12.20.17 — Modernity and Revelry

The Met Breuer introduces Raghubir Singh as “Modernism on the Ganges,” through January 2, but the photographer knew better. Modernism had long preceded him to India, and its advent seemed fated to remain incomplete.

Raghubir Singh's Pavement Mirror Shop, Howrah, West Bengal (Cynthia Hazen Polsky collection, 1991)The mammoth steel frame of a cantilever bridge looks down on a wedding party by the river in much the same spirit as Shiva the destroyer looks down on an electric fan. Lenin looks down on the diminutive Communist party leader in much the same spirit as Kali, the malevolent mother goddess, looks down on a barber shop where a man, naked from the waist up, flexes his muscles. An equestrian monument looks down on storefronts and filmgoers in much the same spirit as the Bollywood posters behind it and the wires that hold the statue up—or threaten to tear it down. Yet the spirit is not altogether willing, and the flesh is not altogether weak.

Singh thrives on juxtapositions, because they put modernity in perspective. They describe how art enters into life and past into present. Here he can rely for his presences on statues and the poster at a campaign rally. They also pack in that much more of a caste- and class-ridden culture. He traveled the length of the Ganges starting in the late 1960s to see it all. And he liked the panorama so much that he took to the Great Trunk Road in the 1990s for more.

He likes juxtapositions, too, so that no one has the last word. The colonial era weighs down on the present, but Singh views its institutions through green mosquito netting. Modernity promises to lift the weight of the past, but commuters have to settle for a run-down excuse for a bus, while peacocks carry on in the foreground much as they have for a long time. Past and present struggle for primacy within lives as well. The wedding party follows the rules for the occasion, but they serve as an excuse for rejoicing. The barber and his customer kneel face to face as if poised for a fight.

Singh keeps returning to rituals, and it is hard to know where the rules end and the display begins. Young men sparkling in the spray from a fountain are taking part in a rite of immersion. A diver enjoys the flood waters that have all but submerged ancient architecture. Singh sticks to color, too, for its own display. He avoids broad fields of clashing colors as in William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz, in favor of pulse and variety. He admired glowing prints by Anish Kapoor as well as old manuscripts, but he prefers motion and spectacle.

Modernism did indeed precede him, and he found a model in Henri Cartier-Bresson. He also found a friend in William Gedney, and he may have seen a parallel between India’s uncertain modernity and Gedney’s rural America. Not coincidentally, both Gedney and Cartier-Bresson also worked in India (and Howard Greenberg in midtown brings together Gedney’s and Singh’s work there for the occasion, through December 9), while Singh also lived in Paris, London, and New York. He did a stint in the north of England as well—to teach, but also to photograph, of course, Indian immigrants. Still, he has little talent for the French photographer’s decisive moment or the American’s vivid portraits in a crowd. These are revelers first and second, slum dwellers or workers a distant third, and individuals hardly at all.

Singh saw India not as individuals, but as jostling for space. It can leave him as conventional and picturesque as most photojournalism, and he worked for the New York Times Magazine, Life, and National Geographic. (The last supplied him with Kodachrome and those nice bright colors.) The curator, Mia Fineman, integrates work by others, also including Helen Levitt and Eugène Atget. She even excerpts films by another friend, Satyajit Ray. Singh looks clumsy by comparison, but in search of a nation’s indecisive moment.

He was still trying to see it all at his death in 1999, at age fifty-six—often from the windows of a car. The Ambassador looks like a real clunker, but India and Hindustan motors were proud of it. The device also recalls “America by Car” for Lee Friedlander, whom he admired as well. He associated windows and mirrors with Modernism, for both the formal constraints and the fragmentation. By the end, his gestures and juxtapositions were loosening. At least one photograph could pass for photocollage, but its colors, frames, and images belong to an actual mirror store—and they mirror a bustling but often stagnant nation.

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

12.18.17 — Clothes Make the Man

They say clothes make the man—unless, that is, clothes unmake him. Both came to pass in the darkest hours of World War II, when some of LA’s growing minority population dressed for the jazz age.

White resentment then, fed by thoughts of others living to excess amid wartime austerity, led to the mass assaults of the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943. History has largely forgotten, but not Troy Michie, who creates a chronicle of racism and high style, at Company through January 21. It also cuts across past and present, to the demands of Black Lives Matter. American servicemen led the assault then, just as another point of reference for “the man” has now.

Troy Michie's Fat Cat Came to Play (installation view) (Company, 2017)But really, the Zoot Suit Riots? Their invocation in the press release sounds like a hoax or maybe conceptual art, but they were all too real. They also brought a swift response that puts the present Republican administration to shame. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote of the need to address race in America, and Earl Warren, then governor of California and later the chief justice who presided over Brown v. Board of Education, appointed a commission. The contrast with today underscores the persistence of prejudice and the threat. For Michie, though, it is also a matter of art and style.

His larger collage has the bright fragmentation of Stuart Davis and American Cubism, already a stepping back to the jazz age. The Whitney has called Archibald Motley, the black artist, “Jazz Age Modernist.” Smaller work becomes thicker and muter, thanks to button-down clothing and tailor’s specs. Both incorporate photographs of black men and women that could belong to then or now. Michie often excises faces, miming acts of enforced anonymity and violence. Chain-link fences divide the gallery, along with bundled newspapers and an empty suit, and more fencing lies on the floor, rolled up around what could be forensic evidence.

They could be deeply evocative or merely confusing, especially for those like me who had to turn to the Web for a point of reference. They also shift the focus awkwardly from Chicanos and LA to blackness and Harlem. Michie’s title speaks of “Fat Cat Came to Play,” and he quotes Malcolm X. Still, in all fairness, the fences bring in not just racial barriers, but also barriers to immigration. Then, too, that quote is double-edged in its appreciation of dress as identity or rebellion. It describes the zoot suit’s “killer-diller coat” with “shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.”

Implicit, too, is another barrier, in gender. All those shows of fashion designers at the Met revolve around not just whites and wealth, but also women, no? Talk of “the black male” may seem provocative, as in a legendary show curated by Thelma Golden at the Whitney—or dated to the point of embarrassing, as at times with the Whitney’s current “Incomplete History of Protest.” It takes on more currency, though, for the LGBTQ communities, and Michie also appears in “Trigger” at the New Museum. That show’s account of “gender as a tool and a weapon” can itself seem slippery enough to encompass immigration and race. As with Cubism, though, sometimes it pays not to keep one’s head straight.

Yet another problem for male identity extends to white males, like the ones that voted for Donald J. Trump. Right next door to Michie, Alex Mackin Dolan evokes automation and a crude form of AI as “Particle Accelerator of Angels,” at David Lewis through December 22. His constructions could pass for slot machines, juke boxes, or robots, not least with a mechanical humanoid slumping listlessly forward. It might have replaced workers, or it might share their anxiety. Men, too, might have pushed any number of protruding buttons, illustrated with photos and schematic images, expecting another button to pop out. Then again, men these days are expecting a lot.

12.15.17 — A Fondness for Copycats

Robert Lehman had a fondness for copycats. He made them the strength of his drawing collection, now in the Met—and I have added this to an earlier report on French drawing at the Morgan Library as a longer review and my latest upload.

In part, Lehman had little choice. What do you think was on the market when the banker sought out drawings from as early as the Renaissance, building on his father’s collection, if not “workshop of” names you are more likely to know? Yet he also liked them for something only a student then could have—the sheer polish of work with an eye to others already finished. One thinks of sketches as an artist’s first thoughts, but they are also a discipline. Leonardo da Vinci's A Bear Walking (Metropolitan Museum, c. 1482–1485)Pinpricks along the outlines could mark their transfer to a painting, or they could stem from dependency on another drawing, one that the master had made available as a model. Such demanding media as metalpoint could indicate an independent drawing for connoisseurs or just more of a test.

Even the unknown artists in a selection of sixty drawings had to be fast learners. They could pull off a sense of mass and motion after Lorenzo Monaco around 1420—or the detail in a head by Domenico Ghirlandaio after 1495 that might almost be someone you know. Lehman, though, preferred fast learners when he came to the big names, too, all the way (as the show’s title has it, through January 7) from “Leonardo to Matisse.” Rembrandt did not copy The Last Supper, which he never traveled to see, but he did copy a print after Leonardo. His red chalk unites the apostles in a rapid-fire line of gestures and emotions, with Jesus framed not by a window, but rather by a tapestry with folds that add to the action. When the spontaneous and incomplete finally turns up, with a mountain pass by Fra Bartolomeo around 1500, it comes as a shock.

Leonardo da Vinci was a famously fast learner—with a contribution to The Baptism of Christ, around 1475, so unified and alive that his teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio, was said to have given up painting after seeing it. Here he turns to nature for a bear walking. A light tracing behind the bear’s rear legs suggests a stop-action motion study, while an additional paw with claws only accentuates the sketchy vitality of the rest. Albrecht Dürer was another prodigy, long before his many brilliant prints and sometimes stiff mature paintings. The raised hand in a self-portrait from 1493 presses thumb and two fingers together as not just virtuoso anatomy, but also the assertion that an artist’s grip matters. A pillow in front of him boasts of his grasp of solid form and ephemeral shadows.

Dürer continues on the back with six more pillow studies. The Met speaks of the texture of everyday objects, but they look barely textured and anything but mundane. Think instead of a twenty-something punching the pillow again and again to alter its geometry, with a satisfying bam each time. Vincent van Gogh, in contrast, was a slow learner, but an early landscape looks self-assured. Others would have found fault with the wispy figures and the perspective that broadens unnaturally in the foreground. Yet the lone man sweeping leaves and the broadening create a sense of mystery along with a sense of home, and the trees and their shadows to either side measure it out with precision.

Lehman preferred an old-fashioned finish when one least expects it. Henri Matisse has not yet flattened the nude in 1923, and Camille Corot had not yet abandoned the crisp house fronts and still crisper light of his visit to Rome in 1825. Naturally the collector gravitates to Martin Schongauer, the accomplished late Renaissance printmaker, and naturally he takes Pierre-Auguste Renoir, with a robust and colorful young woman, as his sole Impressionist. Naturally, too, he likes a model posing for Georges Seurat, the warped Neoclassicism of young Spartans by Edgar Degas, and the three-chalk technique of Jean Antoine Watteau. Still, he found room for a study by Antonio Pollaiuolo for a preposterous equestrian monument, in which a petty dictator would have crushed the nude victim that supports him—and with a dreamer by Jean Honoré Fragonard casting not her reflection in a mirror but her shadow. He also allows J. A. D. Ingres last-minute corrections in white, as if the sitter had cut himself shaving.

Lehman’s collecting got him on the Met’s board by 1960 and a whole wing to himself in 1975. With luck, a museum will never again make that the terms of a gift, especially when the wing impedes on Central Park. Even now, drawings from no particular place or time can illuminate only so much, and luck is running out when it comes to museum expansions at the expense of budgets and the public. Shoveling Chairs, from the circle of Rogier van der Weyden in the Northern Renaissance, refers to a proverbial expression for a peasant revolution. Still, it forms a tidy arch, and the shovelers look ahead a century to the coarser types of Pieter Bruegel. Money talks, even if revolution is in the air.

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

12.13.17 — One for the Deep End

David Hockney was not the only artist entering the 1970s by poolside. True, he was swimming in attention, while Michael Hurson had yet to make a splash. Hockney had also come to California from a seamy but swinging scene in London, while Hurson was from the Midwest, native to the unfulfilled promises and turmoil of America in the 1960s. His colors are earthier or just plain absent at that, with nary a watery blue in sight—not even for a series of Palm Springs swimming pools. Paintings look much like sketches, with firm indications of place and sunlight still to come. Yet he, too, was having fun.

He could always count on himself to get up and dance—or, if not, on his eyeglasses. They move across schematic but fiery landscapes, several pairs at a time, and down a pillar-shaped canvas. They stand in quite well, thank you, for academic nudes as the artist, then entering his thirties, no doubt could not. One might take their side pieces for legs and their frames for musculature. They turn their lenses on nothing in particular, least of all the viewer, but they earn a second look. They could well be about the space between looking and acting.

They and the swimming pools placed Hurson at the forefront of New Image painting, like Susan Rothenberg or his friends Jennifer Bartlett and Robert Moskowitz. He had already had solo shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and MoMA when he exhibited with them at the Whitney in 1978. Those pools and dances are (if you know Bartlett) his Rhapsody. He has, though, sunk more into the past, and one can see why at Paula Cooper, through December 22. A show spanning thirty years clusters near its start, as curated by Dan Nadel. It also had me thinking of the problematic brilliance and shallowness of Hockney.

Like Hockney, he never verges on Minimalism or darkness like Rothenberg or Moskowitz, and he never explodes across a room like Bartlett or teases apart the sheer possibilities of painting. Yet both have a teasing emptiness. A single figure lies on a blanket to the side, as if unable to enjoy a dip or a deck chair. The pool takes on a peculiar mass, like a truncated pyramid. Like Hockney, too, Hurson keeps looking away to distant mountains. A drink and cactus in the foreground of one chasm parallels the Brit’s still-life with landscape in homage to Japanese art.

Like Hockney as well, he found a supporter in Henry Geldzahler, the curator, but he grew closer to Modernism as Hockney never could. A third series contains portrait sketches with a flatness and density akin to Cubism. The eyeglasses as bulky nudes may deserve comparisons to Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso after all, although the swimming pool lacks for bathers. They could offer a bridge from the early twentieth century to Pop Art. The show ends six years before Hurson’s death from heart failure in 2007, at age sixty-five. One may never know whether he was every quite ready to dive into the deep end.

As the show opened, the gallery’s space across the street was exhibiting a younger artist who is. Cecily Brown again packs quotations from art history into a contemporary Abstract Expressionism, through December 2. Can you spot the borrowings from The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault? Me neither, but an enormous mural has everything else you might wish, including faces, bodies, and shards of color. It and other paintings look brighter than humanly possible with barely a hint of red or blue. Like Hurson, she keeps the threat of water at bay.

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

12.11.17 — The Way Home

It has taken a few years, but the Whitney has found its way home. Maybe it never could find its way back to Madison Avenue, obliging the Met Breuer to pick up the pieces—at the cost of a balanced budget and a director’s career. Maybe it felt a bit lost in the Meatpacking District, reopening in Renzo Piano architecture with “America Is Hard to See.”

Now, though, after a stormy Whitney Biennial, it has taken a liking to what it sees. It even calls a rehanging of the permanent collection through roughly 1960 “Where We Are“—Johns's Three Flags (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1958)and what better way to enjoy tourist season in New York than with a return visit? This being a museum of American art, naturally it has to assess who we are as well.

The show alludes early and often to a poem in the darkness of a world at war, and it opens with paintings about a previous war. Yet it has space for the comforts of home, including two different paintings of room heated by a stove. It has no room for Stuart Davis and American Cubism, some of the leading lights of the Ashcan School and Abstract Expressionism, or the showpieces of Pop Art, but repeat appearances by Edward Hopper and a renewed emphasis on race and gender. Who we are, then, is changing, but not all at once, which is only reasonable. It is less out to change the face of American art than to change how one sees it. In other words, it is even now looking for home.

It takes its title from an exile in America, W. H. Auden, but the British poet opens “September 1, 1939” with a chilling specificity of time and place:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.

It has become something of a cliché to say that this or that warning hits home in age of Donald J. Trump, but Auden’s does. As curators, though, David Breslin with Jennie Goldstein and Margaret Kross are at least cautiously optimistic about home ground. Their five rooms borrow further from the poem, for familiar themes of American aspirations—”No One Exists Alone” for family and community, “The Furniture of Home” for domesticity, “The Strength of Collective Man” for labor and industry, “Of Eros and Dust” for the greater longings of postwar art, and “In a Euphoric Dream” for American icons. In this company, a near abstract riff by Larry Rivers on Washington Crossing the Delaware looks less like a shriek of pain than the sheer pleasure of painting.

Auden would have had his doubts, to judge by the context of a quote: “but who can live for long / in an euphoric dream.” You are entitled to your doubts, too. Museums rehang their collections all the time, as the Whitney did for its seventh-fifth birthday—and I have not even bothered to write up work from the 1980s on another floor or at MoMA. The wall text, too, can sound phony, in comparing “the rural Kansas of his youth” for John Steuart Curry to “the mother he lost” for Arshile Gorky. The double portrait of Gorky and his mother, who died in the Armenian genocide, has a monumental blankness that Curry’s regionalism could never attain.

Within, though, Curry’s Baptism in Kansas hangs next to an equally ecstatic religious community bathed in a blue light from Archibald Motley, the black artist in Chicago. A trite history has given way to diversity and feeling. The same comes in the room for “collective man,” where linoleum cuts by Elizabeth Cattlet pronounce I Am the Negro Woman. Right off the elevator lies another recent acquisition of African American art, the war series by Jacob Lawrence. It puts on equal terms the pain of soldiers in World War I and of families learning of their death at home. Look off to the side, to a parade in Washington Square by William Glackens, and its sentiments look a lot more suspect but its dabs of color more modern.

Women appear again to the other side, where as unfamiliar a name as Agnes Pelton under the influence of theosophy leads to a glowing abstraction Georgia O’Keeffe. A pair of eyes by Jay DeFeo hangs next to a Veil by Morris Louis, as if looking behind the curtain. Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French supply another kind of diversity, in collaborative photos of gay identity as PaJaMa. White males can add surprises, too, like Andreas Feininger. His photo of a house brought in one piece to suburbia seems torn between assertions of rootlessness and home. Speaking of home, I had forgotten that Edward Hopper also painted East River apartments.

Icons like Hopper and Jasper Johns still have their place. In fact, Early Sunday Morning and Three Flags have a wall to themselves, just in case you had never noticed that the first has its own red, white, and blue—in the shape of a barber’s pole. So does an abstraction by Ellsworth Kelley. A black painting by Frank Stella appears with scenes of white working class America by Charles Demuth, Elsie Driggs, Margaret Bourke-White, and Dorothea Lange because, among other reasons, Stella applied house paint. But picking winners gets old quickly when it comes to the permanent collection. Even Auden ends his poem with an “affirming flame.”

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

12.8.17 — Trigger Warnings

Nina Chanel Abney comes with a warning. Given the necessity of Black Lives Matter, make that a trigger warning. That could explain the choice of signs that Abney has adapted many times over for a two-gallery show of paintings, at Mary Boone through December 22 and at Jack Shainman through December 20. Get help, one painting screams in capital red letters. Get first aid right away, runs another. Trouble comes when you delay!

Trouble is coming anyway, and Abney is a worthy troublemaker. The works at her first gallery stick to a poster format, right down to their flat renderings, routine fonts, and plain, slim frames—and then she messes them up in all sorts of ways. The fonts may shift even within a line, and their message may veer off just as suddenly as well. Nina Chanel Abney's Fruit of the Womb (Mary Boone gallery, 2017)Someone has added text here and there or effaced it, and it is hard to know which amid so many cross-outs and underscores. They could show off a graffiti artist or an ingenious designer. The frequent X-marks could stand for further erasure or love and kisses.

Color runs wild, too, from bright backgrounds to a colorful cast of characters. Even those frames contribute with their mix of black, green, red, and blue. Most of all, the message keeps changing before one’s eyes. A black couple walks their dogs in sunlight, but the silhouette of another creature lies below them, RIP. It’s great to be alive, another work announces above joyful or angry birds and an athlete literally tied in knots. Yet a cross-out has either upped the ante from be alive to live—or else paused for a moment in the middle of denying life.

Characters are running around in swim trunks, showing off, supporting one another, or breathing a sigh of relief—but one, the text explains, lies under a truck, one will have to spend a month in the hospital, and another is crippled for life. The ambiguities extend from the message to its audience as well. One painting could be preaching mutual respect or every man for himself, with watch out for the other guy! But then the paired signs beneath for uh oh black and oh no blacks could remind blacks to watch out for the cops or whites to watch out for who is taking over the neighborhood. Both, of course, are signs of racism aimed at African Americans, but the paintings speak more of joys and sorrows than of anger or fear. They are too alive, too aware of the hormones in her largely male cast, and way too busy messing things up.

The poster style, dry humor, and grim politics recall Barbara Kruger as well as black artists concerned for police killings like Sanford Biggers, Carl Post, and Arthur Jafa (and I have added this to previous reports on Biggers and others as a longer review and my latest upload). Like her, Abney turns appropriation into a signature style. Kruger should receive credit if not a copyright fee every time an ad overlays text in bands of red—and for all I know she does. Abney, though, has another model, too. The X‘s, O‘s, overlapping color fields, and sheer exuberance recall Stuart Davis. Her WOW here and there shares his amazement at that.

She approaches Davis all the more in her second gallery, where her posters give way to murals. His thoroughly American Cubism anticipates Pop Art, and she is both looking around her and looking back. These paintings run denser and even wilder, with men crowding in and strutting their stuff. They take place in the here and now of a 99¢ store, but also in the belligerence of the imagination. The curator, Piper Marshall, moves from the first gallery’s “Safe House” to the second’s “Seized the Imagination.” Abney still, though, has her signature X—and, here and there, a determined NO.

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

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