8.7.17 — The Feast of Summer

On a hot summer day, New Yorkers might wish they had a backyard swimming pool—if only they had a backyard apart from the city’s parks. And there, in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Anish Kapoor sets out a pool for anything but wading.

In place of his usual sweeping curves, it has a whirlpool at its center, sucking water in and churning the water up at its edges. Nestled almost beneath the bridge, it exists between the Scylla of gentrification and the Charybdis of art. Fortunately, it looks more meditative than threatening, and its title, Declension, sounds more out of Latin grammar than Greek myth. It could evoke a gentler slope as well, toward the East River and sea. Of course, in grammar a declension means running down nouns and adjectives, so how about a run through more of a New Yorker’s backyard?

My posts this week continue through 2017 summer sculpture. The tour starts with an extra post tomorrow, when the sun comes out, on the Met’s roof with Adrián Villar Rojas and a stiff drink. I then detour to Socrates Sculpture Park, for Nari Ward and a herd of goats. Last, I return to Manhattan for the grand boulevards, the High Line, and quieter parks. Together, they offer the feast of a New York summer. Enjoy.

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

8.4.17 — Making Space in Abstraction

Maybe the Museum of Modern Art is finally getting the point. It has begun focusing on its collection, which got short shrift in its 2004 expansion.

It has done so with special exhibitions to illuminate movements in modern art. And now it headlines not a period in history, but women in abstract art. While the show pays only token attention to African Americans, take heart: as I noted in an earlier report, a Chelsea gallery has William T. Williams ripping through many of the same years. Together they belong now to a longer review and my latest upload.

Magdalena Abakanowicz's Yellow Abakan (Museum of Modern Art, 1967–1968)Making Space” does not try to pick winners in the contemporary scene, through August 13—although women have done plenty to drive the resurgence of painting. MoMA has been picking winners for a long time, but that is starting to look more suspect in a hot market with a short memory. Rather, it tackles the glory years of postwar abstraction and Minimalism. With “Women of Abstract Expressionism” in Denver or Carmen Herrera at the Whitney, maybe other institutions are getting the point, too. The display of the collection quite generally will be changing as well—and the changes are rubbing off on men.

The show calls attention to past practices as well. When critics object to a paucity of women in museums, they almost always mean MoMA. Recently women have seemed to be everywhere, but here mostly as Marina Abramovic staring off into space. The good news is that more than third of this show consists of fairly recent acquisitions. The bad news is what that says about the last forty years, after paintings by Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Agnes Martin shaped a generation’s understanding of postwar art. With shows like this, they could shape a new generation’s understanding now.

Not that MoMA was ever out of the picture. It says as much with the exhibition title, which recalls the standard history of abstraction as formalism, as well as the need to make room for women. It says so, too, in mentioning exhibitions going back to 1951. It cites “Abstraction in Photography” when it comes to Barbara Morgan and Gertrude Altschul, “The Responsive Eye” when it comes to Bridget Riley and Op Art, and “Wall Hangings” when it comes to Sheila Hicks and Anni Albers—who had served as acting director of the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus. It opens with big gestures in red, blue, and green by Grace Hartigan, whose work toured the country in “New American Painting” starting in 1956. She was the sole woman present.

Coming late to the game has its advantages at that. Like prior shows of “Dadaglobe” and “The Revolutionary Impulse,” it allows the curators, Starr Figura and Sarah Hermanson Meister, to bring history up to date. They devote nearly a room to Latin American art, including Altschul, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Gego. They incorporate design with ceramics by Lucie Rie and again with tapestry in a room for “Fiber and Line,” including a grand cape of rumpled sisal by Magdalena Abakanowicz. They can even distance themselves from formalism by calling the last room “Eccentric Abstraction”—for such figures as Lee Bontecou, Jay DeFeo, Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis, and Eva Hesse. The very first room bows to globalism with Etel Adnan, born in Lebanon, and to African Americans, with Alma Thomas.

A revisionist history is bound to bring surprises, even with work acquired long ago. That first room counters the epic scale of Abstract Expressionism with collage by Anne Ryan and Janet Sobel, perhaps the first drip painter. The show leaves out Hesse’s large work in favor of hanging paper-mâché and cord, created at an abandoned German textile factory. I already hear cries to move all this immediately to the regular galleries, displacing as many men as possible, to get a revisionist history going there, too. That would be a mistake. This is not a zero-sum game at the expense of men who changed the rules—and it is not another round of puffery and pop stars.

Does MoMA have a distinct vision of women in art? Maybe or maybe not, and either can be the point of giving them their due. One can argue that all along, as with Mitchell or Krasner’s Gaea, they have rooted abstraction in both subjectivity and nature. One can again argue for riffs on craft, such as polyurethane Belly-Cushions by Alina Szapocznikow. One can also argue for women as outsiders, including Jews who escaped Europe—with Szapocznikow a Holocaust survivor. Male immigrants like Arshile Gorky would understand.

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

8.2.17 — Uncritical Theory

Teju Cole does not settle for photographs. He makes magazine spreads, with or without the magazine.

Cole’s closeness to magazine spreads shows in the bright colors and perfect stillness—even with a woman walking the street or boats headed every which way at sea. It shows in clear skies and sunlit vistas, the kind you know even before you have seen them, perhaps from last weekend’s travel section. It shows in the certainty that each scene, however marvelous or however ordinary, is where you want to be. Teju Cole's Capri, June 2015 (Steven Kasher gallery, 2015)It shows, too, in the text facing each and every one, at Steven Kasher through August 11.

A pairing of photos and text has another history as well, in conceptual art, and Cole has big ideas. The woman and the boats make him think of sailing for Troy in the Iliad. (He leaves unsaid whether Agamemnon will have to sacrifice this young woman first, which is just as well.) This is not, though, the pairing in Barbara Kruger and the “Pictures generation,” with their insistence on politics and gender. Rather, it takes the critical out of critical theory. It leaves only the comforting certainty that something profound is going on.

Cole has made that certainty the subject of his essays for the Sunday New York Times Magazine. They deal in generalities, to reassure readers that this is serious art and that these are these are indeed universal truths. So, too, does the text accompanying his photos. “Regularity becomes invisible.” “Color is the sound an object makes in response to light.” “A stone contemplates a stone.”

A vent on shipboard makes him think of “the alphorn at the beginning of the final movement of Brahms’s First Symphony.” A ladder and its shadow are “crossing each other on the way to heaven.” No, make that “a shadow and its ladder,” as duly ineffable. “I think the Annunciation must have happened on a day like this one.” (And no, that fabric hanging from a ship’s railing is not the Virgin Mary’s robe or someone else’s exposed underwear.) “Photography means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Well, I made up that last one, but you get the picture. In at least one respect, Cole’s prominence is a triumph. He shows that an African American artist has every right not to speak to racism or identity, just as he has every right to speak frankly about them. Recent years have had major exhibitions of Alma Thomas, Jack Whitten, William T. Williams, and black abstraction, with much the same insistence. When they bring their experience to their art, they may well speak to racism and identity after all—and Cole’s Times essays insist that photography must not paper over real lives. Yet he carries a far less provocative message as well.

It may sound odd to speak of his art as middlebrow. Surely that label belongs to a distant past, before Pop Art and street art, when highbrow art and popular culture faced off rather than intermingled, making even some with a college education feel left out. Back when, they found Modernism puzzling, the movies a guilty pleasure, and both as soulless as the threats from fascism and communism. Cole, though, is a throwback—just as he can photograph a woman from behind without anyone, including me, thinking of sexism. He still believes that Homer, the Bible, Capri, St. Moritz, and Brooklyn occupy the same space outside of time. Maybe it is about time that he all left that space behind him.

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

7.31.17 — Idle Hands

If you have time on your hands, you can idle away as much as you like at “The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin.” Benjamin himself began The Arcades in 1927 as a short meditation on Paris, but it consumed the rest of his life.

The Jewish Museum starts modestly, too. It pairs just one artist with each chapter of Benjamin’s unfinished project, through August 6, most with a single work. James Welling's Morgan Great Hall (Wadsworth Atheneum, 2014)And then it invites you to linger over the three dozen selections, as a busy biennial or an evening in the galleries never will. It does not hold together, but then neither did Paris. It seems at times to belong more to the curators than to either the artists or the German writer, but you can claim it for yourself. I give a complicated show a longer review as my latest upload.

Walter Benjamin is best known for asking whether the work of art retains its authority in the age of mechanical reproduction. (Today he might say digital.) This show brings art and ideas together to put them both to the test. You can imagine yourself meandering at leisure, much like him in the vaulted shopping centers of the last century. You can wonder at what it means then or now to embrace the present. And then, like the arcades for him, it gets totally out of hand, in a frustrating but intriguing jumble of past and present.

Benjamin did not coin the term flâneur for the archetypical urban stroller, although he gave it a chapter. He did not even popularize it, for his book did not see the light of day until 1982, more than forty years after his death. It appeared in English only in 1999—fittingly enough, at the dawn of a millennium. Still, he has come to typify the ideal. It fits with his fascination with half-hidden passageways and consumer society. It fits as well with his aphoristic style and his love of literature and history.

For all that, Benjamin was no idler. He came to Paris not for shopping, but in flight from the Nazis, and he left the book unfinished when he fled yet again. He committed suicide when denied passage to Spain in 1940, on his way to the United States. A Marxist, he is associated with the Frankfurt School, although he never managed to teach at its Institute for Social Research—or, for that matter, anywhere else. Still, he shares with such theorists there as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Jürgen Habermas a belief in both reason and subjectivity. For Benjamin, philosophy had room for Karl Marx and social movements, but also Charles Baudelaire, the railroads, the Seine, the catacombs of ancient Paris, and the city as the site of prostitution and gambling along with the stock exchange.

He gave each of them a chapter or convolute, after the Latin for bundle. And the project grew to encompass literary history, theories of knowledge, and the failed revolution of the Paris Commune in 1871. He really did have time on his hands, and you had better, too. You will need it to get lost along with Harris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer in their Infinite Library of gutted and reordered books. You will need it to find your way with Taryn Simon through the image archives of the New York Public Library, sorted into such categories as women, wallpaper, and buildings. Benjamin might have understood.

Each chapter gets a complex layering of art and text. Some art comes with its own, like a mandala of encircling words by Simon Evans, as The Voice. Wall labels add more—and then Kenneth Goldsmith contributes a poem of found text to each, out of anything from the social sciences to fiction. Bret Easton Ellis and his hard-driving 1980s accompany the stock market. Goldsmith in turn shapes his text into images, such as a smile or meandering curves for the streets of Paris. This is one convoluted convolute.

For all that, this history has many cunning passages. And the art works best when it turns on the collision between past and present. One becomes a flâneur in both space and time—right along with Bill Rauhauser, the self-styled “flâneur of Detroit.” As idlers go, he does not shy away from precision with his photograph of a compass for drawing, but then the whole show has its circles upon circles. It is part of Benjamin called “a waking world . . . to which that dream we name the past refers.” A pity that he did not live to put this past behind him.

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

7.28.17 — No One Can Hear You

In space, no one can hear you quote art theory. I am not so sure about in the Guggenheim, but Doug Wheeler would just as soon not hear.

Wheeler packs a tower gallery with more than four hundred slim pyramids of the silencing foam used in recording studios, as PSAD Synthetic Desert III, through August 2. Still more spikes line a wall, pushing you out and onto a platform overlooking the array. If you fall, you can guarantee a soft landing. If you do not, you can hope for quiet. He would like nothing more. Doug Wheeler's PSAD Synthetic Desert III (Guggenheim Museum, 1971/2017)

He calls it a semi-anechoic chamber, meaning free of echoes. Conceived in 1971, it has taken shape for the very first time. To enter, one must silence one’s cell phone and pass three distinct doors. More foam takes the shape of airfoils but with triangular cross-sections, on the entrance and far wall. The remaining wall has nothing but a purplish light. It casts visitors into brightness and the corner pyramids into shade. Anything in-between takes on extra dimensions.

As long ago as the 1960s, Wheeler used white paintings to fuse art with the walls and the room with art. By the next decade, he was working with only the room—as a locus of light, space, and sound. On his last appearance in New York, in 2012, the lighting in a bare white room changed ever so gradually. In place of fine art or industrial materials, it offered an alternative to the course of nature. It was Minimalism without the art object or the rules. It built on Minimalism’s attention to the space around the viewer, but with the added dimensions of time and the space within the mind.

Synthetic Desert, too, alludes to nature, only starting with its title. It draws on Wheeler’s experience of the northern Arizona desert. Like all his work, it links him to Light and Space, the West Coast movement—but it is not quite so serene as it sounds. It contains plenty of objects, and they point directly at you. They also present a spectacle not so very far from that of another popular artist, Yayoi Kusama. Like her work, too, they belong to a chamber within the larger and more crowded spectacle of the museum.

The room admits just five visitors every quarter of an hour, a tiny fraction of museum-goers. You can take your chances at the ticket counter or online, but either way you are in for disappointment or a wait. You might use the time remembering Kusama’s mob scene in Washington, merging with tourists in the Frank Lloyd Wright building, or lining up for yet another spectacle—the solid gold toilet by Maurizio Cattelan. Those who arrive late for their time are out of luck, and I shared the room with just two others and an attendant. I felt privileged. I could think of Wheeler’s raised platform as a runway, with me as an unlikely fashion model.

While I explored more restlessly than Wheeler would approve, another visitor sat still, and the third lay down, either rapt or nodding off. Unlike an ordinary guard, the attendant got to sit with his legs spread, too. I marveled, but I still felt that I had entered less a theater of the mind than a public theater. Is this desert transcendent or boring, comforting or threatening, natural or synthetic? Does PSAD stand for post-synthetic art disorder? When you find your answer, try not to scream.

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

7.26.17 — A Proper Burial

More than thirty years ago, painting was dead, and a woman in her thirties was determined to give it a decent burial. Louise Lawler photographed a painting by Jackson Pollock at his peak, but hanging above fine porcelain in the home of Connecticut collectors.

A soup tureen’s delicacy all but subsumes Pollock’s drips in its pattern. Is this the proper decor for a funeral parlor or what? Also in 1984, Lawler photographed a flag painting by Jasper Johns above monogrammed bedding—both as white as a sheet. May it rest in peace. Louise Lawler's Monogram (courtesy of the artist/Metro Pictures, 1984)

Not that painting had ever died, although all the right people declared it dead, and I had to pursue abstract art to Staten Island in the 1990s for the first hints of its resurgence. Lawler and others, though, were prepared to bring the death blow as well as the funeral. The “Pictures generation,” named for an exhibition curated by Douglas Crimp, saw painting as one more great white male institution in crisis—and who better to rise up against it than a woman with a camera like Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Sherrie Levine, or Lawler. She did the deed well, too, for her image of Connecticut is instantly recognizable today. It is recognizable even traced on vinyl, in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art through July 30, curated by Roxana Marcoci with Kelly Sidley.

Just the year before, in 1983, Crimp wrote “The Museum in Ruins” for a book edited by Hal Foster. And no wonder, for postmodern art and critical theory were then learning from and encouraging one another. So why does the museum look very much intact, even when Lawler takes one behind the scenes for, ambiguously, a taking down or an installation? Her photographs from the 1980s and 1990s occupy the show’s first room—some more recently enlarged to the scale of walls. Some are distorted in the process, which she deems a response to distortions of another kind, in fact-free politics after Donald J. Trump. A second room has the tracery and “ephemera,” such as announcements of past exhibitions.

Lawler takes down the “originality of the avant-garde“—not just with her photographs, but also in the spirit of collaboration. She casts leaf shapes in bronze with Alan McCollum and engages Jon Buller, a children’s book illustrator, to do the tracing. She photographs a painting by Robert Rauschenberg that already appropriates Peter Paul Rubens. She also packs a mean spirit when she cares to do so, as with the white globes of an art handler—or in pairing Jackie Kennedy with a Nazi. Titles ask whether Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol make you cry, and the obvious answer is no. How, then, did painting and sculpture escape death?

For one thing, no one ever doubted that art depends on patronage. Pollock made do with far less than the bounty of Renaissance princes before him—or of art fairs, art advisors, and museum blockbusters today, when The New York Times interviews celebrities each week about what hangs on their walls. In contrast to her obviousness, Lawler can also come off as more insular than a private dealer. Wall labels follow the money trail, naming the owners of all her prints from editions of five. They do not, though, offer the least help in identifying the art on camera. If you have to ask. . . .

To her credit, she freely admits her complicity in the game. When she makes a glass paperweight from a photo of Dan Flavin, his lights shimmer. She picks co-conspirators like Sherman as subjects, transforms the name of male competitors into bird calls for the museum’s sculpture garden (in a recreation of sound art from 1972 and 1981), and includes stationery and custom matchbooks for her gallery. One matchbook even gives the retrospective its title, “Why Pictures Now.” So why return to “Pictures” now, and did Lawler’s generation kill art only with kindness? May it rest on museum walls in peace.

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

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