2.21.18 — Your Presence Is Required

Toyin Ojih Odutola left Nigeria for the United States at age five, but it will not let go. As one title puts it, she is not just between continents, but Between the Margins.

At the Whitney through February 25, Odutola pictures a young adulthood that she could never have had, in two interlinked families that she might feel privileged to call her own. They survey the family seat and unclaimed estates, with a bottle from the family vineyard on the floor. They maintain an office as representatives of the state. They may also feel trapped by the very demands that they have placed on others and themselves. Toyin Ojih Odutola's Between the Margins (courtesy of the artist/Jack Shainman, 2017)They go through with barely a smile through the milestones of a marriage, a pregnancy, and the first night at boarding school—when the next generation can or must stand on their own. When an invitation that “requires your presence” lies unanswered on a massive desk, it sounds like an injunction on both the recipient and the art.

Odutola cannot let go of the past, but not in the way of many today. A new academicism has gained in popularity among African American artists, to assert pride in themselves, their ancestry, and life on the street. It rejects “post-black identity,” but also turns aside from racism, police killings, and southern history. With Mickalene Thomas and Barkley L. Hendricks, it adopts an overlay of portraiture and glitter. It helps explain why Barack and Michelle Obama have chosen Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald for their official portraits. It may put in question the very status of modernity—and so, far more knowingly, may Odutola’s Nigeria.

She, too, has a command of both realism, informed by European and American art, and “Pattern and Decoration.” She works in charcoal, pastel, and pencil on the scale of painting. They allow the precise outlines of a face, a figure, or a bridal veil, but also quick scrawls for a handwritten letter or grass. She poses newlyweds in front of wallpaper, an intricate architecture, patterned flooring, and an equally patterned rug. Highlights snake across faces. They belong less to depth than to the picture plane, and they make porcelain skin tones and reserved expressions more unyielding as well.

Odutola stands out from the new academicism in reaching for narrative. Her past shows have had blunt messages but also a growing sympathy for both blacks and whites. Here she creates a history. While the new series has no obvious order, it unfolds implicitly over time. The balding patriarch still has a dark beard and a youthful vitality as he overlooks his estate—and then he sits with “her” scarf, with every implication of a loss. A portrait stands unfinished, as if the sitter could not hold out for an ending.

This black landowner has his inhuman side, too. His estate pulses like clouds for Charles Burchfield in the 1930s, while his high vantage point approaches landscape for Vincent van Gogh. The latter, though, roots his ethics and his art in the labor of those who tend the earth—here barely discernible and barely human. The demands press in on a young man, perhaps the heir apparent, throwing his head back against the wall. They leave a bridal veil as less a triumph than a mask. They may contribute to the anxiety of that boy in boarding school, clinging to oversize bedding even as it threatens to smother him.

The artist, too, has entered the aristocracy, but not as a trader or ambassador like her subjects. Still in her early thirties, she has a museum exhibition in the Whitney’s (free) first-floor gallery, with seventeen works from just the last year or so. “To Wander Determined” sounds like a contradiction in terms, but then her subjects feel those very contradictions. They assert their entitlement by abandoning work for leisure, where leisure means loosening one’s tie, and they leave unclear what they have contributed to Africa’s future. A pregnant woman casts her shadow where one might expect a reflection. With that portrait of an unfinished portrait, Odutola may be questioning or celebrating her artistry as well.

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

2.19.18 — Loving a Wall


“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Ai Weiwei would have to approve, for he is making art from breaking through. He has built fences throughout New York—and then penetrated them with images of those whom global politics have fenced out. Yet in straying so far is he still making political art?

You almost surely know the opening to “Mending Wall,” by Robert Frost, and the Chinese artist is tunneling under walls just by quoting one of the best-known poems in English. He calls the work Good Fences Make Good Neighbors after an insistent refrain. Frost’s neighbor repeats it to end the poem, and one can imagine him mouthing it again and again, to the poet’s dismay. from Ai Weiwei's Good Fences Make Good Neighbors (photo by John Haber, 2017)Something about private property, chauvinism, and other barriers is as hard to detach from American ideals of liberty as a chain-link fence—but then so is breaking through and breaking away. Ai this fall and winter appropriated still more western culture with a canopy under Washington Square arch. The tall passage through its fencing takes the shape of a person huddling over another to provide comfort or protection, after Marcel Duchamp.

With hundreds of objects and images to boot, Ai is luring admirers into corners of the city that even New Yorkers may not know as well as he—from bus shelters in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Harlem to the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side. They extend to a symbol of internationalism as diversity and community, the Unisphere in Flushing Meadow in Queens, left over from the 1964 World’s Fair. He is breaking boundaries just by infiltrating public and private spaces, from newsstands to rooftops. Only he is doing so by building fences. One offers the creature comforts of a hammock made of tubular netting, while another lets you stroll right in without so much as touching the appropriated subway turnstiles to either side. Yet fences they remain.

That silhouette in Washington Square suggests a parent and child making a rough passage. Sure enough, Ai is thinking first and foremost of repression in China and the refugee crisis. He has tackled the first with past work, including his contribution to “Art and China Since 1989” at the Guggenheim. The second is on everyone’s mind as well, as with Robert Longo at the Brooklyn Museum (and I have gathered this with a report on outdoor winter sculpture as a longer review and my latest upload). Sure enough, too, Ai is thinking of America’s leading exponent of turning people away. His third large “intervention,” after the Unisphere and the arch, is a golden (or, to my mind, bright orange) cage on Central Park South just three blocks from the Trump Tower—because, you know, the Donald likes gold.

The rest is much harder to find, through February 18, and after months of trying I was still scoping it out. Allow me my apologies at once. While now formally closed, it delved so far into the city that I figured it would take weeks to remove it all. Ai, though, has the resources, and just yesterday the physical sculpture everywhere I looked was gone. You may still find bits and pieces at a bus shelter near you. Who knows?

I found quickly enough the chain-links above and between buildings or at bus stops, but not gauzy images of immigrants that convert lampposts into flagpoles. For photographs briefly in place of advertising on wireless towers (the new replacement for pay phones), Ai leans to uplifting quotes and a touristed Manhattan where New Yorkers fear to tread. As an international artist, he has the means and assistants to put this all in place. Not even Marina Abramovic is as good at getting attention, although she has walked the Great Wall of China. But then Ai knows that the wall failed to keep the invaders out.

Does that place him well above the concerns of New York? The fences look quite at home on buildings on and around the Bowery, where gentrification and homelessness are spiraling. Does his work expand the notion of barriers from international ones to real estate, or is it just innocuous and tone-deaf? Is it leveling real distinctions along with walls and fences? Regardless, it has the ambition to reveal itself slowly and marvelously. When Ai says that good fences make good neighbors, he is not altogether ironic.

From across Astor Place, the tall arched windows of the Cooper Union take on a glow even before they light up at night. Peter Cooper might have approved. In founding the college, he was breaking boundaries, too, with the ideal of a quality higher education “open and free to all.” Up close, the glow resolves into the harsh geometry of three more fences, but step back again in sunlight, for an experience that the Foundation Building’s architects might have had in mind in 1876. These cages shimmer. But then Frost’s neighbor has more in common with the poet’s dark imagination than either might admit.

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

2.16.18 — Homage to the Sombrero

Josef Albers did not have a taste for monuments. He turned out thousands of paintings, not one privileged above the rest—and each resolutely abstract. Yet he and his wife, Anni, returned again and again to Mexico for its pyramids and temples.

Their thirteen trips began in the winter of 1936, barely a year after their appointment at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and continued for thirty years. They brought their relatives and another painter, Max Bill. They collected countless postcards and photographs, from such sites as the Temple of the Sun and Moon and the Avenue of the Dead.

Josef Albers's Color Study for White Line Square (Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 1976)Josef Albers in Mexico,” through February 18, sees the trips as central to his art—and I have worked this in with other recent reports of Modernism to the max as a longer review and my latest upload. The Guggenheim proceeds not chronologically, but by location. It displays his photos, interspersed with paintings on masonite and paper. It concludes with examples from his most influential series, the nested but not concentric shapes of Homage to the Square—begun in 1950 and continuing until his death in 1976. He had found “a country for art like no other.” Had he also found the abstract vocabulary that he had sought all his life?

He was not the sort to worship “the primitive,” unlike Pablo Picasso in encounters with African art. Yet he believed in fundamental laws for color and form, and how could those laws not extend to the deep past? They did, after all, extend to Mexican homes in the present, a source for his Variant/Adobe series starting in 1946. He took pre-Columbian art seriously, because he took everything seriously, but without concern for its place in another time or culture. His wife looked to tradition along with Modernism as well in her weaving, although the show cannot find room for her at all. They pursued their variations on a theme like a ritual.

Albers may have been the most dogmatic of modernists, but he came by his dogma the hard way. The Nazis had closed the Bauhaus, where he and his wife taught, in 1933. He was in exile at forty-five, but he knew what he wanted from art. His nested but not concentric squares explore close and contrasting colors, but without the mysteries of rectangles for Mark Rothko—or the earthly surprises of black squares for Ad Reinhardt. He sticks to the plainest of geometry, like Donald Judd, but without Minimalism’s way of getting in your face. He is just laying down the law.

Still, he kept returning to Mexico as a lifelong learner, much as he kept returning to his series. The curator, Lauren Hinkson, sees his cut-and-paste photos as collage, although he never exhibited them. One might better see them as research. He closed in on relief carvings to watch them unfold. He closed in on grand staircases or the space between pyramids for the staggered rectangles, V-shapes, and shadows. Their pairings with his paintings can feel arbitrary, but they point to growth in his art. Albers found in them what he wanted, but he found something nonetheless.

He doted on every painting in Homage to the Square without thought that they were becoming a postmodern wet dream of endless reduplication, but they disrupted symmetry all the same—and so did the rest of his art. Some mazes look like Op Art, and shapes set at nearly right angles verge on 3D. An early Tierra Verde has enough brushwork for the promised texture of green earth. He sets small paired rectangles in larger fields like windows or doors. No doubt he would have found them wherever he looked, even had he stayed home, because fundamental laws are like that, and so are stubborn artists. At the end, though, the most finicky designs disappear, and the squares take on the translucency of oil.

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

2.14.18 — Dark Matter

Who knew that New York University’s Center for Neural Science has an artist in residence? Nene Humphrey is just that, and she calls her latest show “Transmission,” like a brain wave or a work of art.

Neural science is concerned with networks, almost like fabric, and so is she. She bases her art on embroidery and clinical studies of the brain. It gets dark and messy, and the mess can be an act of remembrance. It can also be a probe into the mind, in a wiry third dimension.

Nene Humphrey's Out of the Nothing There Is (Lesley Heller Workspace, 2008)Humphrey shared a gallery in 2009 with Nancy Haynes, with the tactile, physical edge of abstraction as her subject. Her Mylar on paper held floating blots or blocks of color. From there, ink spun outward, like the self-generating networks of the brain. A show that same year of abstraction and its materials called itself “Cutters,” and Humphrey is still cutting and weaving. It could stand for the messy business of fine art. It also invites the viewer into a record of its making.

Her new work opens with a construction in wire and mixed media, at Lesley Heller through February 18. It also extends to video, in an installation that draws them together as a vivid whole. Its images serve as both a model for creativity and a remembrance of death. For all their material nature, they come most alive when fragile and translucent. They come alive, too, in the viewer’s unfolding experience. It could be her own or a scientist’s experience as well.

The new work adds associations with human hair. It served as a Victorian keepsake, for further remembrance. She also adds more of Humphrey. One enters past wire spinning across facing walls, only to face the artist, projected onto strips hanging from the ceiling like a curtain onto the unknown. She could be feeling out her materials, weaving them together, or teasing them apart. She could almost be conducting brain surgery.

The results appear behind the curtain, in two more videos on facing walls. Both project above what could be her work tables, with the tools at hand. The show concludes with seeming frames from the videos, but in charcoal. They soften her textures and carry them into a greater but more illusory depth. Science may have become more a metaphor than a serious, independent practice. Yet the merger of process and product has become a shared experience.

I covered Humphrey briefly in context of Haynes, “Cutters,” and Mary Heilmann. I encountered her still more briefly in a 2014 group show, “This Music Crept By Me upon the Waters,” grappling with loss. There she recorded her husband’s breathing before his death in 2006. Her central shapes, in violet against blue, and her white tracery swelled outward like jellyfish with the currents and the air. I have amplified the first review a bit with just some of the words here, as a longer review and my latest upload, while leaving the second intact. Artists in shades of black and white are still casting their spell upon the waters.

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

2.12.18 — Send In the Clouds

I can grow so bored by On Kawara that I never stop to ask: is he bored, too?

Does he ever get so sick and tired of painting the date in plain block letters on a plain colored field, to the point that it becomes an obligation? Or is it rather a relief to have a still point in a turning world—or just a way of life? Is the act of painting as ordinary for him as a walk around the block and a glimpse of the sky? Does it make every day at once part of an ongoing chain of thoughts and a fresh start?

Byrom Kim's Sunday Painting, 01/19/14 (James Cohan gallery, 2014)Byron Kim must feel all of the above by now. Every Sunday for more than seventeen years, he has devoted a square just fourteen inches on a side to a patch of sky with nary an airplane, apartment tower, or telephone pole in sight. The “Sunday Paintings” range from light blue to a cloudy white. Then he adds the date, time, location, and whatever else crosses his mind, in pen or pencil. Anyone can do the math to see that the series is approaching nine hundred paintings, and almost no one will follow every word in a selection of roughly a hundred, at James Cohan through February 17. Still, dipping in and out will make them part of your chain of thought, too—and I have added this to earlier reports of simple pleasures in paintings by Michael Hurson and Laura Owens, as a longer review and my latest upload.

They have obvious affinities with abstraction or color studies, like squares for Josef Albers, and Kim did appear a decade ago in “Color Chart” at the Museum of Modern Art. Their mundane subject recalls his choice then of skin tones. They also fall in a tradition of precise notes of the weather by landscape painters and of cloud studies by John Constable, but without the painstaking complexity. After seeing Constable sketches more than twenty years ago, I wrote that he handles clouds like portraits of dear, departed friends. Kim handles them more as elements in an unfolding self-portrait. He adds a new work each week over the course of the show.

For a while the inscription covered a separate strip at the bottom of the canvas, but now it can fall anywhere, as the sky and his thoughts have become one. Locations like Gowanus are a reminder that Kim also appeared in “Open House,” a show of Brooklyn painters. The rest of the words spin off into the triumphs and stresses of family, friends, and politics, from pleasure in the first black president to the shock of a Sanders supporter after a year of Donald J. Trump—and from the comforts of familiars to fears of letting them down. They can read like a Facebook entry, a haiku, or a secret. New Yorkers who frequent art galleries are likely to recognize themselves as well. Artists frustrated by the system can, for a moment, almost feel at home.

Sunday paintings demand regular habits and stern promises. When Kim misses a week, he notes it the next time with regret. Yet they also suggest time off from work. Instead of muddying or challenging abstraction and representation, he can embrace both. Instead of charting colors, he can let them fall where they may. He can accept failure along the way, much as in relationships. Whatever else, there is always another Sunday.

The series may have come to him as a new beginning. It starts on January 7, 2001—the first weekend of a new year and a new millennium. For those less into grand pronouncements, it was also just another day. A need for reassurance may account as well for the cheery palette, even when Hurricane Sandy darkened galleries. Kawara must have felt the same need, as in a series of nearly a thousand telegrams, each with the very same text: I AM STILL ALIVE.

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

2.9.18 — Present at the Creation

Sometimes even the divine has to struggle with the creation. The Met names a mammoth survey of Michelangelo drawings after his fame within his lifetime, as (only a little quaintly and preposterously) Il Divino. Yet “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” shows an artist who could never rest, through February 12, not even on the seventh day. In his writings, he valued ease but also difficulty—and grace but also terror. Who can say at any moment which will win out?

Michelangelo's The Dream (Il Sogno) (photo by the Frick Collection, Courtauld Gallery, c. 1533)The Met takes him from a precocious twelve-year-old, or so it hopes, through the young man determined to outdo the very best of the Renaissance. It finds him struggling on sheet after sheet with projects that he could not bring to completion. It sees him struggling, too, as an older man to earn the affection of others. It ends with drawings as models in the hands of other artists, to extend his legacy to their work. It throws in a few paintings and sculptures, mostly by others, as well. With studies for such monuments of art history as the Sistine Chapel, it allows one to be present at the creation—and this is a huge story, so I invite you to read a longer review in my latest upload.

On his own in Florence, a city of art just as today, Michelangelo went back to the very origins of the Renaissance. He copied a monumental figure by Giotto, with cross-hatching in small strokes of the pen to create mass, light, and shadow. He copied the Expulsion from Paradise, by Masaccio, with red chalk that accentuates by its very smudges the pain in Adam’s or Eve’s face. He could not resist firming up their legs and butt muscles as well. A possible but by no means certain first sculpture in marble, a young archer, adapts an early Renaissance bronze while stripping it of decoration and refinement.

His early success in sculpture brought him to Rome, where he grew so close to the pope that Julius assigned him to design his tomb. Julius also overcame Michelangelo’s hesitancy to take on painting the Sistine ceiling, while allowing the artist a far more ambitious scheme that either had anticipated. Later Michelangelo played a role in the design of Rome’s greatest churches and public squares. He lived to influence not just the High Renaissance, through a close follower in Sebastiano del Piombo, but the late Renaissance as well. He offered a cartoon, or full-scale drawing for transfer, to Jacopo da Pontormo, and the twisted and tormented bodies of his Last Judgment could well stand as Mannerism’s greatest achievement. He died at a time of changing morals, to the point that another follower, Daniele da Volterra, took charge of covering up the painting’s nudity.

His breadth appears, too, in his media. The Met’s description of him as “draftsman and designer” plays on the Italian designo, which means more than just drawing. One might think of drawing as a matter of line, but Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor, and he created a corresponding sensibility on paper. The early cross-hatching loosens up, and firm outlines vanish entirely—and he brought the same sensibility to painting and architecture, both public and private. He also found a language for his art and his longings in poetry, which often shares a sheet with his drawing. Not even Leonardo da Vinci was such a Renaissance man.

Michelangelo’s breadth challenges a museum to keep up. The Met responds with more than two hundred objects, including more than one hundred thirty drawings by him alone. It also places a replica of the Sistine ceiling in a light box overhead, somewhat later than it and related drawings would fall chronologically. At a quarter scale, it is more than impressive enough, and it further drives home the artist’s unity of site and art. The full-scale reproductions of individual panels this past summer, each on its own stand at the PATH station Oculus, had to leave one wondering if they could ever come together as a narrative, a program, or a work of art. Here they gain in power from the painted ribs that separate them and that ripple across the whole.

He fills a sheet only to turn it sideways, upside-down, or on its reverse to make room for more. He blocks out a figure with separate studies of anatomy, clothing, and architectural setting. He also makes it impossible to know which came first. Does that make his process fundamentally additive, or does he have it all in his head to start? Either way, his unity packs a surprise, and so do his drawings. You may need to come with a little of the story that the Met leaves out, or you may delight in leaping over the gaps.

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

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