3.6.18 — Sexual Politics

Quite a bit closing soon, so allow me extra posts today and Thursday to come closer to keeping up. Those and tomorrow’s will all look at MoMA PS1, starting with the star of the shows.

“Living is much more consuming than I ever thought it would be.” The quote comes from dozens on colored cards, culled from diaries and advice from friends, as Carolee Schneemann sought to work out her feelings toward the men in her life.

One can see her whole career as an unfolding diary or performance, at MoMA PS1 through March 11, but do not go expecting a romance novel or true confessions. (I elaborate further in a longer review, as my latest upload, so if you miss your favorite of hers here, do read more.) Carolee Schneemann's Body Collage (filmed by Gideon Bachmann, 1967)Rather, it acquires its edge from the blunt collision between the frankness and privacy of a diary and the artifice and publicity of a performance. Which will win out? To answer would be like looking back and asking which of the men.

The quote (attributed to “Susan”) says much about Schneemann, too. She wants to convey it all, from birth to death, with plenty of nudity and sex along the way. If she is shocking, she is open to surprises, too, just as in that line. She is also both consuming and consumed, just as in sex, while spilling herself out as art. In her most famous act, she extracts a feminist tract from her vagina. She has something to say, especially to those who would reduce her to that body part, and she contains multitudes.

Her sixty years of work can be funny, exhilarating, surprising, dogmatic, self-involved, or infuriating. Less than ten years ago, her gallery pulled off the highlights. It insisted on her origins as a painter, very much in line with Abstract Expressionism—thick, colorful, and all over. Even then, she had none of the softer color fields of Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, because she was looking not outward, toward landscape and a woman’s art, but to the enclosed space around herself. The show asked how she turned from painting to performance, with her body as a canvas (so do check out my review then for more). Now her retrospective asks much the same with its title, “Kinetic Painting.”

Has it anything to add? If nothing else, it is larger, spilling over two half floors of the former schoolhouse. It starts, it announces, with her later work—to prove, no doubt, that she is more than her vagina. The first floor focuses on the 1970s and 1980s, as a kind of orientation. The second floor then fills in the gaps. It has two whole rooms for painting, one with her beginnings and the other (coming first) with brighter canvases often turned forty-five degrees and a shelf for unspooled audiotape. She is still painting but looking for a way out.

The first floor, too, opens with a painting, but one has to look past it to a darker room and film. Fuses from 1967 catches her in the sex act with a long-time lover, James Tenney—as seen, she claims, by her cat, Kitch. Its point of view is close, twisting, and unnerving, much like the act. It also intercuts with Schneemann on the beach, running through the water’s edge, and with the raw marks of scratched and exposed film. It already states the parameters of dark and light, earnest and funny, confessional and cinematic, alone and fused. Everything follows from there.

One remembers her pulling a scroll from her vagina in 1975 and her body collage from ten years earlier for good reason: she was, for once or twice, direct and clear. The rest, though, still add up to a running theater and a life. It views itself through past performances, with an entire room of monitors like a video forest. It has its joys and, in 1963, its Thirty-Six Transformative Actions. It has the humor of text from the 1980s, in which her vulva reads Jacques Lacan, Mastera and Johnson, and more “theory”—only to find itself reduced to forces and physiology beyond her control. It wants ever so much to be all-consuming, and often enough it is.

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

3.5.18 — Not a Toga Party

Did you ever think that you would like ancient art a lot more if it could throw a decent party? Andrea Joyce Heimer is here to help. Her paintings give preclassical nudes an active social life, at Nicelle Beauchene through March 11. It may even look like one you know. They can still seem obsessed with raw power, and they still cannot be bothered to dress for the occasion. But then this was all a long time ago.

Andrea Joyce Heimer's What if I was welcomed in this house . . .? (Nicelle Beauchene, 2017)Just how long ago? Heimer is not saying. The figures may look Mycenaean rather than heroic only because she also adopts the awkwardness of folk art. Her forests and interiors stay almost entirely within the picture plane, with vegetation and floor tiles climbing vertically rather than receding. She also brings the exuberance of Pattern and Decoration, in mute but memorable colors. One could well forgive the nudes for strutting their stuff.

She brings them closer to the present, in downright fashionable gardens and living rooms. The tiling could almost be showing off floor samples for a coming renovation, with a wash that allows it to vibrate. They tend to a very nice dog on the rug and socialize quite well, thank you. Often enough, the artist leaves their gender clearly female or a tad ambiguous. She subjects figures from an ancient vase to the feminist revolution. If some still hunt one another or bind their victims, well, men can be pathetic.

So, alas, can women. Heimer accompanies each painting with wall text, its faint pencil and block capitals a further testimony to damaged feelings. It runs to self-accusation but also to poetry. “I got so angry that I ruined everything.” It also reaches out to you. “If I did not find you, will I always live in a world of ghosts?”

The women from Danielle Orchard a floor apart, at Jack Hanley also through March 11, live among ghosts, too. Mostly paired and only barely interacting, they seem unable to get dressed after checking their cell phones or a bath. They have much in common with the languor of Heidi Hahn at the same galley a year before, although without Han’s fluent drawing and ambiguous feelings. They seem a little too concerned for nudity at that, for all their ingenious spaces and sharp colors, with echoes of Cubism and German Expressionism. They never do quite drag themselves into a recognizable past or present. That is where Heimer comes in.

“What if I was welcomed in this house,” another caption or title begins, “and made a part of the work?” A social occasion already suggests a welcome, and the flatness, outsider status, partying, and sophistication all have an ancestor in Florine Stettheimer—who, socially and financially, did have it made. Heimer, as yet, does not. “Then I stand, thick and lost, a little white statuette in a crowded room.” Then again, even antiquities can come to life.

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

3.2.18 — After the Copy

How long before an act of rebellion becomes a settled history? For Modernism in the 1980s, many believed, the time had come.

Its very triumph, the story goes, had rendered it at best irrelevant and at worst a lie. Maybe, like many a revolution, it had rested on a lie all along. For Sherrie Levine in 1981, it was long since time to call it on its lies. Walker Evans's (really) Alabama Tenant Farmer's Wife (University of Texas, Austin, 1936)With her photographs after Walker Evans, she sought to dismantle its claims to authenticity and progressive politics, so that she could reclaim them as a woman’s own.

Still, the worm turns, and could it have turned against Postmodernism? “American Photographs,” at MoMA in 1938, contained work by Evans for the Farm Security Administration, and a different selection appeared in book form soon after. Levine simply photographed twenty-two of its images and displayed the prints, at Metro Pictures in Soho. Just recently, Martí Cormand copies Levine in her entirety, at Josée Bienvenu through March 3. He did not quite wait another forty-three years like Levine, but the pace of change is faster these days. Is he piercing Postmodernism’s myths, or is he, too, claiming the past for himself?

His small drawings sure look familiar, much as Levine, Cindy Sherman, and the “Pictures generation” traded on familiarity. They have the iconicity of the Dust Bowl, wood-frame churches, and a struggling family of five. And there is no mistaking solo portraits of the tenant farmer and his wife. The drawings could almost be photos, but that is the nature of a copy, and it gives new meaning to photorealism. They could also be directly after Evans, rather than, as the show has it, “after Levine, Evans”—but then how would one know? Score one more point for Evans or for Postmodernism, as you see fit.

Cormand is good at scoring points, from his grasp of technique to his grasp of history. His pencil has the spare precision of patterned dresses, the cross on a wooden church, or the raised collarbones on a tenant farmer’s wife. It also has the softness and smudges to place them in a more comforting realm of memory. His subjects had their comforts, too, even in poverty, like the pictures on a wall or the portable clock on the mantel. Originally from Spain (assuming that one can talk here with a straight face about originality), Cormand is at home these days in Brooklyn, but these people were at home, too. Their churches stand empty, because Evans testifies to ordinary circumstances and not Sunday sermons.

Cormand calls the show “Formalizing Their Concept.” That could echo Modernism’s demand for formalism, the conceptual art that rebelled against it, or postmodern jargon in discussing both. The gallery cites Lucy Lippard, who identified conceptual art with “dematerialization” in 1967. It then speaks of Cormand as rematerializing the work after Levine. The word evokes late Modernism’s insistence on the art object, but then it places the original at a second or third remove. Besides, conceptual art often has a material element, especially today.

Levine, to me, has not held up half as well as many a contemporary, with a gratingly literal politics and strategy. At the same time, Evans holds up well indeed, with the idealism of the New Deal, an unsentimental eye, and even anticipations of Postmodernism in his postcards and penny pictures. His depth of focus hones in on the Depression with a frankness that could put even Cormand’s fine graphite to shame. Call him a dead white male if you like, but the Farm Security Administration employed Gordon Parks, the African American photographer, too. Still, Cormand takes the risk of bringing the dead alive. Copy me on the next turn.

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

2.28.18 — Who Pays for Museums?

The Met has it all—great art, astounding exhibitions, and record attendance. Where museum expansions elsewhere have produced nasty real-estate deals and dubious architecture, the Cloisters, the Met Breuer, and its beloved home on Fifth Avenue have never looked better. Why then is it raising admission for so many?

For all its signs of success, the Met is losing friends and losing money. It has cut staff, fired its last director, and delayed renovation of its twentieth-century wing. And now it will do the unthinkable: Mark Flood's Career Suicide (Zach Feuer, 2014)as of March 1, 2018, “pay what you will” may not apply to you. Those who care about the arts are not happy. They are also pointing fingers—often as not at that former director, Thomas P. Campbell.

For anyone from New York State, “suggested admissions” will still be just that, a suggestion. (Why the entire state, when the Met gets so much of its public funding from the city? Politics and tax deductions are a messy business.) So will students in and around the city. The museum promises not to turn away New Yorkers without an ID, for now, and kids under twelve will still get in free. Anyone else, though, must pay in full.

How did the museum mess up its finances despite soaring revenues? As much as anything, it took on too much when it rented and renovated the Whitney’s former home on Madison Avenue, as the Met Breuer—and I have wrapped this into an earlier critique of museum expansions inspired by Ben Davis as a longer review and my latest upload. It also accepted a huge gift from a trustee and right-wing political funder, David Koch, only to spend it on LED lights and pointless changes to its outdoor fountains. One can make a good case for the Met Breuer as a short-term investment in the display of recent art and the saving of a New York landmark, and gifts often come with strings attached. Then, too, for all Campbell’s strengths as a curator and weakness as a financial manager, the board almost surely chose in favor contemporary art and eye candy, much as Davis says. Maybe Philippe de Montebello, his fabled predecessor, could have stood up to the board, but he also did more than anyone to commercialize the Met—and, with the Lehman wing and European sculpture court, to undertake its most tasteless expansion.

All is not lost, though, and one of the most convincing objections also helps explain why. The problem with high ticket prices is not just whom they exclude. It is also that they discourage museum-going as a way of life, as regular as catching or streaming a movie. It takes long acquaintance (or a good critic) to make art meaningful, not “just looking,” and that can make an adult’s life more meaningful as well. The Met is on the right track, then, in welcoming locals and students. More fully private museums charge at least as much.

Money has to come from somewhere, although less than a sixth comes from admissions, and people on vacation expect to spend money. That has drawbacks, if it makes New York a destination for the rich alone—and if art becomes as touristy as Broadway. Still, a museums can resist the demand for crowd pleasers, and the toxic mix of art and money is not going away any time soon. As an alternative to mandatory prices, some suggest a surcharge for special exhibitions. That would only encourage blockbusters, and exhibitions should be a way of life, too. They attract newcomers to art, make figures like Michelangelo more than a cliché, and introduce lesser artists and aspects of the permanent collection at that.

Still, something has gone terribly wrong, and there has to be another way to ask who pays. For starters, extend “pay what you will” to everyone in the New York area and to artists everywhere—or at the very least to everyone who commutes to work in the city. Second, other museums should not be off the hook. They could start their free evening (currently Fridays after seven at the Morgan Library or the Whitney) sooner or, better still, make an afternoon each week as cheap for locals as the Met. That might hinge on federal and state arts funding, but it should be part of the solution, too. Last, critics can stop fawning and insist that museums tempted by growth stick to their mission.

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

2.26.18 — The Color Line

Some artists have a color wheel. Regina Bogat in the 1990s had her color line. Slim wood strips rest on canvas, divided by paint into repeated sequences of colored rectangles or squares.

They may appear singly, as if to take the measure of the more freely painted canvas or to serve as its palette. They may appear multiply, in clusters above and below a central field, as if to rein it in. Their staggered squares add a sense of rapid horizontal movement, in contrast to the fixity of all-over painting. They may fan out as well, imparting a cloud-like motion to the underlying paint. Regina Bogat's This Way That (Zürcher, 1990)They may match the clashing colors on canvas or add color to slashing black brushstrokes on a neutral ground. If you have just discovered Cordy Ryman at Tower 49 in the heart of midtown, his reliance on wood strips to shape a painting has a neglected precedent.

Geometry was long a part of Bogat’s painting, and she makes it hard to know which layer came first. Born in 1928, she devoted much of the 1960s to hard-edge colors, in busy patterns with a predominant vertical, horizontal, or radial design. Their density and often broken symmetry may call to mind tantric imagery or the Op Art of Brigit Riley, but without mysticism or illusion. They may suggest game boards, but Bogat was not playing around. People then were calling for “pure painting,” and she had been in the mainstream of abstraction for years without the purity. People were also breaking away from painting, seemingly once and for all, but her mature work was just getting underway.

Wood was part of that breakthrough, too. Her work of the 1970s enters the third dimension with small wood rods or stubs, often in white or metallic paint. They can serve as tiling in place of canvas, like bottle caps for El Anatsui or impasto for Jack Whitten. They can pulse in and out of piled blocks, like clumsy pedestals or robots. The optical activity has lessened, to the point of stiffness, but the physical presence has not. The blocks might be the discomforting boxes of Eva Hesse turned inside out.

Other nontraditional media include Sculptmetal, also a tool for Hesse or Jasper Johns, and fabric, as seen just recently in “Delirium” at the Met Breuer. Threads hang in clusters like hair, but also like colors worked into one another with a palette knife. They bring Bogat’s Post-Minimalism closer to a woman’s presence and a woman’s presence closer to the core of abstraction. With her return to painting in the 1990s, she is still working paint into the painted surface, at Zürcher through March 2. Her daughter, Anna Bogat Jensen, points in a catalog essay to the influence of Max Ernst with his frottage and grattage, or rubbings and scrapings. The wood strips cannot fully draw the line.

Not long into the decade she has already discarded them. She has not, though, given up playing surface against object. Her gallery has taken several shows now to track her changes and continuities, roughly one per decade, but she is still hard to pin down. That is not a formula for success in the art world, of course, and she has not often had due recognition. She tends to stand just apart from her contemporaries as well. She was making wild patterns in a time of clarity and painting in a time of detachment, and she is taking its measure at a time when anything goes.

It can hardly have helped that she is a woman. Fortunately, this is also a time of recovering older artists and messy histories. The show is a useful record of growth and fissures. Her very Homage to Max Ernst takes place on paper, with shapes cut and peeled back to leave matching gaps and fields of color. A woman in her sixties is still seeking new beginnings and still rethinking old continuities. The cuts look suggestively like petals or tears.

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

2.23.18 — Shallow Waters

An ode to Southern California swimming pools began in the public toilets of London. For David Hockney, they were dark places indeed, but also the start of a career among the glitterati—and they are the subject of a longer and fuller review, in my latest upload.

It makes sense, even if you know him only for painting California sunlight, blue waters, and luxury homes with views to die for. From the start, he had a knack for effacing the borders between public and private spaces. David Hockney's Pool and Steps, Le Nid du Duc (private collection, 1971)And he took them as the site of both licit and illicit pleasures. A retrospective at The Met follows him for nearly sixty years, as his work grows progressively brighter, more colorful, and more than a step above the underground, through February 25. It shows the knack for high style that has made him as popular as any artist alive. It also shows him navigating treacherously shallow waters, whether in backyard pools, toilets, or his art.

David Hockney made a splash right away, as a student at the Royal College of Art in 1960. He dressed well, painted quickly, and exhibited to acclaim. Yet he started with nothing like pristine waters and wide open spaces. His early paintings border on abstraction, but with text, stains, and broad hint of male bodies. Did he really cruise the toilets of the London underground? I leave that to his biographers, but he had to know men who did, at a time when sex acts could get them all in jail. Besides, even as an artist observing, he could have spotted CUM as a poem on the underground walls and heard whispers of Shame and My Brother Is Only Seventeen—both the titles of paintings.

He also demonstrated his conservative instincts, even on the cutting edge or the edge of the law. A man does the cha-cha against heavy, acrid colors that Americans like Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning were learning to leave behind. The first scrawls and splashes owe something to Jackson Pollock, but through the eyes of more cautious English painters in Pollock’s wake. Yet they anticipate street art, too, from Jean-Michel Basquiat on, and Hockney has a Pop Art sensibility as well when he converts penises into tubes of Colgate. Like the men dancing or managing to suck one another’s toothpaste, he is having fun. This may be dangerous territory, but never once painful or grim.

Hockney will be like that for decades to come, only more so. Born in Yorkshire in 1937, he could stand for the reticence and realism of much British art. He could also stand for the bright lights and shallow pleasures of LA art, starting with his first visit in 1963. He has complained about art’s abandonment of tradition since Andy Warhol, much like Robert Hughes. Yet he has sketched Warhol’s portrait, and he comes as close as humanly possible to the Andy Warhol of the Hollywood Hills. Not even Warhol’s entourage could have matched the crowds at the Met’s press preview.

He has been an overtly and courageously gay artist, almost as long as Robert Rauschenberg until his death in 2008. Yet Hockney hardly agonizes over it or anything else, and he is thoroughly at home among patrons straight and gay. His double portraits from around 1970 often become triple or quadruple portraits—like a young couple with a cat or collectors with their totem and Henry Moore. They sit tensely and stiffly apart, like figures out of Francis Bacon or Balthus, but they are living flamboyantly and well. The artist also places himself squarely among them. When Henry Geldzahler, already a fabled curator at the Met, uses his portrait to contemplate works by Jan Vermeer, Piero della Francesca, Vincent van Gogh, and (I think) Pierre Bonnard, Hockney is laying claim to their company as well.

He is a perpetual experimenter, but always within carefully chosen limits. He moves easily between his coastal studio in England and the la-la land of “movie studios and beautiful, semi-naked pictures.” He never breaks the façade of either one and never once breaks a sweat. He quotes influences from William Hogarth to Paul Cézanne while hardly stopping to take them in. He projects the comforting pleasures of both participant and voyeur. Yet his late work brings Henri Matisse more fully and deliriously into the twenty-first century.

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

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