's edges. White dominos spill across her mottled green surfaces. One glimpses the limbs that set them in motion, like the odd feet of a younger painter like Cyrilla Mozenter, but barely and without a clear space or narrative in which to place them.

The worked-up ground and flickering white remind me of Mitchell. One indulges again in sheer pleasure, if from an unfamiliar angle. Yet, as for abstraction since Pollock, Rothenberg calls scenes poised between accident and violence. Perhaps a game tumbled to the ground. Or perhaps tables overturned in a moment of anger. The art could parody male aggression as itself a child's game. But then, Clown Torture already parodied the innocence of childhood more than any clown face by James Ensor, so perhaps I should call this a parody of a parody.

Rothenberg's early signature pieces outline a horse in motion, against a flatter, even more barren field of paint. A large X across the center anchors the horse as object within a field, even as the horse disrupts formalism. The X against the horse's limbs heightens their extension, letting a woman appropriate the physicality of a traditionally male symbol. One senses that she picked horses out of love, that she still identifies painting with freedom and buried memories. Yet the X cuts across the horse, as if to obliterate it along with illusions and machismo. It reduces painting to an anonymous sign, the signature of a woman struggling to sign for herself.

Rothenberg can no longer claim a struggle. Her show opens a new location for Sperone Westwater, extending Chelsea galleries and their market reach down into the trendy Meatpacking District. Certainly nothing in her latest work haunts me like those horses, but sometimes the green background comes close. In their roughness, they make anonymity again into her mark.

Men and boys

Younger artists get to play, too. Kate Shepherd paints right on the walls, creating the illusion of light falling from an imagined skylight. She, too, revels in light and illusion, only to recreate the very space of the gallery as an absence. She, too, returns to abstraction, only to refigure geometry as landscape. She even does the same favor for Minimalism. James Turrell with his hole in the ceiling at P.S. 1 and Dan Flavin turns late-afternoon and artificial light into the illusion of something painted or solid. With Radiant Room, Shepherd turns painted surfaces and solid walls into the illusion of light passing through the ceiling.

Once one starts paradoxes, however, they have a way of multiplying. I want women to escape their ghetto, and I want their escape to stand for an alternative. To do so, I have to create a narrative for them to dispel, and naturally I then have to take responsibility for that story, as one more male fiction. In fact, thanks to artists like these, one can revisit the men, too, as slipping out of gender stereotypes. Buys can hardly be boys without a trace of indulgence and pleasure.

Nauman pushes absence to the breaking point, over hours and hours in an artist's empty studio. Stella asks a painting to design itself, taking as his subject the same tools he uses to trace their forms. At the same time, he indulges in the simple pleasures of painting as never before in his art. One feels a dabbler, for better or worse, reveling in the texture of paint ladled into each crevice. The factory scale puts collective production above an artist's ego, and the textures let it emerge on a more approachable scale. Eileen Brady Nelson's Self-Portrait (Allen Sheppard Gallery, 2002)

Even Serra's prop pieces, from between 1969 and 1987, look different in a gallery today. Without museum barriers, they lose their identification with guards, institutions, and danger. The defiance of gravity comes to represent lightness. In their echo of a human figure, I could imagine a modest, awkward dance. Serra began by flinging molten lead around, in the tradition of action painting. For once, I can see his roots in that generation of sculpture as well, in a line from David Smith down through Mark di Suvero, Anish Kapoor, and Joel Shapiro now.

Actually, di Suvero has one of his lightest and grandest pieces ever. A huge assembly reaches to the ceiling of Paula Cooper's imposing cavern. For once, the art plays the role of an enclosure there, but an open, nurturing one.

I feel the terms of my own gender narrative slipping away. So let me end with one last woman and her game of absence, the photographs of Eileen Brady Nelson.

Nostalgia upon reflection

On a casual glance, one could mistake Nelson's photos for vintage prints. Looking a little closer, one could easily dismiss them as re-creations—or idle recreation. Either way, one would miss out on a modest but exceptional delight in the present.

Nelson's scenes stop just short of nostalgia, not unlike scenes by Claire Seidl poised similarly between photograms, landscape, and abstraction. She prefers monochrome, and the meticulous prints range in technique over the medium's history. Her Self-Portrait accepts the stark contrasts and slight smudging of a platinum print. Landscapes have convincing mists out of another era or the matter-of-fact crispness of the 1940s.

Subjects, too, have an eye to the past. The trees and lakes, beautifully devoid of human presence, evoke a vanished America. That assumes, of course, it was not a romantic or patriotic fiction all along. Still lifes, too, suggest a sanctuary. A book lies open, waiting for someone to return to it.

The sentimental aura draws one in—long enough to see how much one has overlooked. For one thing, Nelson represents the world of herself, family, and friends, not an ideal. She likes roads, suggesting a firm route home. No wonder the most retro print is a self-portrait.

Nelson can mirror nature, but only if the mirror turns back on itself, like Mitchell's paired canvases. A panoramic landscape has its own play with mirrors. One half reprints the other half backward, like a cheat—or in place of a sublime in which one can no longer believe.

Reflection, this one a color photograph, actually throws in a couple of reflections. Nelson stands at the right, her face covered by a camera that looks way too big for its own good. At left, improbably, there she is again, at a curious angle and a little too close for the room around her to make sense. In a moment, one finds one's bearings, sort of. The image at left is a mirror, and the whole shot appears in another mirror, right where one pretends to stand.

Face to face

Actually, Reflection comes closest to that studied air one at first distrusted. The trickery has a touch of art class in it. So does the likely allusion to Velázquez and his royal, mirrored double-portrait, Las Meninas. Yet even in a double mirror the allusive form seems palpable and wholly her own.

I thought of the games that Cindy Sherman, among others, has played with the male gaze. Sherman remakes her image—and even that of others—each time, just as Lewis Carroll remade his little girls as women. By covering her face but standing firmly, Nelson asks one to take her for whatever she is.

Nauman calls his lengthy videos Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage). For an ordinary person, however, even chance must give way to people and their own scale of time. In fact, that should read scales of time, as motives both seen and unseen compete for understanding. When it comes to sex, the motives get even more slippery. Lucy Irigary described women as the "sex that is not one." Art takes doubleness in stride, but only because it does not allow one ever to firmly separate the two.

As Nelson looks to tradition, she recalls critiques of authenticity, but without the distrust. When she shows masks, she owns them as objects and takes pleasure in their darkness. They lie cluttered and empty, confused with their own shadows.

In the platinum print, she appears with a whole camera and tripod, her back to the viewer. One sees her only at a distance, through a window, its lattice like a formalist grid set askew.

One sees her not as a face, but as someone at work on the charmingly sunlit landscape all around. The mist in one, the reflection in another, or the road without landmarks in a third—they all form part of the same critique and the same love affair.

BACK to John's arts home page

The Paintings of Joan Mitchell ran through September 29, 2002, at The Whitney Museum of American Art, and her Frémicourt paintings returned to Cheim & Read through June 25, 2005. I actually create my gallery tour out of shows from a span of months. Richard Serra ran through May 26, 2002, at Van de Weghe Fine Arts, Frank Stella through January 26 at Paul Kasmin, Dominique Gauthier through May 20 at Roebling Hall, Bruce Nauman through July at Sperone Westwater and through July 27 at the Dia Center for the Arts, and Mark di Suvero through June at Paula Cooper. Pat Steir ran through April 20 at Cheim & Read, Susan Rothenberg through June 1 at Sperone Westwater, Kate Shepherd through April 20 at Galerie Lelong, and Eileen Brady Nelson through March 30 at Allen Sheppard.


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