1.29.18 — Acquainted with the Night

Edvard Munch had his share of sleepless nights. Is it any wonder that his Dance of Life takes place beneath a full moon?

Munch’s sleepless imagination shows in his earliest Nocturnes of figures trapped by moonlight or a storm, unable to find a way to shelter or to rest. It shows in caregivers at a sickbed, their heads sunk in exhaustion or grief. It shows in Sick Mood at Sunset, where the sky cannot relinquish its flame. It shows in Munch as The Night Wanderer, leaning to make eye contact because he cannot trust a viewer who would share his acquaintance with the night. It shows, too, in his final self-portrait, Between the Clock and the Bed. That portrait anchors a small but not unrepresentative survey of his work, at Met Breuer through February 4—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review in my latest upload.

Munch makes it easy to lapse into melodrama in describing his art. As I wrote when he appeared among unfinished prints at the Frick in 2004, I find him easy to love but harder to like. There is plenty of Victorian sensibility in his sick children, threatening women, and Madonnas between innocence and whores. Edvard Munch's Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (Munch Museum, Oslo, 1940–1943)Born in 1863, he made a leap forward from late Romanticism and realism when he encountered Symbolism, but that movement valued melodrama, myth, and sentiment, too. Yet it also paved the way to Modernism, and none of its fellow travelers traveled as far into the new century as Edvard Munch. He completed that last self-portrait in 1943, the year before his death.

It has become still more modern since his death, thanks to Jasper Johns. The American has borrowed its title and, repeatedly, a motif. The diamond pattern of a bedspread becomes a starting point for near abstract paintings and prints. The patches for Johns keep failing to line up in color or direction, but so they do, too, in the bedspread. I would hesitate a long time to call it a comforter. The borrowings hint at sleepless nights for Johns as well, as in the studio wall of his 1983 Racing Thoughts.

Johns always stops short of auto-biography, in the most literal but also most elusive body of work in modern art. One might never know that he ever had a lover, much less a life as a gay male, or one might have to know to appreciate the depth of his allusions. Munch can be just as enticing and frustrating. When he shows himself with a model, his studio contains a bottle of wine, but not an easel in sight. Another bedspread rises up in the foreground, with a life of its own. Who can say whether the unmade bed hints at sex or just art on the verge of chaos?

The same question haunts Between the Clock and the Bed. Munch stands erect but hardly at ease in the narrow space of its title. The grandfather clock without hands attests to his counting out the hours without rest, and it looks as unnaturally gaunt as does he. He stands in front of past work that he cannot take time to admire and behind a section of flooring so shiny that he might slip if he dared to take a step. A door at back cannot quite fit with the doorway beside it, looking onto another room that one cannot quite see. One last tall painting, above the bed without a pillow, could be a nude study, a lover, or a ghost.

Like the hatching, the painting is far more colorful than its overt subject, which only adds to the tensions. The artist’s glum expression is bright orange, with the down-turned lip of an emoticon, but with red for a patch of hair and his ears. Munch has become ever so popular for his six versions of The Scream, beginning in 1893, but he had a breakdown in 1908 and had to start his life anew. Not everyone admires half as much what came after, but the Met quotes him as saying that he got serious only in his fifties. And the curators, led by Gary Garrels, tend to agree. Like Johns, they place his last self-portrait at the center of his work.

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

1.12.18 — After the Fever

Je ne demande plus qu’à sentir mon cerveau: for Antonin Artaud, “I ask no more than to feel my brain.”

Can art, too, ask no more? In 1972, Nancy Spero created her Codex Artaud. On its thirty-three scrolls, the words of the French poet and playwright float amid crude figures in a field of white, in a desperate attempt to recover sensation. For “Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason,” contemporary art is still emerging from a clinical disorder.

Hanne Darboven's Konstruktion (Dia Arts Center, 1998)Let me tell you about the 1960s. In art, it was a culmination of everything rational and modern—in formalism, spareness, and the logic of the grid. For others, it was the summer of love. It was a time of expanded opportunities and long overdue demands, most especially for blacks and women. When the logic shattered and the love gave out, in the 1970s, the horizons could only expand still further, taking in Latin American art and the resurgent individualism of Neo-Expressionism. The cynicism of the 1980s was still to come.

Or is that all a lie? The Met Breuer, through January 14, sees only art in the throes of a bad trip, and I have added this to previous reports on art and madness as a longer review for my latest upload. The show divides into four sections as “Vertigo,” “Nonsense,” “Twisted,” and “Excess,” to locate the breakdown in drugs, language, physical sensation, and the very impulse to abstraction that had promised so much clarity. It includes dark voices speaking for the oppressed like Spero or Nancy Grossman, but also the cheery spectacle of Yayoi Kusama. It includes the Post-Minimalism and body parts of Paul Thek, Bruce Nauman, and Eva Hesse—but also the Minimalism of Sol LeWitt and Al Loving, the Pop Art of Claes Oldenburg and Philip Guston, the cartoons of Jim Nutt and Peter Saul, and the experimental videos of Gary Hill and Stan VanDerBeek. By the time you exit, you, too, may be delirious.

It starts innocently enough, with what looks like standard fare in abstraction, including Loving. Yet he has peeled and flattened a cube, much as Agnes Denes seeks alternative projections of the 3D geometry of planet earth. The next room brings in Robert Smithson, who devoted himself to entropy, and Lygia Clark, for whom The Inside Is the Outside. Grids include LeWitt, but also Dara Birnbaum with clips from The Hollywood Squares, Andy Warhol with Electric Chair, and Paul Sharits with Cellular Disorder. The terrors of the body are already in evidence, even before Anna Maria Maiolino presses her mouth to the camera and Ana Mendieta her cheeks to glass. For artists like these, delirium means abjection.

The breakdown of language begins with Léon Ferrari and his Tower of Babel in wire, tin, and lead. It includes VanDerBeek’s fragmented poetry and Mira Schendel, with unreadable graffiti. And it all gets an unhealthy boost from drugs, only starting with a book by Timothy Leary. Lee Lozano declares herself Stoned Drunk Sober, Henri Michaux has his Mescaline Drawing, and Dan Graham charts the side-effects. When Carolee Schneemann confronts the atrocities in Vietnam in grainy film, she takes as her soundtrack the Beatles and “We Can Work It Out,” because she no longer can. Still, something gets lost in the fever dream.

Museums are feeling a welcome pressure to display the permanent collection, after so many blockbusters and wasted atriums. They are also feeling the pressure to keep up with contemporary art—which is, after all, what drew the Met to lose money by taking over the Met Breuer. Here it borrows two-thirds of the show, but the same factors are at work. Is it fair to the period and to art? As curator, Kelly Baum includes too many lesser artists and unrepresentative work. She also needs way too much wall text to fit it all into a thesis, but it breaks away, often movingly, all the same.

To force the work into excess, the show has to separate Warhol’s electric chair and Saul’s by an entire floor. It also has to see disintegration, where a collector like Hanne Darboven or a black woman in abstraction like Howardena Pindell saw freedom—or where Jennifer Bartlett saw Rhapsody. It includes illustrations by LeWitt and Jasper Johns with text by Samuel Beckett, but does that reduce them all to apostles of nonmeaning? As its saving grace, the show eats away at the distinction between Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, along with the privilege of the prosaic. For Smithson, “Here language ‘closes’ rather than ‘discloses’ doors to utilitarian interpretations.” Yet it allowed him to open doors to perception.

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

12.20.17 — Modernity and Revelry

The Met Breuer introduces Raghubir Singh as “Modernism on the Ganges,” through January 2, but the photographer knew better. Modernism had long preceded him to India, and its advent seemed fated to remain incomplete.

Raghubir Singh's Pavement Mirror Shop, Howrah, West Bengal (Cynthia Hazen Polsky collection, 1991)The mammoth steel frame of a cantilever bridge looks down on a wedding party by the river in much the same spirit as Shiva the destroyer looks down on an electric fan. Lenin looks down on the diminutive Communist party leader in much the same spirit as Kali, the malevolent mother goddess, looks down on a barber shop where a man, naked from the waist up, flexes his muscles. An equestrian monument looks down on storefronts and filmgoers in much the same spirit as the Bollywood posters behind it and the wires that hold the statue up—or threaten to tear it down. Yet the spirit is not altogether willing, and the flesh is not altogether weak.

Singh thrives on juxtapositions, because they put modernity in perspective. They describe how art enters into life and past into present. Here he can rely for his presences on statues and the poster at a campaign rally. They also pack in that much more of a caste- and class-ridden culture. He traveled the length of the Ganges starting in the late 1960s to see it all. And he liked the panorama so much that he took to the Great Trunk Road in the 1990s for more.

He likes juxtapositions, too, so that no one has the last word. The colonial era weighs down on the present, but Singh views its institutions through green mosquito netting. Modernity promises to lift the weight of the past, but commuters have to settle for a run-down excuse for a bus, while peacocks carry on in the foreground much as they have for a long time. Past and present struggle for primacy within lives as well. The wedding party follows the rules for the occasion, but they serve as an excuse for rejoicing. The barber and his customer kneel face to face as if poised for a fight.

Singh keeps returning to rituals, and it is hard to know where the rules end and the display begins. Young men sparkling in the spray from a fountain are taking part in a rite of immersion. A diver enjoys the flood waters that have all but submerged ancient architecture. Singh sticks to color, too, for its own display. He avoids broad fields of clashing colors as in William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz, in favor of pulse and variety. He admired glowing prints by Anish Kapoor as well as old manuscripts, but he prefers motion and spectacle.

Modernism did indeed precede him, and he found a model in Henri Cartier-Bresson. He also found a friend in William Gedney, and he may have seen a parallel between India’s uncertain modernity and Gedney’s rural America. Not coincidentally, both Gedney and Cartier-Bresson also worked in India (and Howard Greenberg in midtown brings together Gedney’s and Singh’s work there for the occasion, through December 9), while Singh also lived in Paris, London, and New York. He did a stint in the north of England as well—to teach, but also to photograph, of course, Indian immigrants. Still, he has little talent for the French photographer’s decisive moment or the American’s vivid portraits in a crowd. These are revelers first and second, slum dwellers or workers a distant third, and individuals hardly at all.

Singh saw India not as individuals, but as jostling for space. It can leave him as conventional and picturesque as most photojournalism, and he worked for the New York Times Magazine, Life, and National Geographic. (The last supplied him with Kodachrome and those nice bright colors.) The curator, Mia Fineman, integrates work by others, also including Helen Levitt and Eugène Atget. She even excerpts films by another friend, Satyajit Ray. Singh looks clumsy by comparison, but in search of a nation’s indecisive moment.

He was still trying to see it all at his death in 1999, at age fifty-six—often from the windows of a car. The Ambassador looks like a real clunker, but India and Hindustan motors were proud of it. The device also recalls “America by Car” for Lee Friedlander, whom he admired as well. He associated windows and mirrors with Modernism, for both the formal constraints and the fragmentation. By the end, his gestures and juxtapositions were loosening. At least one photograph could pass for photocollage, but its colors, frames, and images belong to an actual mirror store—and they mirror a bustling but often stagnant nation.

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

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.