10.6.17 — Stuck Inside of Memphis

Before Memphis in Italy, there was Olivetti. Before the most postmodern of design collectives, there was the firm that produced hypermodern technology—from typewriters to the first programmable desktop computer. Olivetti did so with style, too, well before Apple, and it hired Ettore Sottsass as a design consultant in 1958. The Met Breuer claims him for not just Memphis, which he helped found in 1981, but for sixty years as a “design radical,” through October 8—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review as my latest upload.

Americans may have forgotten him, but Sottsass started his studio in 1957, at age thirty, and moved to New York the next year to work for the firm of George Nelson. That brought him to the attention of Olivetti, which hired him as a design consultant on its mainframe—the first in Italy. Ettore Sottsass's Carlton Room Divider (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1981)He had time for more, though, and the first sign of his mature work comes with a portable typewriter. Critics have derided Memphis for cuteness and tackiness, quotation and obscurity, and products for the rich alongside talk of design for everyone. Fans have embraced it for eclecticism, color, and an insistence on design as a matter of not just style, but “ways of living.” And one can see all of these in the typewriter that quickly became a fashion accessory.

Sottsass grew up in Turin, near where Olivetti had its headquarters, and he wanted others to feel at home as well. He made that typewriter light and portable, with a slip-on case as a carrier. Both are fire-engine red, the color of toy trucks. “You don’t save your soul,” he said, “just painting everything in white.” He had taken a basic tool of office work and made it more efficient. Yet he also made it a work of art, a work of the soul, and a matter of play.

The colors keep coming, and so does the eccentric assemblage of simple parts. Even in the 1960s, tables and shelves fly off in all sorts of directions, whether stacked or cantilevered. Color appears from the start, too, with a chest of drawers in acid yellow—a tribute to Austrian Expressionism, but with a greater delight in excess. t appears as well in patterned tapestry, table settings, and clunky necklaces in red, yellow, black, white, and blue. “Everything in white” applies not just to Minimalism in painting, as with Robert Ryman, but also to architecture from Le Corbusier to Brutalism and Louis Kahn. Sottsass and Memphis wanted none of it.

Not everyone is out to save souls, especially in mass production. Olivetti declined to make much of the typewriter, and Sottsass soon moved on. He did worry about souls, though, big time. Those yellow drawers form a cross after the floor plan of a church by Otto Wagner in Vienna. He also visited India in 1961, and he could not get enough of hoary civilizations. He modeled cabinets, glass, and ceramics on reliquaries, totems, funeral mounds, and symbols of enduring life. His retrospective becomes a vocabulary lesson out of more cultures than I can say.

The show becomes a massive puzzle, just as some of the furniture seems in need of assembly. Seemingly everything turns up, needed or not, including all those global cultures. A room for “Superboxes” has a tall cabinet at its center, in a stark gray and black—but also Egyptian archaeology, the Wiener Werkstätte (or Vienna Workshop) of 1903, Donald Judd, and a contemporary Italian’s striped ziggurat. You may find yourself asking what belongs to Sottsass. What continent is this anyway? What decade or what millennium?

That eclecticism still has its lessons, though, and so does the fear for market forces and modern life. So, too, do the wild colors, defiant masses, and broken symmetries. Their influence shines in the exhibition poster, with staggered pairs of letters from Sottsass—all the more so after the much derided redesign of the Met’s logo. The fire still burns, too, in that portable typewriter and its fire-engine red. Could Sottsass have known that you would want a colorful case for your phone? Could he have known that you would want to take your laptop or tablet with you on the train or to the beach?

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

9.1.17 — In a Trance

Is love still the message, and is the message still death? For his video and his message, Arthur Jafa cut between violence at the hands of the police and African Americans in moments of victory in politics, culture, or sports (and let me refer you to my 2016 review of Love Is the Message, the Message is Death for a fuller account). Their insistent rhythms bring home that black lives matter, and they matter just as much in moments of pride or humility, anger or despair.

Mika Rottenberg's Performance Still (PJ and Cheryl) (Nicole Klagsbrun, 2008)A year later, they return in “The Body Politic,” at the Met Breuer through September 3. Its four videos, now in the Met’s collection, leave open when the body becomes political—and when politics becomes a matter of bodily triumph or torment. The focused selection makes it easy to sit through them all in hope of finding out.

Only one runs more than eight minutes, and Steve McQueen even calls his Five Easy Pieces, from 1995. Its pieces do not run sequentially, no more than for Jafa, and cutting among them leaves bodies in that moment between stillness and motion. Are they African American bodies? A tightrope walker has no color beyond the white of his sneakers, and men with hula hoops divide into five pairs—with one in each pair dressed in white, the other as his silhouette or shadow. Blackness appears more explicitly with facial features, a woman in a glittery dress swaying, and a man taking stabs at jerking off. The frequent close-ups, like the view of the man in his underpants through a curtain of water, make them hypnotic but discomforting presences.

They, too, stop short of claiming victory, least of all for blackness. McQueen’s takes his title from the movie about a white pianist in blue collar country—and maybe it is only my imagining, but I also thought of Bob Dylan:

They’ve got him in a trance.
One hand is tied to the tightrope walker.
The other is in his pants.

But then on Desolation Row “the riot squad, they’re restless,” and that was before Black Lives Matter.

Phat Free, by David Hammons and also from 1995, starts out in total blackness. Only after a couple of minutes does the elusive artist become visible, along with the source of the video’s annoying sound. Hammons is kicking a bucket down the street, accompanied by equally jarring camera movements, grain, and glare. He could be punning on “kick the bucket” as the fate of an urban black male—or on “kicking a can down the street,” as an expression for failure to take responsibility. Do not be too sure, though, not when Hammons relishes the joke. He may have nothing better to do, but he takes his time, kicks the bucket into his hands, and walks away.

Born in Argentina, Mika Rottenberg divides her body politic between New York and China. I might find the show more coherent if all four artists were African Americans, but oppression and the body know no bounds. She has made art from a black woman trapped in her own obesity, Third World workers, and Rottenberg herself barely able to punch her way out of a box. For NoNoseKnows in 2015, a plump blond drives past bleak housing, finds a parking spot, and walks through door after door, topped by oversize soap bubbles. She ends up in a still more confined space, with food piling up by her side and flowers on the shelves demanding attention. Real laborers impinge less directly.

The women workers are under the stifling pressures of a pearl factory, but a New Yorker can feel their pain. One Chinese worker endlessly turns a wheel that appears to spin ropes in front of the blond woman, and feet stick out of a bucket of pearls. Food keeps piling up, unappetizing and uneaten, and her nose keeps growing. Finally her nose shrinks, the soap bubbles burst, she wipes the soles of the feet, and she leaves—only to take that same ride past the projects in the video’s closed loop. Jafa takes his reality entirely from the media, McQueen and Hammons are just performing, and Rottenberg makes even a factory a stage set. Which is more real, more pressing, more artificial, or more in a trance?

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

7.14.17 — Happening on Concrete

Lygia Pape was working away on modern art when something remarkable happened: she stumbled onto the 1960s. In the face of dictatorship, in fact, she helped to bring the decade alive.

Coming into the Met Breuer through July 23, you, too, can stumble onto a happening. A photo covers the entire wall across from the elevators, with dozens of heads popping out of a rippling white sheet. Lygia Pape's Divisor (Divided) (photo by Paula Pape, Projeto Lygia Pape, 1968/1990)Who knows what it hides—and who knows how many more children of the favelas extend beyond the photo’s edges? Like any happening, it brings people together in the name of chaos, protest, or play. Pape first staged it in 1968 and called it Divisor (or “divided”) rather than assembly, but then the decade that inaugurated the culture wars was notoriously divided. Her retrospective ends with bursts of color, including a red table and chairs covered with parrot feathers, like her very own strawberry fields.

Pape was not at the center of a mod London, and she was too old for a baby boomer. She was bringing a changing century to the Americas. Modernism had arrived before, with Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola in their travels from the Bauhaus, and yet abstraction was still something of a novelty in Rio when Pape, born in 1927, joined with others in founding Grupo Frente in 1954. Frente means the front, as in the vanguard, but this avant-garde looked way back to Piet Mondrian in the Netherlands and what Theo van Doesburg back then called Art Concrete. It had a lot of catching up to do. Five years later she and others, including Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, issued a Neo-Concrete manifesto.

Her work keeps moving back and forth between book art and, on film, performance. She traces parallel lines in ink and woodcuts, but with gaps that transform the image into overlapping triangles and circles. She cuts and peels paper so that it becomes an object in three dimensions or a frame for whatever lies before her. Even when she works in wood blocks or paint, she sticks to small dimensions, and she spoke of her most ambitious projects as books. They include the books of time, night and day, architecture, and creation—each suggesting art or a woman’s life as a coming to be. The first, or Livro do Tempo, cuts into and layers onto small squares, one for each colorful day of the year.

Art itself, then, has become a happening. It has the desultory pace of the crowd that gathered into a circle, as Espaços imantados (or “magnetized spaces”) in 1995. It has the intimations of violence of her woman with a stabbed tongue—like the woman shot in the eye in Sergei Einstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Pape knew about violence at first hand, too, for she lived through a military coup in 1964, soon after the Neo-Concrete movement disbanded, and chose to remain in Brazil at the cost of imprisonment. She retains, though, the optimism of her tales of creation and change, with her Objects of Seduction from 1968 and Wheel of Pleasures from 1976. The first involves false eyelashes and make-up mirrors, the second white bowls of colored water.

The water makes use of food coloring and flavoring, including such native ingredients as banana, coffee, and coconut. And Pape keeps returning to her nation’s poverty and indigenous people along with her Modernism and sophistication. Barely clothed men play tribal percussion in one video, and they hang out near a house on stilts by the water in another. Pape obtained her BA and MA only in her forties, and she taught architecture at a time when Roberto Burle Marx and Latin American architecture were thriving. Her layered paintings and books could pass for architectural models as well, much like those of Mateo López later in Colombia. Yet they keep looking for a culture present for her at the creation.

A Multitude of Forms,” curated by Iria Candela with the Projeto Lygia Pape, keeps up well with her shifting interests until her death in 2004. Yet a decade’s tale of becoming is present all along. At first her vocabulary is right out of Mondrian, as is the matte white of her gouache on board—but the lines and squares land with the spontaneity of the I Ching. The parallel traces from 1956 cohere all at once into black stripes exactly like those of Frank Stella three years later. Years later, with Ttéia (or “web” with an extra T), much the same parallels become shimmering masses in metallic thread, like rising beams or falling water. A new concrete is finally happening.

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

6.14.17 — Remember the Maine

In his last years, Marsden Hartley tried to remake himself as, in his words, the painter of Maine. It would have surprised his most ardent admirers, but then he still could not get over his fears of banishment.

Hartley looked for home in Maine. He sought a sense of place in its mountains and shores. He sought a sense of community in its churches and farmsteads. He sought its livelihood in its lumberjacks and Acadians. Marsden Hartley's Log Jam, Penobscot Bay (Detroit Institute of Arts, 1941)At age sixty, he was returning home after a lifetime of fresh starts and unanticipated displacements. Is it any wonder that he ended up painting only turmoil and longing?

Hartley is better known for just that turmoil and longing, only in another country and in wartime. The painter of Maine made his name with paintings of German military gear and the iron cross. Their thick lines and strong contrasts between bright yellow, red, and black have ties to urban American realists like George Bellows and John Sloan. Yet they have only gained attention since then, with the seemingly postmodern reduction of a “portrait” of a German officer to surfaces and signs. They have also taken on a greater relevance with their frank homoeroticism. With “Marsden Hartley’s Maine,” though, the Met Breuer focuses instead on landscape all but devoid of humanity, through June 18.

He took a long time to find a home. Born Edmund Hartley, he lost his mother while young, followed family to Cleveland in his teens, studied there and in New York, introduced himself to modern art in Berlin and Paris, and exhibited with Alfred Stieglitz in a gallery devoted to American Modernism. For yet another disappointment, he broke with Stieglitz as well because he would not settle in New York. Even after World War I obliged him to leave Germany, he kept traveling. He saw Maine’s Mount Katahdin through the lens of the Alps and of Mont Sainte-Victoire for Paul Cézanne. He saw its seacoasts and storms through Winslow Homer and Japanese prints.

Still, he had reclaimed Maine as his own once before. He moved back for a while around the turn of the last century, and he joined an artist colony that encouraged an interest in American folk art. There he painted on glass along with his favored paper board and masonite. As curators Randall Griffey, Elizabeth Finch, and Donna M. Cassidy map the connections and disconnections, and the show falls in two with a huge gap in-between. The first half amounts to barely four years starting in 1907, the last from 1937 to 1942. Within those divisions, it proceeds less chronologically than by style and theme.

That can suggest an artistic development that is just not there, but it clarifies what drew Hartley to New England all along. He starts with a dark, thickly textured, and nearly monochrome seascape, on loan from a library in Maine, and blackness keeps asserting itself in his art. Even when he picks up Post-Impressionism a bit late in the game, the bright colors add up to twilight. They also give way to Dark Mountain, a series inspired by Albert Pinkham Ryder. He is already adopting his characteristic composition as well—dark masses surrounding pools of light, framed by brighter strips for earth and sky. Clouds at top appear disturbingly large, and houses or farms along the bottom appear unnaturally small.

They create a scene of abandonment—only intensified by the greater realism of his late work. When he paints a church, it appears as a white wall pierced by dark windows, set unstable and askew. When he paints breakers, they rise in a torrent. When he paints logging country, he finds imposing piles of timber or a logjam. When he takes up still life, a white seahorse looks larger than life but unmistakably dead. When he paints the view out a window, its brightness seems cut off irrevocably from the interior.

Hartley has found a more muscular art. He learns to use longer brushstrokes, tarter reds and blues, and black outlines as shadows. If they invite one to compare the landscape to a human body, he still has his undisguised longings, and he paints them, too. Loggers appear face-on in little more than small swim trunks, arms akimbo after Cézanne’s bathers. Who knew that workmen could cavort half-naked, with reddish-orange flesh? He could be unsettling masculinity or fixated on it.

Does he keep finding models in art at least a generation after their time? For all his appeal, Hartley remains deeply conservative—never quite able to engage Cubism or Henri Matisse. A black duck looking suspiciously like a woman in evening wear stops just short of German Expressionism. Then, too, though, his always stopping short adds to the sense of exile even at home. Katahdin means “highest land,” and he made plans for High Spot, a house to call his own. He died in 1943 without completing it.

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