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.

7.28.17 — No One Can Hear You

In space, no one can hear you quote art theory. I am not so sure about in the Guggenheim, but Doug Wheeler would just as soon not hear.

Wheeler packs a tower gallery with more than four hundred slim pyramids of the silencing foam used in recording studios, as PSAD Synthetic Desert III, through August 2. Still more spikes line a wall, pushing you out and onto a platform overlooking the array. If you fall, you can guarantee a soft landing. If you do not, you can hope for quiet. He would like nothing more. Doug Wheeler's PSAD Synthetic Desert III (Guggenheim Museum, 1971/2017)

He calls it a semi-anechoic chamber, meaning free of echoes. Conceived in 1971, it has taken shape for the very first time. To enter, one must silence one’s cell phone and pass three distinct doors. More foam takes the shape of airfoils but with triangular cross-sections, on the entrance and far wall. The remaining wall has nothing but a purplish light. It casts visitors into brightness and the corner pyramids into shade. Anything in-between takes on extra dimensions.

As long ago as the 1960s, Wheeler used white paintings to fuse art with the walls and the room with art. By the next decade, he was working with only the room—as a locus of light, space, and sound. On his last appearance in New York, in 2012, the lighting in a bare white room changed ever so gradually. In place of fine art or industrial materials, it offered an alternative to the course of nature. It was Minimalism without the art object or the rules. It built on Minimalism’s attention to the space around the viewer, but with the added dimensions of time and the space within the mind.

Synthetic Desert, too, alludes to nature, only starting with its title. It draws on Wheeler’s experience of the northern Arizona desert. Like all his work, it links him to Light and Space, the West Coast movement—but it is not quite so serene as it sounds. It contains plenty of objects, and they point directly at you. They also present a spectacle not so very far from that of another popular artist, Yayoi Kusama. Like her work, too, they belong to a chamber within the larger and more crowded spectacle of the museum.

The room admits just five visitors every quarter of an hour, a tiny fraction of museum-goers. You can take your chances at the ticket counter or online, but either way you are in for disappointment or a wait. You might use the time remembering Kusama’s mob scene in Washington, merging with tourists in the Frank Lloyd Wright building, or lining up for yet another spectacle—the solid gold toilet by Maurizio Cattelan. Those who arrive late for their time are out of luck, and I shared the room with just two others and an attendant. I felt privileged. I could think of Wheeler’s raised platform as a runway, with me as an unlikely fashion model.

While I explored more restlessly than Wheeler would approve, another visitor sat still, and the third lay down, either rapt or nodding off. Unlike an ordinary guard, the attendant got to sit with his legs spread, too. I marveled, but I still felt that I had entered less a theater of the mind than a public theater. Is this desert transcendent or boring, comforting or threatening, natural or synthetic? Does PSAD stand for post-synthetic art disorder? When you find your answer, try not to scream.

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

7.3.17 — Bacteria, Ants, and Women

What do Asian American women have in common with carpenter ants? They both figure in the art of Anicka Yi—and they both smell.

If one may trust the artist, in fact, they do not smell half bad. They do not, at any rate, preclude entering Life Is Cheap, through July 5, although they do present a bit of an obstacle. They are not the first. One enters a Guggenheim Museum tower gallery past a warning about aromas and through two steel gates, to reach a “holding pen,” where three canisters emit a scent taken, she swears, from women and ants.

Yi claims to draw on a whole team of “molecular biologists and forensic scientists” to study how “gender, race, and class shape physical perception.” And she has a history of dubious appeals to the senses. She appeared in “A Disagreeable Object” at SculptureCenter and in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, where she interviewed a “flavor chemist” along the Amazon. Here, too, she boasts of a “biopolitics of the senses,” and here, too, it comes across as sentimental and pretentious. She has this year’s Hugo Boss Prize, like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tacita Dean, and Emily Jacir before her, and it has not always gone well. As the song goes, “Life is short, and talk is cheap. Don’t be making promises that you can’t keep.”

She is not, fortunately, all talk, and her installation does not end with a cloying smell. She calls that first part Immigrant Caucus, which sounds like Donald J. Trump’s worst nightmare in the Senate. Yet it has a visual component as well, in the bareness of the holding pen. The canisters lie in a corner by a third gate, as if left there by mistake. At first I thought she meant that Asian women and ants smell the same—which could explain why Asian cuisine involves neither one as ingredients. I came to appreciate instead the visual threats.

Past the gates, a museum’s white cube stands empty, making all the more dramatic the busy displays on facing walls. Ant life and the immigrant experience branch off behind glass, as Force Majeure and Lifestyle Wars. In one, the ants make their way through white tunnels in the shape of a giant circuit diagram. Mirrors above and below multiply its depths to infinity. The tunnels have a further reflection in a construction like coral at the window’s center, broken by a white pole topped by, I am guessing, a hat. In the other, New York’s Chinatown and Koreatown appear only as bacteria sampled from genuine urban cultures.

Yi sets them, though, on something more directly allusive. The bacteria grow on agar, as in a lab, spread on off-white tiles that ascend as steps in front of similarly tiled walls. They could belong to a public atrium or an Asian temple. They are also the setting for more fabric, Ethernet cables, and digital clocks ticking off the invisible motion of biological and electronic networks. Beside the shared dimensions, both sides of the room riff on colonies, circuits, and cultures. They are visually alluring but slightly disgusting.

Yi pulls off a display for the senses, while keeping the insects and bacteria (I hope) behind glass. Born in South Korea, she also aligns herself with the politics of globalization, global feminism, and Asian American art. Does she have enough to say about any of them? Not really, unless you believe that ants, bacteria, and microchips are fitting metaphors for oppressed cultures and the lifestyle wars. If anything, language seems to have broken down entirely, even in the supposed service of political and critical theory. One can, though, admire the breakdown while exiting the last steel gate.

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