6.12.17 — Archetypes and Stereotypes

If you are going to reduce people to types, it helps to treat them with compassion. August Sander did—and all in the pursuit of the universal.

His photographs have collectively become a group portrait of Germany over the course of more than two decades starting in 1910. It has room for young and old, men and women, workers and the comfortable middle class. August Sander's Boxers. Paul Röderstein and Hein Hesse (ARS/Metropolitan Museum, c. 1928)It shows how they defined themselves in the dress codes of their class, their occupation, and an older world. It evokes a way of life that was already vanishing, as an older order endured a world war only to give way to a fragile republic.

Yet he does see them as individuals, starting with the frontal poses that make them impossible to overlook. Sander does not seek Germany in the halls of power or the narratives of an older photography and an older art—although he did photograph a member of parliament and a political prisoner. His subjects smile or frown as they see fit, and even their inability to move appears today as an act of compassion. It frees them from putting on a show, and it allows them something visible to call theirs, in their appearance and the house or shop front behind them. Photos also include paired and group portraits now and then, like a restless and stoic boxer as distinct versions of a shared way of life.

Compassion helps all the more after so many decades, when what Sander took for universals have become particular and quaint. Born in 1876, he began with the idea of “mankind in general” and its characteristics. He sorted people into archetypes as part of the whole, first in his native village of Westerwald and then in Cologne—many published as Face of Our Time in 1929. Now they appear in an ample selection reprinted by his son, Gunther, at Hauser & Wirth uptown through June 17. It was a project in sociopolitical economy, at a time when Marxism was in the air and sociology was being born. It also coincided with the rise of psychoanalysis, including Carl Jung and his archetypes.

In time, though, supposed archetypes become stereotypes. They become even more so in their titles. The types include distinctions recognizable from political and gender critique in the present—like “The Skilled Tradesman,” “The Woman,” “Classes and Professions,” and “The City.” Yet they also include “The Lost People,” “The Sage,” “The Philosopher,” and “The Man of the Soil.” What seemed scientific then borders on sentiment now. Maybe the search for archetypes always will.

The photos survive as more than stereotypes because of their imperfections. Sander insisted on “honesty” rather than the perfect moment, as the very requisite to a systematic view. He makes no effort to alter the dull or dour expressions. He embraces the stiff folds of peasant costumes, the boastfulness of a top hat, and the stains on a varnisher’s apron. They make for more richly textured photographs and a further reminder that their subjects are long gone. If one ever doubted the vulnerability of the Weimar Republic, one can see it again here.

It seems more vulnerable, too, in light of “Small Trades” by Irving Penn, in his retrospective at the Met. Penn’s photos dwell on broad gestures and the tools of the trade. Sander includes props far less often, and they remain subordinate to the archetype and individual. The varnisher holds a tin without showing off, while an alert hound stands in front of the man in the top hat as just another part of his boast. Where Penn makes portraiture of act of stagecraft, Sander makes it an act of remembrance.

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

6.9.17 — More Than a Village

It takes a village or two. Simone Leigh has created one, fashioned after Zimbabwe “kitchen houses” of clay and thatch. And then she has dropped it into into Harlem—in the northeast corner of Marcus Garvey Park, where one can no more enter her three huts than the rockface behind them or the housing projects towering above. Two weekends now after Memorial Day and (finally) warming up, are you getting out and around the city for a long walk? Start there, and then let me show you around!

An artist who has made shower curtains into undershorts, herbal medicines into a poor excuse for political activism (at The New Museum this past fall, through September 18), and a woman’s back or cowrie shells into obscure objects of desire, Simone Leigh's a particularly elaborate imba yokubikira locked up while its owners live in diaspora (Studio Museum in Harlem, 2016)Leigh speaks of her village as “locked up while its owners live in diaspora.” They could, though, find shelter in the trees overhead or the locker rooms, public pool, and recreation center also in the park nearby. They will have come a long way, and they may have already found a home.

inHarlem” gives a high-tech label to a low-tech walk through the community, organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem through July 25. It extends from Madison Avenue to Morningside Drive to the west—and then another two miles to the north. It invites four artists to mark their own green space, one to a park. And it sees their surroundings as a place to live and to play, even as gentrification brings its displacements. As I entered Morningside Park, a white sunbather lay oblivious to passing eyes, in what once served as formidable wall between Columbia University and a neighborhood at risk. Now the show’s very title invites one in—and, together with an earlier report on a prominent black sculptor, Richard Hunt, it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

Not that the artists are unaware of racism, displacement, and danger. Rudy Shepherd has documented the Superdome as a site of displaced persons after a disaster, and Kori Newkirk has displayed a shopping cart, in “Blues for Smoke” at the Whitney Museum, as an emblem of life on the streets. Here, though, Shepherd marks the north end of the walk in Jackie Robinson Park with a “negative energy absorber.” Black Rock, actually concrete over wood and metal, takes its shape from Manhattan bedrock. It means in turn “to dispel people’s feelings of racial prejudice, violence, or ordinary disdain by opening them to more compassionate aspects of their personalities.” And Newkirk imagines St. Nicholas Park, itself a half-mile rock wall, as “the site for a ceremonial procession.”

Well, O.K,, and Shepherd sees Harlem more through the eyes of Henry Moore than of its residents. As for Newkirk, maybe Sentra sounds more like a Nissan model, but it does, he swears, denote “sexy creative energy.” Still, anything would look good just past another public pool, and Newkirk knows a thing or two about reaching out. In “The Bearden Project,” at the Studio Museum in homage to Romare Bearden, he turned paint cans into a game of telephone. In his own show, six years after his appearance there as an emerging artist, his marks of post-black identity included human hair and beaded curtains. Here reflective strips hanging from goalposts create curtains visible from across the street.

inHarlem” turns to artists familiar from past shows, which is O.K., too. As curator, Amanda Hunt is bridging the museum and the community. Kevin Beasley appeared in “Fore,” the museum’s 2013 survey of emerging artists and, like Leigh, as an artist in residence. There he left his mark in stained and folded surfaces. Later, a 2014 show on the American South, he simply amplified the surrounding silence. Now he combines the two by framing a field in Morningside Park with three “acoustic mirrors”—like satellite dishes steeped in torn t-shirts and paint.

The shirts have lost their identity, but the dishes have not altogether lost their sound. Beasley calls them Who’s Afraid to Listen to Red, Black, and Green and chooses their colors from the African American flag. The title also echoes Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue by Barnett Newman, the Abstract Expressionist—because Harlem is also part of New York, and it covers a lot of ground. The installation takes considerable hunting out, and the museum provides few clues. (For what it is worth, Beasley claims the park’s southwest corner, atop the 114th Street stairs.) It takes more than a village: it takes art and the city.

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

6.7.17 — White Privilege

As a follow-up to last time on the Whitney Biennial, how could I not turn to this? It has become the occasion for reflection on both racism and the possibilities of political art.

Dana Schutz's Open Casket (courtesy of the artist/Petzel gallery, 2016)What a difference a day makes. One day Emmett Till was just a poor child from Chicago, a polio survivor, visiting relatives in the South. He counted white children as his friends. The next he was the victim of bigotry and a brutal murder. The fourteen-year-old became an emblem of injustice and a spur to the budding movement for civil rights.

Dana Schutz, critics note, has had only privilege—the privilege of a white artist from a comfortable Detroit suburb making it in the art world. Yet she, too, has become a symbol. At just forty, she was among the stars of the most widely celebrated Whitney Biennial in memory. Horrified by police shootings of blacks in the present, she looked back to Till’s death in 1955 and painted him in Open Casket. Reviews singled it out in a singularly political and diverse biennial. For the city’s most influential critic, Roberta Smith in The Times, it “doesn’t picture his wounds so much as the pain of looking at them.”

And then in a day her fortunes, too, had changed. A black artist called for her boycott on Facebook. A black writer called for the work’s removal and destruction. They accused Schutz of appropriating the African American experience for the benefit of a white woman. The controversy erupted into the press and consumed social media—and I have waded more deeply into the controversy in a longer review and my latest upload. What does it say about the role of art in a racist and divided America?

How dare she? The question recalls the furor over The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron, but it is all the more pressing now—for blacks and women alike have little to gain and so much to lose in Donald Trump’s America. The week of the debacle, a white man traveled to New York City with the sole aim of killing African Americans, and women barely escaped a repeal of Obamacare and its provisions for women’s health. It is pressing, too, because has art its own divisions, and many feel excluded. Surely many of the protestors do, and they were acting out that feeling of exclusion in decrying a white woman’s success at their expense. They were demanding attention, and for better or worse they got it.

The question is also pressing, though, because it is so puzzling. No one complained when whites joined in the civil rights marches and when white journalists brought those marches alive—although Dana Schutz herself worked from a photograph in Jet, a weekly founded by an African American. No one complained when protest singers added their voices, including Bob Dylan with “The Death of Emmett Till,” or earlier when Billie Holiday sent chills down the nation’s spine with “Strange Fruit,” by a Jewish songwriter and about a lynching. Rather than telling whites to shut up, blacks are wondering why Trump will not speak up to denounce that murderer in New York. The women’s march after Trump’s inauguration welcomed men, and Jews still decry white indifference that turned refugees back to their death in the Holocaust. What makes painting or, more generally, fiction more open to criticism?

Why should a white artist lose her voice? I hear two reasons. First, Schutz is appropriating black experience for personal profit. Second, she cannot speak for what she cannot experience. I want to argue with them both, although African American artists do indeed have experiences apart that they can communicate, too. I shall have to skip over them here, but the longer article looks at criticism of the painting at hand and dives into those questions about profiteering and empathy, with all their implications for political art.

That seems to leave things where they started, with the enigma of what makes art so different from other ways of communicating. How can people even be arguing about this? Why are they not celebrating Schutz or simply dismissing her? It comes down to two things. First, art is powerful. The protests diminish art as a mere luxury compared to writing, marching, or music, but it sure has them worked up.

Second, art is ambiguous as other protests are not, because it bridges public and private matters. Artists work for themselves and for others, and one person’s expression of grief is another person’s grievance. They are shaped by their art, by their imaginings, by their joys, by their sorrows, by their histories, by race, by class, by gender, and by others as well. Together, though, those factors empower art, political or not. Art alone cannot ensure justice or empathy, but it can awaken both. Schutz can speak to concerns beyond herself, just as African American art can speak to me.

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

6.5.17 — All Those People

Half an hour into the 2017 Whitney Biennial, I had had my fill of people. No, not the crowds, for the first biennial ever in the Whitney’s new home, with enough room for them and an often dazzling display. No, I mean the people in the art, only I grew almost to love them—and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

Dana Schutz's Fight in an Elevator (Whitney Museum, 2015)They fill painting after painting and video after video—dancing, working, dying, or just hanging out, at the Whitney through June 11. They descend from the ceiling and ascend a rope in the stairwell. They take over less palpable museums by networks and financing schemes. They are also relentlessly politically correct. So I sought relief in some elements of landscape that had somehow found their way indoors. Only they, too, are human interventions, and they illuminate the tensions that make the biennial interesting almost despite itself.

The landscaping begins in the lobby, as it happens, before the people get started. Two paintings in a uniform dark brown hang over the front desk, by Park McArthur, like guides to the museum with their text effaced. With their pronounced frames and rounded corners, they could also be billboards along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—right where the BQE cuts off neighborhoods from the waterfront, mass transit, or one another. The lobby gallery has more landscaping, in a cylindrical fortification like Castle Williams on Governor’s Island or Castle Clinton in Battery Park. What looks like piled stone, however, is clay mixed with hay, horse dung, and Los Angeles River water. Rafa Esparza and others think of themselves as reversing the process of colonization by transporting native American materials to New York.

They cannot help evoking the dark side of that process all the same. Faces in large photos stand out most of all for their anonymity. A page from eBay and a “certificate of authenticity” for their “reconstructed southwest artifact” attest that anything and everything these days is for sale. Upstairs McArthur has more brown billboards, while photographs by An-My Lê present Louisiana as contested territory—flooded by storms, bearing a monument to a Confederate general, and serving as the set for a film about a Confederate Army deserter. On video, Sky Hopinka captures an island in the Bering Sea as home to the world’s largest Aleut population, seabirds, and seals. In its very starkness, though, it no longer speaks a native language.

Each artist dares visitors to enter an empty landscape, and each urges them not to forget those that have left it deserted. That sounds depressing, but the artists are just finding their way around along with you and celebrating those others. Landscape paintings in bright colors, by Shara Hughes, are downright cheerful—while a video by Anicka Yi, about a “flavor chemist” along the Amazon, is downright sappy. Either way, though, the Biennial is all about people, even when they are nowhere to be seen. For the Whitney, it is about “the formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society.” It sounds political, not to mention jargon ridden, and it is, but also urgent.

As for the people, they have roots as far away as Iran and Vietnam, and they run to artist collectives with names like post-punk bands. To get to know them, you must first meet the curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, both Chinese Americans in their mid-thirties. These are people who can start a catalog essay with Bob the Drag Queen rather than art. You know right away that the Whitney is hoping to reinvent the ritual of a biennial for today. You know, too, that it will place the accent on identity and diversity, much like its rehanging of the collection upstairs as “Where We Are.” This is art as a dance marathon—only starting with Tala Madani, who opens one floor with Shitty Disco.

Should a biennial be competing for the youth vote with a New Museum triennial or “Greater New York“? Could that actually make it less representative of the present moment in art, despite tough-minded virtual reality by Jordan Wolfson and terrific painting by Carrie Moyer, Jo Baer, Dana Schutz and Henry Taylor (and my longer review covers them all)? Larry Bell may not fit well here out on the terrace, but someone else from another genre or generation might. Still, for once a distinct point of view comes across—and it comes across as a genuine diversity. You might want to fill it out with a stop at MoMA or the Met for their contemporary selections, or you might want to wait another two years, when the Whitney truly gets the hang of the building. It is already drawing a crowd.

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

6.2.17 — Black Power

After my report last time on a wonderful painter, allow me to catch up with another African American artist and a show that closed just last week. Two of the sternest images from Lonnie Holley hang side by side, as twin faces, at James Fuentes through May 28.

Lonnie Holley's The Negative/Positive Mask of Power (James Fuentes gallery, 2004)One has color-coded electric wires protruding from its mouth and stiffer wires connecting its nostrils and eyes. More electric equipment hangs below in place of a neck, no longer able to connect. From its features, it might be gaping or weeping. The other face has hardware unable to fill the gashes in place of eyes and bristles like seams where the doctor has created a monster. Both have scratches all over their thick shield of bald flesh.

So which is The Positive and which The Negative Mask of Power—and will black power ever course through their bodies again? For the record, the parts once able to supply electricity contribute to the positive mask, but electric current always runs between positive and negative, and neither mask looks empowering or protective. Still, neither looks all that threatening either or, equally, wallowing in its role as a victim. For Holley, African American history encompasses suffering and self-assertion, but it is not always easy to tell them apart. And that history lies in the scraps all around him, waiting for someone to pick it up.

Another sculpture looks both ways in its style, its attitude, and its construction. Here, too, nothing declares its race, apart from perhaps the breadth of its lips and the blackness of steel. The head is only slightly more obviously female, despite a curve outward at bottom and an edge that could stand for braided hair. It becomes more feminine, too, from its resemblance to portraits by Pablo Picasso. Its profile has an eye facing front, with planes set at right angles. It looks both ways, too, between Cubism and the American South.

Born in Alabama in 1960, Holley lives in Atlanta, and he has appeared in shows of “Négritude” and the Great Migration. The show at hand draws on the last fourteen years. No doubt he counts as an outsider in New York, and he has affinities with both folk art and Modernism. The badly hacked wood and obsessive collecting recall both styles as well. The assemblages have the coarse shocks and brittle humor of combine paintings by Robert Rauschenberg, but also younger black artists like Kara Walker or Willie Cole. They or Joseph Zito might have supplied the lawn jockey in a gas mask, holding a phone as if he or you were waiting for the call.

The doubling goes beyond obvious twins. The freestanding metal sculpture has its counterpart in a face on the wall weighed down by the trinkets of a lifetime, as Grandmama’s Brain Was the Preserve Jar. One clothing mannequin has guns sticking into it from all sides, while another is chained to a weight resting on a chair. They might have lost their arms and legs to violence. Still, they could have chosen the remainder of their accessories as a substitute for fashion. They could even be fighting back.

Maybe the plainest allusion to history comes in the one departure from faces and bodies, but it, too, looks in more than one direction. Crosses nailed to a door may allude to the central place of churches in the black community and the civil rights movement. Yet they also recall homes boarded up and crosses set on fire. Holley’s imagery can be too plain for its own good, but it lingers because of its refusal to tease apart the positive and the negative. As a title puts it, Hair Was My Glory and My Chain. And the chair is already sagging under that weight.

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

5.31.17 — From Billie Holiday to Proust

In 1969, fresh out of grad school and a newcomer to New York, William T. Williams entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA must have thought it knew what it got. (Hey, a watchword of late Modernism was “what you see is what you get.”) It did not, for already the African American artist was challenging the mainstream.

Those first broad bands of conflicting color, separated by thin outlines, look straight out of Frank Stella—or do they? Stella had introduced his Protractor paintings just two years before, and they are still among his biggest, brashest, and most recognizable works. William T. Williams's Mercer's Stop (Michael Rosenfeld Art, 1971)Seemingly everyone then wanted to be the next great white hope, and no doubt MoMA was looking for him, but Williams? Hardly. His bands run every which way, straightening out, fanning out, snaking out, or overlapping. Tall, narrow paintings like Harlem Angels from 1968 seem cut off by the edge of the canvas, as if glimpsed through a door.

Sometimes what you see is not what you get. Those thin outlines are white, not bare canvas, because Williams does not derive his image, like a proper formalist, from the art object, but rather from experience. Shows have given pride of place to black abstract artists—like Alma Thomas or Jack Whitten, whose tiles of dark acrylic ran just recently at Hauser & Wirth through April 8. And the door-like paintings are six feet tall but barely forty inches across, like a painter standing tall. Their freewheeling style and flirting with illusion also recall white artists who did not quite play by the rules as well, like Al Held and Jack Tworkov. They may still, though, have other stories to tell.

Born in 1942, Williams remembers quilting in rural North Carolina, and his next series took him to near monochrome built from cross-hatching. (Its metallic colors, while still acrylic, return in the show’s most recent work.) He also thinks of jazz with a title like Strange Fruit, after the Billie Holiday song about a lynching. He must think of race, too, in a series from the 1980s. Its colors build to a greater darkness, and the brushwork resolves into hands raised as if scraping against a wall in the throes of death. Paintings from 1988 to 2002 rely on a patchwork of rectangles, maybe an echo of wood siding.

Better not, though, take anything too literally. Williams had his MFA from Yale and fell into a busy New York art scene. The one remaining past series, from the 1970s, divides canvas into just two or three areas, like early Brice Marden. Some paintings have Marden’s muter tones as well, although deepened by contrasts between fields. Flat areas may lie alongside looser brushwork, richer colors, or more quilting. When it comes down to it, Williams is always setting approaches to art side by side, just as in deconstructing Stella. He calls one painting of hands A Note to Marcel Proust.

He does have at least one thing in common with Stella: each time he takes a series to its next step, it changes altogether. His twenty-eight paintings in Chelsea, at Michael Rosenfeld through June 3, start with his latest—in part to give the largest and squarest early paintings enough space in back. Paintings since 2007 fit comfortably by the entry. Their approach to calligraphy, with dry and broken marks in yellow or white over closely matched fields of blue, almost demands close quarters. Yet the reverse chronology also insists that he did not begin in New York or quit in 1971.

Not every gallery can transform a tight show into a serious retrospective like this one, and not every series has equal weight. The best do the most to explore a vocabulary for painting, a bit like formalism after all. The early band paintings still do it best, like palettes or color wheels flying across the room. The paintings from the 1970s do it more subtly. The paintings spanning the 1990s do it, too, with a return to bright colors and distinct brushwork in every patch. One can see why, by their dates, each took Williams more than a decade.

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

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