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. MutualArtThey collected countless postcards and photographs, from such sites as the Temple of the Sun and Moon and the Avenue of the Dead.

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.

Josef Albers's Color Study for White Line Square (Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 1976)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.

1.8.18 — Silence without Censorship

To pick up from last time on “Art and China Since 1989” at the Guggenheim, Xu Bing filmed the pigs back in 1993 as A Case Study in Transference, Aun Yuan and Peng Yu the dogs in 2003, but they still drew hundreds of thousands of signatures in protest. Huang Yong Ping knows that his habitat, too, is not for the squeamish. Now that we can look back, did the Guggenheim make the right decisions?

Huang Yong Ping's Theater of the World (Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, 1993)If one thing unites the roughly seventy artists, it is reaching for the big, the brash, and the obvious. Ai Weiwei built an international reputation with spectacle and performance—such as shattering ancient urns, marking others with a Coca-Cola logo, and salvaging art from the trash. Cao Fei earned a show only a year ago at MoMA PS1 for animation with the look of anime and the pace of a video game.

And that leads once again to the issues of silence and censorship. The Whitney kept Dana Schutz in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Should the Guggenheim have stood its ground as well? Even before Theater of the World, Huang ran histories of Western and Chinese art through a washing machine, and the show displays the results. Surely he and the museum should know censorship when they see it. Maybe so, but then why does the outrage at the museum’s compromise leave me so uncomfortable?

For one thing, everyone deserves a voice, but not everyone deserves a show at the Guggenheim. While bad art can never excuse censorship, each of the works now withdrawn has that obvious message that makes me reluctant to feel sorry for it. It is also a confused message. Huang may speak of “survival of the fittest” as life under capitalism or communism, but how far can science serve as a metaphor for society? And while it is hard to pity cockroaches and tarantulas, he and not Darwin, China, or the global economy were going to put them to an early death. The other two works are still more of a mess.

For another, censorship implies government or institutional power—much as when a senator tried to crush Robert Mapplethorpe or a mayor tried to remove Andres Serrano and Chris Ofili. It also implies fear of a point of view. In the case of Schutz, it turns on a white artist’s right to speak to out about racism. Here a public protest objected not to a work’s message or its artist, but to cruelty to animals. That is something else entirely, and it does not take treating animals as human (another lame defense) to object. I do not strangle cats and call that museum-quality art either.

Defenders of the art have pointed to football players as victims of abuse much like the dogs. That sounds to me like a child in a playground pleading “he did it first.” Then, too, humans, one can hope, have a choice. Defenders also speak of the dogs as using the treadmills for the pleasure of a run, but that hardly accords with their pursuit of each other to the point of exhaustion. And the museum can fairly claim not to have quashed debate, but rather to encourage debate through its compromise, retaining the monitors and cages while adding artist statements. Unlike a censor, it is not trying to forget.

Still, the outcry has a point. Animal cruelty only barely defines display of a video more than twenty years old, one that hardly approves of cruelty, and it does not define the other two works at all. The museum also made a decision to display them, and that decision should not come up for a vote, not even from an informed and passionate public. It speaks of protecting its staff from danger, but the only danger I see comes from scorpions, not PETA terrorists. In the end, I support the outcome but with fears that it, too, like so much of the work, may be repellent. With luck, the debate over contemporary Chinese art can now look beyond the silence of the pigs.

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

1.5.18 — The Silence of the Pigs

And so a quiet has come to the Guggenheim—and to “Art and China After 1989.” The pigs are no longer copulating for the camera. The gibberish stamped on each, in the Western alphabet on one and in pretend Chinese on the other, can no longer reduce Sino-American relations to nonsense or lust. The prurient male viewer will have to settle for himself as a sexist pig.

The pit bulls are no longer charging at each other, again on video, for the chance to maul or to kill. The treadmills that kept them inches apart have stopped, although the metaphorical treadmill of a Chinese factory worker continues, along with confrontation in the Pacific Rim. Zhang Hongtu's Kekou-Kele (Coca-Cola Six Pack) (courtesy of the artist/Queens Museum, 2002)The monitor that marked the show’s conclusion has gone dark. Angry voices on both sides only multiply, decrying the abuse of animals or censorship. And so they should—only now they can start asking which most typifies museum politics or China. In withdrawing the disputed works, the Guggenheim has left the monitors in place and added artist statements that raise much the same issues, through January 7.

The work that opened the show and gave it its name has gone, too. The insects and lizards of Theater of the World have departed, and so have the live snakes that would have shared a separate cage above with bronze animals out of Chinese myth. Or rather, they never arrived, leaving only a stately metal bridge over an empty wooden theater in the round. Nor will the creatures meant to replace them as they die under the heat of museum lights. The set has taken on an air of meditation more fitting to Chinese art of the past. The entire show should have one asking what that says about the loud, courageous, and often superficial art of the present.

No bull (or pit bull), but those three works threatened to overshadow the rest of the show, and they may still. To my mind, the Guggenheim made the right call in exhibiting not them but the controversy, and I do intend to weigh in, as you will see in a post next time. First, though, one had better get a handle on the show. It covers just twenty years, from the Tiananmen Square massacre to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but it is about contemporary artists and events all the same. It may overwhelm visitors with a huge back story and unfamiliar names. Yet those same three works help pin down its themes, as I explain more fully in a longer review and my latest upload.

First off, they are crying for attention—and getting it. It appears in a mammoth black dragon in the rotunda overhead by Chen Zhen, with the head of crushed bicycles, the body of a seed case, and a tail of inner tubes and plastic cars. It appears in Mickey Mouse toys, helium balloons, a bathtub, and a Mylar bed by Xu Tan—all, of course, made in China. It appears in the sheer futility of a performance by Cang Xin and others, To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, or by Song Dong, Stamping the Water. Visitors may respond with wonder or frustration, but one thing is certain: I get the message.

Yet this is political art, and its message sounds a lot less frustrating in light of its politics. The three disputed works concern entrapment and scrutiny by a higher power. A newscaster reading the definition of water for Zhang Peili makes more sense if you know that she recited the party line on Tiananmen Square. And the tanks that day still roll for Zheng Guogu, if only in deep-fried plastic. Painting is rare, apart from a surge of realism in the early 1990s, virtually all of it colored by German Expressionism—like a meat locker for Zeng Fanzhi and a dreary New Year’s Eve for Zhang Xiaogang. Still, the message is often oblique, as may befit dreams of fine art or life under censorship.

By the same token, their art has roots in both east and west. Wang Guangyi digs a tunnel in his living room, as if to bring them together, while Zhang Hongtu adds his Warning: You Are Still Traveling in the United States. It is no accident that Huang Yong Ping calls his creepy-crawly habitat, first exhibited in 1993, a theater not of China but the world. Yet that bridge between east and west is a displacement as well. In all these ways, from politics to culture, artists still have to wonder what to call home.

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

10.2.17 — Symbolism as Pop-up

Joséphin Péladan was a writer, a mystic, and not incidentally an entrepreneur. That very year that Frederic Leighton in England was painting his Flaming June, Péladan was creating a bridge from estheticism, decadence, and the spiritual to a still unknown modern art. At least he did so in his own eyes—and in the eyes of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art. For the museum, he helped make Symbolism central to the arts, with an influence as far reaching as Wassily Kandinsky, František Kupka, and Piet Mondrian.

Fernand Khnopff's I Lock My Door upon Myself (Neue Pinakothek, Munich, 1891)It shows instead artists largely forgotten and even then late in the game. “Mystical Symbolism,” through October 4, tracks the annual Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris over its mere five years, beginning in 1892—six years after Jean Moréas, never once mentioned, published his Surrealist manifesto. It suggests an obsession not with another world, much less a more spiritual future, but with the past. With just twenty paintings along with prints and documents, it comes off as a curator’s thesis not yet ready for prime time. It would be criminal if it leaves visitors thinking that they have seen Symbolism. Yet it has one asking about the place of Symbolism in modern art.

Péladan may not have become a household name, but he sure had charisma. Jean Delville paints him in the white robe of a choir boy or a savior. Marcellin Desboutin lends him the richer costume and dashing pose of a visiting celebrity from the East, while Alexandre Séon accentuates his pointed beard, wild hair like a Russian’s fur hat, and gaze toward a higher power. One could mistake him for Rasputin at the court of the tsar, and indeed they label him a sâr, or leader in Assyrian. Unlike the official Salon that had cast out Edouard Manet and Impressionism, his was in today’s language a pop-up, turning up where it may. Of course its name stands for its dedication to a none too secret society, the Rosicrucian order.

That order had its heyday in centuries past, and the artists look back as well. The most prominent symbolist painter, Gustave Moreau, appears only through a pupil, Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau, and his influence. It shows in the death of Orpheus for Delville, with a bejeweled and shining face drifting in a blue-gray sea. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon, and Edvard Munch do not appear at all. Others, like Charles Filiger, turn instead to silhouettes and color out of Paul Gauguin or to Pre-Raphaelites like Dante Gabriel Rossetti (which is why I have appended this to an earlier report on Leighton as a longer review and my latest upload). Armand Point mimics their Madonnas, shallow spaces, and decorative naturalism, as with a peacock after Antonio del Pollaiuolo in the Renaissance.

Toss in a fin de siècle weariness, a touch of the ancient Greeks, and a heavy dose of fantasy, like the willowy figure with a lyre in an exhibition poster by Aman-Jean, and one has a style. And a high style it was. The curator, Vivien Greene with Ylinka Barotto, welcomes one into a near recreation of a Salon, right down to velvet red walls and background music—by such heroes of the movement as Richard Wagner and such contemporaries as Erik Satie. What, though, did the style mean? For one thing, the artists took style seriously, in a time of arts for art’s sake. For another, its looking back reflects a thoroughgoing revulsion at modern life.

The movement’s estheticism appears in the frequent return to Orpheus. Naturally, he wants something more, and naturally, too, he is doomed. Séon paints his lament, face down on a rocky beach with his lyre cast aside. And the revulsion is implicit in the choice of styles. Most are quite conservative—although the flat colors in narrative paintings look forward at times to Gustave Klimt and German Expressionism. A poor follower of John Singer Sargent might have painted the portraits of Péladan, give or take their pointed disdain for a secular aristocracy.

The disdain appears in subject matter as well. Charles Maurin poses nubile bodies against smoking factories as The Dawn of Labor. They play out beside the twisted flesh and lamentations of his Dawn of the Dream. Ferdinand Hodler paints The Disappointed Souls as less a circle of hell than a bad day on a park bench. Jan Toorop uses his own daughter as a model for The Next Generation, only to lose her amid bare branches, a willow as a sign of mourning, a snake, and delicate curves of paint. Could the trees alone promise a next generation, with humanity left behind?

To save themselves, the artists have only the dream—and an idealization of women that women today might not appreciate one bit. They paint anonymous saints and shepherdesses with a youthful vision. And that idealization comes at a price. When Delville looks at a woman, he sees only an Idol of Perversity, in graphite, her hair and chest all but exploding toward the viewer. A languid young woman for Fernand Khnopff has the eyes of a zombie, like a beleaguered temptress. She also has a terrible fate, as (in a quote from Rosetti’s sister Christina in poetry) I Lock My Door upon Myself.

Symbolism sought a departure from the allegory and iconography of older religious art in what words cannot express, and writers truly at its origins, like Stéphane Mallarmé, look beyond narrative and mysticism to words themselves on the printed page. Kandinsky, Kupka, and Mondrian take painting beyond narrative, too, to the birth of abstraction. One can be grateful for the occasional familiar name, like Félix Vallotton in woodcuts or a young Georges Rouault. One can be grateful, too, for the insight into a newly cosmopolitan Paris. Artists come from as far as the Dutch East Indies or Algiers—with a plurality from Switzerland and Belgium. Or one can settle for jewel-like patterns and worldly fears.

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

9.4.17 — A Museum’s Visions

The Guggenheim Museum has every right to speak of visionaries. It built its collection on early Modernism, and it has a wing for Wassily Kandinsky alone.

Its building, too, is the work of a visionary. It might have descended on a city block from above, and it attracts crowds who would otherwise feel more at home with Hollywood special effects than with modern art or Manhattan. Wassily Kandinksy's White Line (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1920)It even looks like a UFO. For a time, though, the artists and architect must share credit with others. With “Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim,” through September 6, the museum pays tribute to its founders—and itself. Even if you know the collection by heart, you will encounter an unfamiliar vision.

The show opens with Kandinsky, but successive levels then pick up the small circle that helped Solomon R. Guggenheim build the collection and take it public—and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. By introducing one collector at a time, it presents a short history of modern art as well. Despite itself, the museum also calls attention to its limits. The exhibition comes to an abrupt end with the opening of that six-story spiral on Fifth Avenue and the birth of Abstract Expressionist New York. Could their vision belong to a now distant past? Maybe not by accident, it also comes just a few months after the Guggenheim positions itself in today’s global art market, with a gold toilet by Maurizio Cattelan.

The Guggenheim is no ordinary museum, quite apart from its round peg in the urban grid’s square holes. The Whitney has moved, in no small part to display its growing collection—while MoMA has grown, slighting its collection on behalf of flash and real estate. The Guggenheim, in contrast, still depends on its quirky origins and architecture. The ramp puts temporary exhibitions at a disadvantage, while the permanent collection has to settle for two modest tower galleries. One displays the Justin K. Thannhauser collection of art from Camille Pissarro to early Picasso. The other limits itself to Wassily Kandinsky and inventing abstraction.

With “Visionaries,” looking gets a little easier, although the focus has hardly changed. The Guggenheim has congratulated itself before, with exhibitions centering on its first director, Hilla Rebay, and its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Now they become just two points in a complicated time line. Just keeping track of the museum’s precursors, locations, and changing names takes some doing. It is also worth the effort. The show becomes the story of half a dozen individuals and an expanding vision of modern art.

It starts, though, on familiar ground, with Kandinsky at his grandest and most lyrical. His abstraction holds the ramp off the rotunda and the adjacent High Gallery. For a moment, the museum looks like a pretty decent place to view art. That will change, but Kandinsky will reappear more than once as a touchstone of abstraction in the twentieth century. Wall text throughout mostly sticks to the work, too. This is about visionaries, but first and foremost their vision.

Does its abrupt end with Jackson Pollock leave the story just incomplete—or is a museum dedicated to the new no longer able to spread the news? One need not decide, for the show ends with a sparkling turning point. Pollock’s 1947 Alchemy, on loan from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, has the impasto of his Surrealist phase and the all-over impulse of his drip paintings. Newly cleaned, its colors gleam amid the thick black oil. For all the points in the show’s time line, it has no floor for Solomon R. Guggenheim alone. As Pollock attests, he could defer to competing visions.

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