1.12.18 — After the Fever

Je ne demande plus qu’à sentir mon cerveau: for Antonin Artaud, “I ask no more than to feel my brain.”

Can art, too, ask no more? In 1972, Nancy Spero created her Codex Artaud. On its thirty-three scrolls, the words of the French poet and playwright float amid crude figures in a field of white, in a desperate attempt to recover sensation. For “Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason,” contemporary art is still emerging from a clinical disorder.

Hanne Darboven's Konstruktion (Dia Arts Center, 1998)Let me tell you about the 1960s. In art, it was a culmination of everything rational and modern—in formalism, spareness, and the logic of the grid. For others, it was the summer of love. It was a time of expanded opportunities and long overdue demands, most especially for blacks and women. When the logic shattered and the love gave out, in the 1970s, the horizons could only expand still further, taking in Latin American art and the resurgent individualism of Neo-Expressionism. The cynicism of the 1980s was still to come.

Or is that all a lie? The Met Breuer, through January 14, sees only art in the throes of a bad trip, and I have added this to previous reports on art and madness as a longer review for my latest upload. The show divides into four sections as “Vertigo,” “Nonsense,” “Twisted,” and “Excess,” to locate the breakdown in drugs, language, physical sensation, and the very impulse to abstraction that had promised so much clarity. It includes dark voices speaking for the oppressed like Spero or Nancy Grossman, but also the cheery spectacle of Yayoi Kusama. It includes the Post-Minimalism and body parts of Paul Thek, Bruce Nauman, and Eva Hesse—but also the Minimalism of Sol LeWitt and Al Loving, the Pop Art of Claes Oldenburg and Philip Guston, the cartoons of Jim Nutt and Peter Saul, and the experimental videos of Gary Hill and Stan VanDerBeek. By the time you exit, you, too, may be delirious.

It starts innocently enough, with what looks like standard fare in abstraction, including Loving. Yet he has peeled and flattened a cube, much as Agnes Denes seeks alternative projections of the 3D geometry of planet earth. The next room brings in Robert Smithson, who devoted himself to entropy, and Lygia Clark, for whom The Inside Is the Outside. Grids include LeWitt, but also Dara Birnbaum with clips from The Hollywood Squares, Andy Warhol with Electric Chair, and Paul Sharits with Cellular Disorder. The terrors of the body are already in evidence, even before Anna Maria Maiolino presses her mouth to the camera and Ana Mendieta her cheeks to glass. For artists like these, delirium means abjection.

The breakdown of language begins with Léon Ferrari and his Tower of Babel in wire, tin, and lead. It includes VanDerBeek’s fragmented poetry and Mira Schendel, with unreadable graffiti. And it all gets an unhealthy boost from drugs, only starting with a book by Timothy Leary. Lee Lozano declares herself Stoned Drunk Sober, Henri Michaux has his Mescaline Drawing, and Dan Graham charts the side-effects. When Carolee Schneemann confronts the atrocities in Vietnam in grainy film, she takes as her soundtrack the Beatles and “We Can Work It Out,” because she no longer can. Still, something gets lost in the fever dream.

Museums are feeling a welcome pressure to display the permanent collection, after so many blockbusters and wasted atriums. They are also feeling the pressure to keep up with contemporary art—which is, after all, what drew the Met to lose money by taking over the Met Breuer. Here it borrows two-thirds of the show, but the same factors are at work. Is it fair to the period and to art? As curator, Kelly Baum includes too many lesser artists and unrepresentative work. She also needs way too much wall text to fit it all into a thesis, but it breaks away, often movingly, all the same.

To force the work into excess, the show has to separate Warhol’s electric chair and Saul’s by an entire floor. It also has to see disintegration, where a collector like Hanne Darboven or a black woman in abstraction like Howardena Pindell saw freedom—or where Jennifer Bartlett saw Rhapsody. It includes illustrations by LeWitt and Jasper Johns with text by Samuel Beckett, but does that reduce them all to apostles of nonmeaning? As its saving grace, the show eats away at the distinction between Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, along with the privilege of the prosaic. For Smithson, “Here language ‘closes’ rather than ‘discloses’ doors to utilitarian interpretations.” Yet it allowed him to open doors to perception.

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

8.14.17 — Experimenting on Himself

In 1926, at the very peak of his career, Eugen Gabritschevsky reported on “Experiments in Color Changes and Gender.” He was not yet describing his art.

Back then, Gabritschevsky was a biologist, with a specialty in insects. (That 1926 paper was about spiders.) The son of a bacteriologist, he had grown up in the most elite and progressive circles of tsarist and revolutionary Russia, at home among scientists, diplomats, and Tolstoy. Eugen Gabritschevsky's Untitled (Galerie Chave, 1949)Fluent in English, he had just wrapped up his postdoc at Columbia University under T. H. Morgan, the leading geneticist of his age, and was settling into a post in Paris. In only five more years, he had lost it all to mental illness—but his greatest experiments were just beginning. For the American Folk Art Museum, through August 20, he spent the rest of his life in a “Theater of the Imperceptible.”

Insects live fast and die young. Not him. Sent to an asylum in Germany in 1931, Gabritschevsky was only slowly picking up the pieces and discovering his art. Some of it still looks like scientific illustration, including exquisite bird studies in his chosen medium, gouache on paper. Folding and blotting brings out the symmetry and segmentation of, once again, insects—if not also a Rorschach test. The show’s title brings out the parallels between his lives. He was making the imperceptible visible, just as he had behind a microscope.

Increasingly, the imperceptible belongs not to the furthest reaches of the senses, but to the mind. In his madness, he can experiment only on himself. The birds morph into faces, their color and gender no longer intact. Forms multiply, with the obsessiveness of folk art—and who is to say what is glorious and what is a nightmare? Memories of Moscow before the revolution become images of crowded theaters, but of solely the audience in fancy dress and with mere dots for eyes. Gabritschevsky’s subject has become the pageant not of art and nature, but of the perceiver.

He might have seen the changes coming as early as his stay in New York. A crowded skyline in charcoal has one foot in science fiction, with seemingly familiar towers rising a good five years before construction of the Chrysler building began. A man leans over his microscope in the laboratory, but in near darkness. Seen from the back, he is and is not the artist. Then, too, the move from hard science was never quite complete. Species other than people join the lost souls at the Last Judgment, and men with odd growth for heads could be suffering from a physical as well as mental disease.

Those crusty heads look right out of Jean Dubuffet, and Gabritschevsky’s brother wrote for encouragement. The French painter was polite but measured. Gabritschevsky, he explained, was not turning against “l’art classique” but rather “handling” it. He had done so before in charcoal, with those skyscrapers informed by Modernism—or with a ghostly man in the woods informed by Symbolism and Edvard Munch. The Last Judgment, too, is a classical subject, rendered in lush browns. Yet its god is only a small point of light, and its tiers belong just as much to the artist’s theaters of Moscow and the mind.

Maybe Gabritschevsky never had time to become an outsider or an artist, as his state of mind grew worse. Work belongs almost entirely to the 1940s, although he died only in his mid-eighties, in 1974. The museum pairs him with Carlo Zinelli, an Italian who took up art in an asylum well into his forties. Zinelli had served both in a slaughterhouse and (by devilish coincidence) in combat, he exhibited with Art Brut, and his work became more cramped, chaotic, and colorful right up to his death. Gabritschevsky, by comparison, was at least half in control of his experiments all along. They just had a way of turning on him.

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