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.

3.29.17 — Obscure Objects of Desire

Not every museum retrospective comes with multiple warning labels about adult content, but then not every retrospective includes a commission for Playboy. Marilyn Minter welcomes comparisons of art to pornography, but on her own terms. The opening wall text at the Brooklyn Museum, through May 7, says that she plays on “our deepest impulses, compulsions, and fantasies.”

Marilyn Minter's Mudbath (Salon 94, 2006)Really, I wanted to reply, speak for yourself. And so she does, emphatically. Like the warning labels, she is out to lure you in and to turn you away—and I have appended this to other recent reports on a woman’s body in art as a longer review and my latest upload.

Minter has invited outrage since long before that Playboy series of women shaving their pubic hair, Plush from 2014. At first, she did so less wittingly. Photographs in black and white from 1969 show her mother at her make-up mirror and in bed, smoking. They evoke a southern belle out of Tennessee Williams and, more subtly, a real woman’s descent into alcohol and addiction. They scandalized fellow students with, no doubt, a very different ideal of femininity, mothering, and the old South. They look ahead to Cindy Sherman as well, but this is not a pose.

Not yet, at least. By 1989 Minter is painting after images of food torn from commercial art and, soon after, images of women torn from porn magazines. Both series have their share of stand-ins for an erect penis, and both allow women to use their tongue. By the mid-1990s, though, she is staging scenes herself. She is also teasing an audience more likely to be watching adult content than reading art criticism—with a commercial for late-night TV, showing her at work. An ad for a proper art magazine, she observes, would have cost about as much.

Since then, she has taken naked flesh to a larger and larger scale, temptations and blemishes intact. Food porn gives way to the disgust and allure of caviar, vodka, and liquid candy dripping in and from a woman’s mouth. As one title has it, she is having a Meltdown. In her latest, recently at Salon 94 Bowery through December 22, women appear ever so close to the picture plane but behind glass. Drops of water on the glass have the sparkle of photorealism. They assert both immediacy and distance, and both are alluring but also unnerving.

Minter’s technique asserts much the same. Her first paintings already push at once toward photorealism and abstraction. They also introduce tactile sensation, liquids, food, and disgust—with splashes on linoleum or frozen peas in a sink. These days, she photographs models, creates a montage, blurs or heightens it in Photoshop, and renders it in enamel on metal, with ample help from studio assistants. She may draw over the top with her finger, like graffiti as finger food. One can hardly get more engagement or more distance.

Born in 1948, she grew up in Louisiana and then Florida, but she is playing with a very urban sophistication. The Brooklyn Museum has shocked defenders of moral values before, with the Madonna in elephant poop by Chris Ofili and with work in its collection by Robert Mapplethorpe. Minter made the show’s final slow-motion video for the museum’s 2014 exhibition of “Killer Heels,” although the motif also appeared in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. She is in a line of women artists exposing themselves or others—including Sherman, Betty Tompkins, Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramovic, and Joan Semmel. When she asks why women cannot “own our bodies,” she is speaking the language of feminism. The result, as the title of her retrospective has it, is “Pretty/Dirty.”

Is that enough to respond to outrage—including the outrage of those who see only glossy, demeaning, and painfully obvious images of women? Does it change anything that these fragmented images are from a woman’s hand? Maybe not, not even when Minter’s chilly, silvery heels splash in water as if taking a hammer to the male gaze. One can, though, start to appreciate the layers of temptation and distance. She calls a painting Private Eye, with a play on a woman’s point of view and private parts. It is one proudly obscure object of desire.

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