1.1.18 — Show Me the Proof

Proof: Goya, Eisenstein, Longo” will have anyone wondering: what could the names possibly have in common, across at least three art forms, two continents, and two centuries?

The elevator at the Brooklyn Museum opens onto a cavernous space, through January 7, interrupted by only the exhibition title and a single work—the First Amendment in charcoal by Robert Longo, off to the side. Robert Longo's Untitled (Eagle) (Brooklyn Museum, 2017)Is the empty chamber just one more assertion of solemnity, from an artist known for anything but? Is the promise of two historic figures to come nothing more than a plea for legitimacy, and where is the art? Show me the proof, he may have you shouting, and in a strange way he does.

Robert Longo made his name in the 1980s with Men in the Cities. They set dancers against white backgrounds, dressed for success and wildly contorted, as if struck by bullets. The disco era was already coming to an end, but they had unmistakable power—thanks to their controlled line, their resemblance to film stills, their reflection on wealth in Reagan years, and the throes of death. Are they now as dated as the Tribeca of Bright Lights, Big City, where men still wore dress shirts and ties on their way to the club scene? Perhaps, but Longo has not just shifted his eye to art and film history. He has been bringing his realism to a fever pitch and his politics into the present.

That opening charcoal of the First Amendment is a plea for the past, right down to its eighteenth-century handwriting, but also for freedom of expression. Yet the show may have you wondering about its premise even past the U-shaped antechamber. It devotes its first room to seven films by Sergei Eisenstein, on contiguous large screens like the walls of a great chapel. It also slows them down by a factor of a hundred, so that you have to work hard to see them advance at all. You can wait a long time for the horrifying woman shot in the eye or the triumphant mutiny on the battleship Potemkin. Did no one tell the museum that films like these made history with montage—rapid and often disruptive editing suited to the Soviet revolution and its betrayal under Stalin?

The films are mesmerizing all the same, and Longo has something serious in mind in rewriting Eisenstein. He and his fellow curator, Kate Fowle, want to insist that great art does slow you down, through the power of images to confront events. He is also drawing connections. The next room has suites of prints by Francisco de Goya, born more than two hundred years before Longo, in 1746. After turning cinema into stasis, he arranges selections from the Spaniard’s Bullfighting like successive film stills. He also unites Goya and Eisenstein in their command of darkness and light, precision and intimacy, and of course the disasters of war.

Longo has not just chosen his precursors, but recreated them in his own image, and he does so again in the roughly twenty charcoals that follow. He copies a painting by Joan Mitchell as carefully as the First Amendment, but in a spooky black and white. He transforms the urgent diagonals of The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault into wilder blurs, facing Syrian refugees on the opposite wall. That large drawing after a photograph strands its subjects high above a dark sea. Other ancestors include Venus with her reflection in a mirror by Titian, a fallen idol at Nineveh, figurines from the office of Sigmund Freud, and implicitly Freud himself. And other current events include the women’s march in January 2017, President Obama on the tarmac, the riots in Ferguson, and an athlete’s more plaintive protest.

In each case, he is in search of an unmoving, unforgettable image, and he is fascinated by bright lights and his own black dust. He applies it to reflections off an iceberg, a window shattered by a bullet, and the white crest of a bald eagle. He applies it, too, to a plain black rectangle, which hangs between Obama’s blackness on one wall and pilgrims crowding into Mecca on another, with the black cube of the Kaaba at their center. He loves images that function as symbols—of climate change, Black Lives Matter, American ideals, or faith. He also loves to draw parallels. Even the treatment of refugees as a triptych has a parallel in the raised verticals of nearby works.

One can almost forget yet another difference from his precursors: Goya and Eisenstein dreamed up their imagery. The athlete’s raised arms may stand for the victim of police violence in a pose of surrender, praise for the dead, or a salute to black power, but not thanks to Longo. He is still the appropriation artist of the “Pictures generation“—and still capable of the irony that preserves the gesture of handwriting or color field painting in a spellbinding copy. He renders the women’s march from behind, with a glowing light on the horizon like a glimmer of hope or a ghost, but which one? If you can get past the baloney, you can delight in asking for proof.

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9.13.17 — You Say You Want . . .

We Wanted a Revolution.” It sounds like an expression of failure or despair. It sounds, too, after John Lennon’s “Revolution” (or on the centennial of the Russian revolution), like a declaration of what no one should have wanted at all.

Instead, the exhibition celebrates twenty years of black women artists in context of their radicalism. It opens in 1965, when revolution was in the air, and ends with political art as the mainstream. In between, it hints at uncertainty as to where art or politics begins or ends. Beverly Buchanan's Untitled (Slab Works 1) photo from estate of the artist/Jane Briggs, private collection, c. 1978)

The Brooklyn Museum displays just forty artists, through September 17, few of them household names. Yet the show stretches in all directions from just outside The Dinner Party, by Judy Chicago, where a history of women seems all encompassing and all affirming, to the point of sentimental. It can because the names keep coming, including the names of collectives in art, in performance, and in protest. Spiral, AfriCOBRA, the Art Worker’s Collective, the Black Art Movement—it gets hard to remember them all. The first began with black males, but Romare Bearden, Normal Lewis, and Charles Alston invited Emma Amos to join them, and women assumed a greater and greater role. Ana Mendieta curated “an exhibition of Third World women artists of the United States” at A.I.R. in 1980, including broken columns by Beverly Buchanan, and Linda Goode Bryant founded her gallery, Just Above Midtown (or JAM).

At the center of the room outside The Dinner Party, Elizabeth Catlett combines curves and hollows out of Constantin Brancusi, an arm raised in a salute to black power, and the cedar of folk art and craft. Modern art, it says, can get along just fine with politics and community. Betye Saar says much the same with an assemblage akin to a Joseph Cornell box but mirrored, as Black Girl’s Window. So do Jae Jarrell’s fashion designs, paintings by Faith Ringgold that recall quilting, and Ringgold’s mural destined for the prison on Riker’s Island. So more obliquely does the show’s largest work—including a cloak of black bronze and wool by Barbara Chase-Riboud, black wire sheaves by Maren Hassinger, or (in a photo) hosiery sagging down from an open window as Rapunzel by Senga Nengudi. More often, though, artists seemed way too busy protesting to think of art.

They had a lot to protest, including the paucity of women in museums. Posters have the psychedelic colors of the 1960s and harsh edges closer to woodcuts. Jarrell’s husband depicts Angela Davis in the style of an album cover by Jimi Hendrix. A torrent of documents appears throughout. Whatever is near monochrome by Howardena Pindell doing here at all, for all the density of color and cut paper like crushed eggshells? Well, she did lead a protest against “The Nigger Paintings” by a white male at Artists Space in 1979.

Like “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” before it, the show works better as history than as art. It is also a narrow history. One might never know that a black male, Tony Whitfield, joined Pindell’s protest—as did Lucy Lippard, the white critic, and Ingrid Sischy, entering her term as the white editor of Artforum. One might never know, too, that art addressed poverty, apart from etchings by Kay Brown, or that Mendieta was Latino. Still, it is a lively history of race and gender. Catlett’s Target zeroes in on an African American male head, while a woman with her breasts swing open to reveal a red light, thanks to Alison Saar.

The curators, Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley, gain from the mix of media. Blondell Cummings treats the drudgery of housework as modern dance, before it induces a seizure. They also gain from the politics of the “Pictures generation“—although “Pictures,” the 1977 exhibition at Artists Space, had no black women at all. Three years later, Lorraine O’Grady subverts standards of beauty as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, while Coreen Simpson brings the glamour of fashion shoots to a Harlem church. Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems have their caustic encounters between photography and text. There is a lot to remember and, as Weems concludes, “Don’t you forget it!!!”

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