12.1.17 — Feeling the Draft

I stick to art, because it is where I have something to contribute, and I could never find time to keep up with more. Not that I avoid politics, since neither do artists and institutions, but apart from them I try to keep my opinions to myself. Allow me, though, this once an exception. With Donald J. Trump saber rattling time and again, it has become more pressing.

An article just days before Trump’s inauguration on the legacy of the Vietnam War got me thinking and arguing, and it has had any number of follow-ups along the very same lines. And when someone on Facebook backed its call to reinstate the draft, those thoughts and arguments came out, so let me share them with you—as the opening of a longer article and my latest upload. Sue Coe's Wheel of War (Galerie St. Etienne, 2004)

In The New York Times, Karl Marlantes wrote of “Vietnam: The War That Killed Trust.” I have to admire his article. Yet I also have to feel the toll of that lost of trust even today. I have to feel, too, my horror at his single proposal, in a return to the draft. It stems for him from proud and lasting memories, but it still comes down to a nostalgia for murder.

Marlantes argues for the spirit of national service, pointing to the broad support for just that in World War II, when even those at home knew about what went into the war and when people spoke not of “the military” but of “the service.” I am not convinced. That reflects World War II, when we could justifiably feel a sense of service not just to the nation, but to the world. That feeling soured for good in Vietnam, when talk of “the service” gave way to talk of “the military-industrial complex.” War as dedication may never come again, and the draft cannot bring it back.

Still, while the article does not rely on this, some argue for a draft by turning my point in its favor. It can help turn people against war, they say, because its costs then extend to so many Americans. Now, I have already spoken of the terrible price of cynicism. We should not be calling for more of it, ever, not even to reform politics today. That already argues against the draft. But, as you will see in the longer article, I consider further whether the antiwar hopes are justified, and I conclude otherwise, before dwelling further on the terrible personal and moral costs.

The argument for a draft is not so very far from others common in politics today—and just as flawed. One can hear something like it at both ends of the political spectrum. From health care to public assistance, conservatives often call for a greater burden on the poor. Their belief in the wisdom of the marketplace leads them to conclude that people will make better decisions if they have “skin in the game.” And, from health care to public assistance, the result is a continuing cycle of poverty, illness, and death.

Ironically the left has a comparable belief. Progressives may choose to sit out an election or to vote for a third party—and not solely those who see no difference between the candidates of the major parties. Are they throwing the election to by far the greater evil or even the sole evil, when they could instead rest hopes in a modest but very real good? Some positively welcome that outcome. The outrage that will result, they believe, will usher in a revolution.

In reality, there is no winning by losing. In politics, a loss only empowers the worst in America and shifts the debate to the other side. Calling for a draft as a means to a better future is much the same. There the loss in lives is immediate and the hope for trust, racial harmony, and peace only a dream. We should not let our dreams become a living nightmare.

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

11.29.17 — Oh, no, Twitter!


Just to let you know, I have finally given in to Twitter, and here I go, having just sent my very first two tweets. Ironic for someone who started a Web site for art history and reviews as long ago as 1994, but I’m so behind the times. I did not even add hashtags for, well, the text you are reading here, but that will change.

So what shall I do with it, let you and others know when I post a new review or jot down thoughts about art and New York that I’d never otherwise share? We’ll see! I have made it John Haber@HaberArts.

Digging for Identity

I am not quite ready to post here from a draft review of “Trigger,” contemporary art about gender and identity at the New Museum. Can I get you interested, though, by a look back to a related show just a couple of months ago and a few blocks further south?

Is there a specifically gay abstraction? For the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, through September 10, the question may take some digging.

Much the same question keeps coming up for women and African Americans, as recently with “Making Space” at MoMA and William T. Williams in Chelsea. For each, it may affirm that they can compete with the big boys on their own terms—or probe how their experience has changed the rules of the game. Nicole Eisenman's Untitled (Whitney Museum of American Art/Leo Koenig gallery, 2011)Found: Queer Archaeology; Queer Abstraction” has another answer altogether: dig deeper. For the curator, Avram Finkelstein, “in a world that prefers we be hidden, we excavate.” Perhaps, but they may be covering their traces as well.

The museum itself may take some digging. It has existed in one form or other for thirty years, but I overlooked it until a helpful review in The Times. It lies just down the street from the Drawing Center in Soho, but it has no more space than many a gallery, including Deitch Projects a few doors away. It may ask to play a modest role as well. Selections from the museum’s collection lean heavily to portraiture as assertions of LGBT identity, despite a disfigured mask by Nicole Eisenman and a horse bound in white by Deborah Bright as Wild Secret Girl. But then its portraits range from early photography by Wilhelm von Gloeden and Wilhelm von Plüschow to Jimmy DeSana in performance, daubing white stuff in his crotch.

Portraiture appears in “Found” as well, only more layered. Rodrigo Moreira, Troy Michie, Gaye Chan, and Frederick Weston all use collage, overpainting, or folds to suggest a blurring of gender or ethnicity. Photocollage by Matt Lips compiles male role models in western culture. The passage from identity to multiplicity recurs in text art, when Eve Fowler quotes Gertrude Stein: This Is It with It As It Is. That by no means rules out it as it is not.

These artists pursue either of two strategies, often at once. They may be recovering a sense of identity from found fragments, much like archaeology. That may mean a child’s toy for Robert Lucy, sculpted hair spray for Maia Cruz Palileo, or floral slippers for Boris Torres. Alternatively, they may be recovering an identity from its use by others. Karen Heagle takes her self-portrait as a male from Egon Schiele, L. J. Roberts sharpens a memorial to the Stonewall riots by George Segal, and Alyse Ronayne treats her studio to a messy “real allegory” after Gustave Courbet. Ken Gonzales documents a lynching, but with the victims taken out of the picture, leaving only the appalling crowd.

It gets hard to distinguish recovery from effacement. Which is at issue with slim red neon by Lucas Michael, set against the wall like a door without a passage or a picture frame without a portrait? What of sandbags in plaster by Anthony Goicolea, trapped between mirrors as Infinite Compression? What of Anne Frank’s house after a visit by Justin Bieber, in an installation by Buzz Slutzky with room on the bed for The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Eichmann in Jerusalem? Archaeology has become less a discipline than a metaphor. So, too, has abstraction.

It appears almost as an afterthought, despite the show’s title. Yet it follows much the same strategies of effacement, reflection, and recovery. Michael also buries an image in black graphite, while Carrie Yamaoka treats vinyl and epoxy as a blackened mirror. Nancy Brooks Brody takes the gallery’s or the viewer’s measure with metal strips embedded in the walls. Alyse Ronayne creates abstract painting with spray tan, Brian Christopher Glaser with shampoo ads, and Sam Gordon with studio sweepings. Still more detritus serves Maika’i Tubbs as abstract sculpture or oceanic stones.

Any archaeological find carries the risk that one may have seen it all before. So too often does the entire show, now that appropriation and abstraction have started to blend together. One may miss true pioneers of gay abstraction, like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns—or one may prefer an installation by the museum’s windows, by Rachael Farmer, for a more personal history. Pairs of white ceramic women navigate mountains of gray quilting. What look like characters from The Handmaid’s Tale refer instead to Farmer’s Mormon ancestors. They leave it up to the viewer to dig deeper.

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

11.27.17 — Mark and Gesture

What counts as gestural abstraction? It may depend on what counts as a gesture.

Rannva Kunoy and Jacqueline Humphries say that their paintings have nary a one, but they leave no end of traces. To complicate matters, the traces show the artists at their most mechanical. Rannva Kunoy's Legalised (Nathalie Karg gallery, 2017)They show them, too, at their most deeply immersed in language, and it is not a language intrinsic to art. Yet that very denial of formalism stands as a gesture—and I have wrapped this in with other recent reports on abstract painting as a longer review and my latest upload.

For those coming off the elevator, at Nathalie Karg through December 3, Kunoy’s first painting may seem simple and rule driven. Black verticals reduce it almost to a shade of gray, and then the irregularities appear, along with background colors. Once one sees their purple and green, their shimmer will not go away. Nor, though, will the overlay of acrylic, pigment, and dispersion. One can spend a long time trying to make sense of the letters, numbers, and seemingly random squiggles—or trying to decide where one color ends and the other begins. The paintings are tall but invite one in, in part because their format aligns them with the viewer.

Art has been in this territory before, of uniformity giving way to subtlety or confusion, from Ad Reinhardt and Sol LeWitt to the hybrids of abstraction and representation common enough today. Here, though, the languages of art keep asserting themselves. The acrid colors evoke photographic reproduction, and their staining brings out the texture of canvas. The occasional overlay of white in place of black could serve as photographic negatives of the rest of the show. Yet they also look like ghosts. Abstraction here is haunted by itself.

Jacqueline Humphries evokes the glory days of gestural abstraction in her scale alone, at Greene Naftali through December 16. The gestures, though, are hers. She says that she has translated past work into ASCII, which may have one hoping for the meaning of her art in alphanumeric sequences that only a browser will recognize. It could even democratize some high-end art. Instead, she uses the familiar array of symbols, from backslashes to plus signs, for gradations of light and dark. She says that she has cut out the bits of black oil with a laser.

She has kept herself out of the process—or out of everything but images, marks, and the very thought of painting as a process. She has a history of silvery surfaces, as in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, much like Kunoy’s and just as haunting. Here the ghosts include the raised texture of laser-cut black and what it could possibly mean. (I could swear that signs like shields are cat faces.) They also include underlying brushstrokes laid down as if with a roller, for yet another layering of free and mechanical reproduction. They dare one to decide just where Humphries has entered the picture and whether she has left.

Minimalism and late Modernism did their best to undermine the “originality of the avant-garde,” and a subsequent generation pounced on the “death of painting.” The brushstroke as a sign helped toward its revival, as with David Reed, but critics still complain about “zombie formalism,” consigning it once again to the dead. The debate comes down to an opposition between mark and gesture. Could both be present at once? Kunoy and Humphries sure seem to think so. They see expressive possibilities in languages of art.

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

11.24.17 — Robert Campin’s Uncanny Leap

Brace yourself. With Thanksgiving, New York can get pretty crowded with visitors. So how about a break for an excursion to what is at once one of the city’s finest tourist attractions and an escape? I report on my last visit, just this past summer.

The Cloisters may be New York’s least-touristed major attraction. Perched high on a hill in upper Manhattan, surrounded by a quiet park and views of the Palisades in New Jersey, this museum hold the Unicorn Tapestries—and the most important Renaissance painting in America. Tourists do move in by now on a summer Sunday like the one I chose, and yet it is largely unknown even to many New Yorkers. Campin's Mérode Altarpiece (Metropolitan Museum of Art at the Cloisters, c. 1426)I had my first visit in nearly a decade some years ago, and I have kept returning ever since.

Like far too many tourist traps, it is a historical re-creation, but oh what a creation. The Metropolitan Museum reconstructed its several cloisters from genuine fragments, with gardens now in bloom and a fine Romanesque chapel. Many of the paintings will interest mostly specialists, but not Robert Campin’s Annunciation. This triptych, painted in 1426 or so, reached the Metropolitan only within this past century, through the American dealer Rosenberg & Stiebel.

In a sense, Robert Campin is himself a historical re-creation, a hugely successful artist with no well-documented surviving work. Even now, art students learn the controversial origins of the Northern Renaissance, in manuscripts and half-documented panel painters. Yet art historians also came to attribute a number of paintings to a single artist, whom they called the Master of Flémalle. This painter’s style has much in common with another great artist and Campin’s almost certain pupil, Rogier van der Weyden. Put these paradoxes and parallels together, and one has a breakthrough.

Any innovation, however shattering, is incremental. I can even imagine Giotto reshuffling old elements to create the drama of consistent space in Italy. Some scholars, most forcefully Lorne Campbell in 1974, leave all but a handful of paintings to Campin’s workshop. For them, the Annunciation is a lesser innovation among many. But in the Mérode Altarpiece, as it is known after a previous owner, I come face to face with one man creating a new art all at once, almost out of nothing.

Every so often, I use a post to return to something that I wrote some time ago, usually about art of the past and New York’s best. It also gives me the opportunity to revise something in hindsight. This past summer allowed me my latest return to the Cloisters and just such an opportunity, so do take a look and maybe visit yourself before the park looks further and further away in the winter cold. I use it to discuss what went into that new art and what makes Mérode Altarpiece both meaningful and still strange. I also revisit a longstanding quarrel over just who painted it. As you will see in the longer review, the Met has demoted it to Campin’s workshop or even the workshop of those who emerged from his workshop, and I disagree.

There it all is, a domestic interior overlooking a busy street in taut perspective. The new oil medium builds, detail by detail, these gleaming surfaces and multiply reflecting shadows. Now Joseph, as a dignified man intent on his craft, has a part to play in sacred history, other than as a joke and a cuckold. Not even an influential illuminated manuscript before Campin, by the Limbourg brothers, went so far. Soon after, one sees the carpenter at work alongside the Holy Family in a prominent Book of Hours.

Campin is exploring an age’s new-found relationship between humanity and the supernatural, long before popular culture banked on art to salvage precisely that suspicious aura. That has something to do with the painting’s confusing perspective—and the uncanny leap from the donors beside an open door at left to the closed rooms a floor above. When I was still in college studying physics, a blackboard sketch summed up pretty well a student’s pitiful understanding. The joke showed each step of a proof, except for a long arrow near the end. “And then a miracle occurs.” For Campin, a road through this world leads the pilgrim to another world, in front of temporal experience, but it takes a leap.

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

11.22.17 — Welcome Home

It has been a long time now since Anita Thatcher invited others into her home. Nothing much was going on that day, unless you count the chair suspended upside-down in midair.

Maybe that sense of the mundane is why I took this for her home rather than a performance. She is alone on camera, not doing much besides looking now and then at her face in a hand-held mirror. Its shape, an oval on a long handle, makes it belong to the private spaces of 1982 as well. Yet she and everything around her seem to dance, at Microscope through December 3—and I have added this to earlier reports on the intersection of film, video, performance, sculpture, and dance as a longer review and my latest upload.

Anita Thatcher's Anteroom (Microscope, 1982)Why a dance? It could be the soundtrack by David Byrne (adapted from “The Catherine Wheel”). It could be the casual grace with which she conducts herself or that black silhouette of a chair above her head. It could be her moving in and out of the picture without so much as taking a step. Additional silhouettes do so as well, including thistles and that same or another chair at ground level right side up—the very chair on which she sits. It could be the enigmatic space they inhabit, of pristine chambers and brightly colored planes, not to mention an actual brass plate and knob on the projection as collage.

For nearly twelve minutes, the architecture itself is dancing, and who would want to miss a moment of the dance? One might hesitate to leave anyway, lest one collide with the walls or furniture on the way out. The dance seems to encompass the otherwise empty gallery as well, but is one within her space or outside looking in? Her title, Anteroom, hedges its bets on that one. One could be in a waiting room, the gallery suggests, although doctors and airports keep one waiting far longer far too much of the time. One could be in the entryway or a foyer—enjoying, expecting, or still hoping for a welcome in.

The ambiguity makes sense because one is exploring the interior, but the clues keep one from ever quite knowing what is there. It makes sense, too, because one perceives the video as an experience in the round, but only by looking. Even in its brevity, so little is happening that there is plenty of time to look. One can glimpse other rooms or corridors, but barely. One can rest absorbed in the room at hand, its walls parallel often enough to the picture plane. One can look around to explore the gallery as well.

Thatcher’s layered spaces contribute to the video’s pleasures, puzzles, and sense of motion. If you are not sure where you stand, just try to place the objects casting their dark silhouettes. A slight blur distinguishes them from the crisp, brightly lit interior, as if the dark gallery were a camera obscura—which, as it happens, flips things 180 degrees unless assisted by a mirror, much like that chair. For a further puzzle, she holds the cosmetics mirror to obscure her face, but its outline appears slightly enlarged and in far stranger colors on the side of the glass that one can see. None of that is necessarily unsettling. This is still a place for slow looking, and one is still invited in.

Thatcher has not often entered the history books, but she was plainly on the cutting edge. She uses color more pointedly than others in new media like Bill Viola or Gary Hill barely emerging back then. She manipulates the image, the space, and the necessity of self-reflection without the pixilation of early TV for Stan VanDerBeek and Nam June Paik. Byrne was no longer new, of course, but he was still at his most amazing. His repeated rhythms convey his usual merger of party music and stasis. No wonder she can relax while seeming to dance.

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

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