8.11.17 — Burying Summer

To wrap up my tour of summer sculpture, Anish Kapoor is not the only sculptor evading death. Lluis Lleo raises sandstone slabs along Park Avenue, like burial steles for Minimalism. If the graves lie empty, blame it on zombie formalism.

One side of each stone has an overlay in color, the other a second color with the very same geometric shape cut out from it, as a display of positive and negative space. You get to decide which is which, but watch out. Sheila Hicks's Hop, Skip, Jump, and Fly: Escape from Gravity (photo by John Haber/High Line, 2017)Summer sculpture in Manhattan has more than enough positive and negative vibes to go around.

Not to be outdone, Joy Brown brings nearly five miles of sculpture to Broadway—but with just nine clay pieces. Think of them as official greeters to subway stations from the Upper West Side deep into Harlem. Not even I can claim to have seen them all, but Brown has sure spread a lot of conviviality. Each has the mass of Fernando Botero, the childlike smirks of anime, and the rounded outlines of both. With heads in hands or as parents with children, they all but cry out adorable. They made me grateful to catch the ride home.

Back in Rockefeller Center, Jeff Koons means his forty-five foot Seated Ballerina to honor National Children’s Month. It does better at calling attention to America’s enduring love of kitsch and, more to the point, Koons himself. Up by Central Park, Liz Glynn leaves out gray concrete arches and chairs, as Open House. She models them after the ornate interior of a Fifth Avenue mansion, designed by Sanford White. The rigid seating plays out against the mansion’s disappearance into history, the arches against the great outdoors. No one seemed to worry, though, about either the layers of meaning or the discomfort—not when seating comes in handy at lunch.

The High Line calls its summer show “Mutations,” but much of it is static and lifeless. Dora Budor does say that her white blobs change color when wet, but pardon me if I do not venture up in the rain to find out. And Veit Laurent Lurz says that a craggy stone fountain flows with the “herbal juice of the future,” but pardon me if I hold off until then. Henry Taylor looks down on them all from a mural, but if only he could see Sheila Hicks half a mile north after a late start. Her colorful tubes lie poised against rusted inaccessible railings and lurk in weeds. The Hudson Yards may not welcome more than luxury real-estate, but it can still run warm and wild.

Josiah McElheny treats Madison Square Park to sets for music, dance, and poetry, but I prefer to see them as elements of architecture. His sea-green floor never quite settles into the grass—or a perfect circle. For a ceiling, he has a red and yellow arch, facing the deep blue curve of a wall. McElheny achieves his colors with painted wood broken by circles of prismatic glass. They have their own territory in the lawn, fenced off from sunbathers. With luck, they will never settle into a structure that keeps out the summer sky.

Katja Novitskova, an Estonian, looks for the complexity of life on two scales, one more intoxicating than the next. Her aluminum disks in City Hall Park take on the rotundity and fertility of the earth or, she imagines, distant moons—but with an overlay of microorganisms, human cells, and marine biology. So is New York for the summer a pool party, a banquet for the senses, a graveyard, or a laboratory? If you have to ask, you have missed the depth of its history and the diversity of its pleasures. The Governors Island Art Fair holds off until Labor Day. I shall let you know more.

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

6.5.17 — All Those People

Half an hour into the 2017 Whitney Biennial, I had had my fill of people. No, not the crowds, for the first biennial ever in the Whitney’s new home, with enough room for them and an often dazzling display. No, I mean the people in the art, only I grew almost to love them—and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

Dana Schutz's Fight in an Elevator (Whitney Museum, 2015)They fill painting after painting and video after video—dancing, working, dying, or just hanging out, at the Whitney through June 11. They descend from the ceiling and ascend a rope in the stairwell. They take over less palpable museums by networks and financing schemes. They are also relentlessly politically correct. So I sought relief in some elements of landscape that had somehow found their way indoors. Only they, too, are human interventions, and they illuminate the tensions that make the biennial interesting almost despite itself.

The landscaping begins in the lobby, as it happens, before the people get started. Two paintings in a uniform dark brown hang over the front desk, by Park McArthur, like guides to the museum with their text effaced. With their pronounced frames and rounded corners, they could also be billboards along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—right where the BQE cuts off neighborhoods from the waterfront, mass transit, or one another. The lobby gallery has more landscaping, in a cylindrical fortification like Castle Williams on Governor’s Island or Castle Clinton in Battery Park. What looks like piled stone, however, is clay mixed with hay, horse dung, and Los Angeles River water. Rafa Esparza and others think of themselves as reversing the process of colonization by transporting native American materials to New York.

They cannot help evoking the dark side of that process all the same. Faces in large photos stand out most of all for their anonymity. A page from eBay and a “certificate of authenticity” for their “reconstructed southwest artifact” attest that anything and everything these days is for sale. Upstairs McArthur has more brown billboards, while photographs by An-My Lê present Louisiana as contested territory—flooded by storms, bearing a monument to a Confederate general, and serving as the set for a film about a Confederate Army deserter. On video, Sky Hopinka captures an island in the Bering Sea as home to the world’s largest Aleut population, seabirds, and seals. In its very starkness, though, it no longer speaks a native language.

Each artist dares visitors to enter an empty landscape, and each urges them not to forget those that have left it deserted. That sounds depressing, but the artists are just finding their way around along with you and celebrating those others. Landscape paintings in bright colors, by Shara Hughes, are downright cheerful—while a video by Anicka Yi, about a “flavor chemist” along the Amazon, is downright sappy. Either way, though, the Biennial is all about people, even when they are nowhere to be seen. For the Whitney, it is about “the formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society.” It sounds political, not to mention jargon ridden, and it is, but also urgent.

As for the people, they have roots as far away as Iran and Vietnam, and they run to artist collectives with names like post-punk bands. To get to know them, you must first meet the curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, both Chinese Americans in their mid-thirties. These are people who can start a catalog essay with Bob the Drag Queen rather than art. You know right away that the Whitney is hoping to reinvent the ritual of a biennial for today. You know, too, that it will place the accent on identity and diversity, much like its rehanging of the collection upstairs as “Where We Are.” This is art as a dance marathon—only starting with Tala Madani, who opens one floor with Shitty Disco.

Should a biennial be competing for the youth vote with a New Museum triennial or “Greater New York“? Could that actually make it less representative of the present moment in art, despite tough-minded virtual reality by Jordan Wolfson and terrific painting by Carrie Moyer, Jo Baer, Dana Schutz and Henry Taylor (and my longer review covers them all)? Larry Bell may not fit well here out on the terrace, but someone else from another genre or generation might. Still, for once a distinct point of view comes across—and it comes across as a genuine diversity. You might want to fill it out with a stop at MoMA or the Met for their contemporary selections, or you might want to wait another two years, when the Whitney truly gets the hang of the building. It is already drawing a crowd.

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